Spurred by Liegh Alexander’s recent post on SexyVideoGameLand, and a few choice words from our interview with Edmund McMillen a while ago, I’ve started to think about just what Indie means now. I don’t think it’s nearly as clear cut as it has been in the past, and the rate at which it is growing and diversifying is only making it more difficult to classify. Of course, there’s always the fear that by lumping something into a genre you diminish its own voice, but that’s an discussion for another day. Instead, I’m interested in exploring the attitudes and perceptions of what constitutes exactly what makes a developer or game ‘indie’ and what makes it just ‘independent’.
There’s a few different approaches to this discussion, and they’re all valid. ‘Indie’ could just mean a small team, a few people with little money but lots of vision and talent, making something brilliant, original and creative that lights the communities on fire, like 2DBoy (love you!). It could mean something made by a developer without a publisher, funded by them so they reap all the profits, like Introversion. It could mean something thrown up on some sort of distribution service like Steam or Xbox Live, so it’s given the audience it wouldn’t normally have, but at the same time sacrifices a portion of the profits, like The Maw or Pixeljunk Eden. The point is there are many different ways you can get your game out there, and there are many different types of developer who have all been called ‘indie’ at some point or another. The things they have in common is that they are largely independent, and their games are all creative and different from the AAA titles.
I think there is a separation between how developers see ‘indie’ and how consumers see it. Talking to McMillen, he claimed that ‘Working with a publisher I’ve learned a lot about what really goes on behind the scenes. Even if you’re indie, you’re really not indie; you’re Independent. No longer indie. Super Meat Boy Wii isn’t indie… it’s Independent.’ The difference between ‘indie’ and ‘independent’ is one of money; if you can afford to pay all the fees associated with a big release, then your game slips away from ‘indie’ and into ‘independent’. From the other side, we don’t, for the most part, know how these games are made. We just know about who makes them, and perhaps in a few cases, get to play the game during its development to help out with beta testing. Thus to the community the games are characterised by how they play, and how they look. You expect the games to be a little buggy, or if not merely quite limited in how long they take to play and how they look. Something like Spelunky only retains your attention because of its procedural nature coupled with its addictive and sadistic death mechanics. If it had been 3d and covered with bloom, no matter how much fun and clever it was, it would no doubt lose its ‘indie’ tag.
So it would seem it’s a case of ‘lo-fi’, as Liegh Alexander puts it. Low production costs and small teams mean the game is simple yet enjoyable, and often revolves around a core mechanic but not much else. While this would seem true of the majority of games recognised as ‘indie’, there are exceptions, such as Flashbang Studio’s 8 week games. They have a reasonable sized team and the games they produce are often wonderfully original and fun to play, but have often a surprising amount of polish and graphical charm, yet retain the feel of an ‘indie’ title. A game about an Aptosaurus dreaming of a Brontosaurus with a jetpack could only be made as an indie game, because no one would want to make it for anything but pure enjoyment. So perhaps instead the ‘indie’ name applies to the concept of a game rather than the production values.
You don’t see many FPS or Strategy games coming out of the indie scene. The few that I can think of off the top of my head (Gravity Bone, Zeno Clash, Stalin Vs the Martians) depart heavily from the conventions of the genre, be it aesthetically, mechanically or satirically. They take the norm and play with it, coming up with something entirely different from what was there before. The rest tend to head towards platform and puzzle territory, sticking with clever physics mechanics, things which will work on a 2d plane. I keep coming back to the word ‘simple’, and, fundamentally, that is the common characteristic of an ‘indie’ game. There are, of course, exceptions, but for the most part an indie game is about a simple mechanic executed in interesting ways. World of Goo, the recent poster-child for the indie scene, is the perfect example of this.
You build things out of goo balls. That is, in essence, the entirety of the game. The fact that 2D Boy did such a brilliant job of playing with that concept to keep it fresh and exciting all the way through it’s many chapters is a testament to their accomplishment as developers. There isn’t really a whole lot going on in the game, and you’re often only focused on a few key points on your structures, but the simple nature of the game keeps you entertained in a far more relaxing way than the vast struggles of an RTS like Empire: Total War or the adrenaline fueled rushes of an FPS like Far Cry 2.
This isn’t an easy discussion to close. The perceptions of the indie scene are changing constantly, and depend almost entirely on where in the situation you stand, whether developer or consumer, it would seem it doesn’t boil down to any one thing. Money is a factor, mechanics are another. How many people make the game has a greater effect than it would appear at first. You can’t even say that when you put all these things together you have a sure-fire formula for what constitutes ‘indie’. Sometimes certain things matter, other times they don’t at all. In the end, it’s one of those situational things that moral philosophers always bang on about. Those liberal bastards.