My greetings to you, dear reader.
If you follow video games even remotely, you’ll know the growing popularity of indie games. However, if you’re more into the medium, then you’ll know the specific kind of indie games that people enjoy. People love their contra-style games, their run and guns, and especially their retro visuals and sounds. I, myself, am not immune to this draw. I love the charming sprites that people can design, and chiptuned music is practically a genre on its own, which I also thoroughly enjoy.
However, over the past nine to ten years that indie games have been around, we’ve seen a massive influx of this type more action centric gameplay, and more people are buying into and making “retro indie games” now more than ever before. It’s a trend, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing… or is it? From a developer’s standpoint, is it possible that following the trend right now of indie games, with their immense popularity in the gaming world, is missing out on a world of opportunities on tons of different types of games that could be expressed? That is the question that I’m here to answer. Short answer, yes.
So I suppose the first question you probably have is, “what on earth could you mean by this?” To this, I answer you with one of the first indie games that gained immense popularity, Braid. It’s an interpretive art-house masterpiece of a game with brilliant puzzles, gorgeous atmosphere and music, and has a story that’s unforgettable to anyone who knows the whole thing. To this day, Braid is the only game that I’ve ever played where immediately after finishing it, I had to step away from the computer, and really contemplate the meaning of the game itself. It took me a while, and I still don’t think I get it all, but I’ve my own interpretation. That right there is the key phrase: my own interpretation.
I’m not even the only one who thinks this. The critics and fans alike of this game love analyzing it’s meaning on forums all over the internet, and most can agree that Braid is one of a kind. However, with that all in mind, why on earth is it a one of a kind game? With the amount of indie devs who just copy whatever is trendy, in the past nine years that indie games have been popular, how has this not become the thing that’s trendy? If this type of game became popular, it could change not just the trends of Indie games, and not just video games as a whole, but how society views video games. It could change the view of video games as not just a childish distraction, or an immature waste of time, or even a device used as brainwashing (What?!?). It could make people see and think about video games as they would a book like To Kill a Mockingbird, or a movie like Fight Club.
Often times on the net you’ll see people have the debate about whether or not video games are art. This debate should be nonexistent. There shouldn’t be a debate for such an obvious concept, when games are just as much an art as film and writing is, and perhaps even more-so. Video games have the unique ability to evoke feelings in a player. They have the ability to immerse the human mind in their worlds.
Of this unique power of immersion that stems from the sensory input working in tandem with the human input into this fictional world, three types of immersion are available for games to take advantage of: emotional, mental, and atmospheric. Have you ever played a game, and felt like you could actually feel the ocean breeze, or cried over the death of a character in-game, or felt immersed into attempting to solve a puzzle in a game to the point of forgetting everything around you? If you answered yes to any of those examples, you’ve experienced this type of immersion, and if we as developers want to change the way people look at video games, we have to show them that this can be done. We have to show the public that games can make you cry as in a film, or focus on a difficult and mind-bending puzzle, or make you feel like you can feel the soft, wet sand between your toes.
Now, don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think a game has to have immersion in order to be well designed, a good game, or even to be art. However, immersion is part of making the player think there’s more to your game than just its gameplay. When you immerse the player, you then have to play with this, and surprise them by changing things in-game. This can be anything from a sudden thunderstorm to a character being killed. The uniqueness about these things is that a game can affect the player on a whole other level when compared to other mediums.
As for making a game interpretive, there’s no easy way to explain how to do that. The only advice I can offer is to make it about something meaningful to you. You have to communicate your ideas and experiences that changed you, the developer, to the player in new and unique ways. Everybody has heard the phrase that every single person is unique in their own way, and this is true. This is why you can hear the same riddle in ten different ways, and still not fully understand it. This is what makes something interpretive: the human mind will always try to connect the dots in not just ways that’s relatable to them on a personal level, but also try to figure out all other angles, from what the writer meant to what other people might think. This is also what makes interpretive works memorable.
There are a lot of debates on the net about what matters most in a game, and anybody who answers this question with a specific part of a game, such as story or graphics, is absolutely wrong. People don’t’ get that the most important part of a game is the experience you deliver to the player, however you go about doing it. This means that what is most important is a culmination of all of these parts of the game; the level design, the story, the music, the sounds, the graphics, everything matters. No single part of a game should be the focus, because then the other aspects will falter in ways that can sometimes be catastrophic to the game. Gameplay is not king, as much as that seems to most people like the “smart” thing to say. The experience is king, because it takes everything into account, not just one thing.
With that being said, we are at the apex of the indie games genre, where action-type games are fading away, and you can’t sell a game with retro graphics and chiptuned music anymore and make millions. Now, more and more people are enjoying more immersive experiences offered by indie devs, and this is why I propose that anybody who doesn’t have a primary project right now go out and try to make something interpretive and immersive. Make something beautiful. Make artistic decisions about whether or not 3D graphics will benefit the game’s experience. Choose between orchestrated or electronic music. People are already doing it, but we need to show the world, as indie devs, that video games have just as much potential as movies do. Just as movies range from Citizen Kane to The Expendables, games should range from Braid to Contra in the same way. There are too many fun-to-play games out there that don’t try to push the medium in any meaningful way. It’s not that they’re bad games, it’s just that there are too many.
In all truth, I’ll probably receive a ton of hate for this article because I’m going against the grain, but if I can get even a couple people to remove the archetype that locks video games as a medium right now… If I can get people to see games just as another art medium, alongside books and movies, then I’ll consider this article, and my beliefs a success. Spread this to anyone you know, especially fellow developers. I want to change the industry.