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April 18, 2016

So How Good are Indie Games, Really?

EA.  Ubisoft.  Activison.  WB Games.  Square-Enix.  Capcom.  Konami.  If you know any of these companies by anything even a half-step beyond their names, then you probably know that they’ve each done some less-than-savory things over the years (either that, or you’re so filled with rage that you’re puking blood into the nearest receptacle you can find).  Whether it’s shady business practices, hamstrung games, or business decisions that a sleeping toddler would advise against, those companies and more have all done something to earn the ire of the gamers they cater to.  But what are we supposed to do about it?

I’ll contend that Capcom’s Street Fighter V is a very good game, but it hasn’t gotten off to a good start in the eyes of many -- and for a lot of legitimate reasons.  Things are looking up, but players have had to suffer -- and they’ve got no choice, when you get down to it.  What can you do when a company’s effectively holding that glowing new installment or beloved franchise hostage, especially when said company’s done some nasty stuff in the past?  Further, what can you do when you have to count on the big companies or pretty much be denied of video games, period?

Well, good thing we’re not living in such a bleak dystopia.  Indie games are here, and they’re saving the medium…well, probably.  Ostensibly.  Hopefully?  Eh, let’s just talk about indie games for a bit.

In the past, I was under the impression that there wasn’t a single game out there that justified the existence -- let alone purchase -- of the PS4 or Xbone.  That’s not the case nowadays, thankfully, but boy did the eighth-gen get off to a bad start.  (Even though the Wii U held it down easily, but I guess that doesn’t count because reasons).  One disappointment after another followed; it seemed as if what should’ve been exemplars of the medium -- proof of everything learned thus far, and heralds of a brand new era -- decided to move backwards.  And then backflip off of a cliff.

But where the big-budget, major retail releases failed, the indie games prevailed.  I had more fun with Resogun than pretty much anything else for a good while, and I found Transistor supremely interesting (and I should probably revisit that game at some point).  Those two aren’t the only examples out there, but they do help illustrate a major point: indie games are seriously legit.  And in a lot of cases, they’re making the big budget devs look like clowns.

As shameful as it is to admit, I haven’t played nearly as many indie games as I should.  I already have a kiloton-sized backlog -- Metal Gear Solid V alone is enough to keep me busy for several months -- so adding anything more means I’m putting my life in jeopardy.  With that said, I’ve gotten my feet wet with a good number of them.  Setting aside the ever-impactful Katawa Shoujo, there’s Cave Story, The Swapper, Fez, Helldivers, Galak-Z, Shovel Knight, and, most recently (for me, at least), Broforce.  That’s probably not a complete list, but it’s still something.

Now, I’ll be honest here.  Are any of those games the greatest that I’ve ever played?  No.  But they are good games.  And they have a distinct advantage over the bigger releases out there: they’re different.  They come from different people, come with different mechanics, come packed with different styles, and come for different end goals.  The Swapper is a quiet, contemplative puzzle-platformer that (at its best) lets me experience the unsettling solitude of space.  That’s a hell of a far cry from Broforce, where I’ll take on attack helicopters with a blocky version of Snake Plissken.  But you know what?  Neither one is worse off for being diametrically opposed.  Variety is the spice of life, and the indie scene is making sure we’re all inhaling an oil drum’s worth of pepper instead of swallowing vats of salt.

There have been a lot of casualties and sacrifices in the gaming world since the launch of the seventh generation.  How many studios have been shut down, or absorbed into monolithic corporations?  I know there are lists out there, but I’d rather not look -- for fear of bursting into tears.  There used to be a huge range of games (some good, some bad) from a huge variety of publishers, developers, studios, and companies at large.  Nowadays?  Not so many. 

One of my hopes for Nintendo’s mysterious NX is that it manages to be a welcoming platform for middle-tier development -- creating a safe and appealing environment for Treasure, Next Level Games, Retro Studios, and more.  And by “more” I mean the larger companies out there that have amazing IPs, but can’t release a new game partly out of (justified) fear of financial ruin.

*stares white-hot daggers at Sega and Capcom*

But I digress.

If I was one of the big companies out there, I’d be embarrassed.  Executives across the board have claimed that characters and genres aren’t viable anymore (and to be fair, some of them probably aren’t).  But then you look at indie developers, their output, and crowdfunding campaigns, and suddenly all of the claims seem a lot less credible.  Of course, you don’t even need to go that far; you can start and end the conversation -- complete with mic drop -- just by saying Undertale

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: indie games and their creators are doing the lord’s work.  They really are; they fill in the gaps left in release schedules, cater to myriad tastes, and offer a level of creativity you can’t always count on in the big-budget space.  Even so, I’m not sure if I want to claim that they’re saving the industry.  I want to, but I don’t think we’re doing anyone any favors by saying “indie games good, AAA games bad”.

I had fun with Broforce, no question.  But despite doing so on a PS4, and playing a game that’s (presumably) not the most taxing on the hardware, my brother and I ran into some shocking performance issues -- lag that practically slowed the game to half its speed.  Meanwhile, I was ready to buy in wholesale with Galak-Z in terms of both its aesthetic and gameplay...but just when I was really diving in, I was forced to quit thanks to a nasty bug.  How nasty?  I couldn’t shoot anymore, and for whatever reason -- despite playing on a PS4 pad -- the inputs switched to mouse and keyboard controls.

Mistakes can happen, and bugs can slip through QA for any production.  But seeing them in an indie game is a stark reminder that there’s no ironclad guarantee of quality just because there’s a smaller team at work.  In some ways, there’s an even lower chance of quality; plenty of indie games have rightfully earned attention and accolades, but there’s a huge swath of them out there that are about as pleasant as stapling your eyeballs.  Thankfully I’ve never had to encounter any.  Unfortunately, I’ve seen some of them by proxy thanks to guys like Jim Sterling and the Super Best Friends.  As painful as it is to admit, not everyone should have access to the tools that they do.

Indie games aren’t immune from fault or criticism just because they don’t have overlords from Ubisoft or EA leering at them.  Any game can be good or bad, regardless of its origin or resources.  Any game can be original, just as any game can be derivative.  There’s no ironclad rule about who’s right and who’s wrong; it’s a case-by-case basis.

With that said, there’s one point that’s undeniable.  Yes, indie games can do a lot with a fraction of the resources a big developer has.  A shrewd creator can get the most out of virtually nothing -- but the problem is that they’re still working with virtually nothing.  There are harsh limits that they need to be mindful of, because failing to do so can jeopardize a product.  It’s possible to overreach and have a project fall apart -- all because their eyes were bigger than their stomach.

In the current climate, making an indie game with the breadth of something like The Witcher 3 or Xenoblade Chronicles X is damn near impossible (though No Man’s Sky is out to do its best, but we’ll see how that goes).  It’s a shame, too.  There are tons of talented individuals out there, but their ingenuity, skill, and dedication don’t mean as much when they’re basically working with chewed-up Popsicle sticks.  Meanwhile, the guys at EA have enough art supplies to fill up a football field -- but they use them to paint a picture of a brown cardboard box.  (With the exception of Unravel, but that’s the very definition of an anomaly.) 

Indie games make the best of what they’ve got, but it sucks that they have to claw their way to the top by default.  There’s probably a ton of 2D platformers out there -- good ones, too -- but how many of their makers actually wanted to make a 2D platformer?  Is it really their dream project?  Or were they forced to settle?  The answers may vary from person to person, but there’s always going to be an inherent ball and chain that threatens to hold the underdogs back.

But it’s still possible to break that chain.  (And even the ball and chain is no true death knell.)  Whether it’s support from willing backers or the sheer level of quality a product can offer, indie games have gained traction for a reason -- and they’ll only gain more traction in the years to come.  They’re not exactly an instant-win, and they’re not always emblems of artistic merit, but for what it’s worth?  The games that are good are really something special.  With any luck, we’ll be seeing more of that special spice through this generation and beyond.

And that’s my take on indie games.  What’s yours?  Love them?  Hate them?  Think they’re overrated?  Think they’re underappreciated?  And maybe most importantly, what are your favorites?  Feel free to weigh in and speak your mind.  Give it all you’ve got.

Just don’t be Konami and give all you’ve got to pachinko.  OHHHHHHHHHHHH SO TOPICAL.

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