For the weekend I was attending EGX Rezzed, I was staying with my girlfriend. It was really rather nice; I don’t often get the chance due to the convoluted journey and subsequently irrational prices, and because she works weekends a lot of the time. This, fortunately, wasn’t one of those weekends, and as such I spent it with her doing a number of wonderfully inappropriate things, and hugging a lot. One evening, we booted up ScummVM, a game engine utility used to play LucasArts adventure games, to play a game that my girlfriend adores and one that I’d heard nothing but good things of. That game was Maniac Mansion II: Day of the Tentacle, a classic LucasArts point-and-click adventure game.

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Within minutes, it’s slithering, suction-cup grip clinged to my ankles and willingly dragged me into a land of B-Movie dialogue, slapstick hilarity, and an art style that’s both charming and well-aged. We played through it in it’s entirety that night as it’s not the longest game, but that by no means devalues it as an experience; it’s exactly as long as it needs to be and does a damn good job of being a fantastic adventure. From moments after I began, up until it’s completion, I couldn’t shake this feeling I kept getting. I wasn’t sure what it was, until a few hours in, and then I realised; whilst playing Day of the Tentacle, it felt like I was playing an indie game.

Why was this? I highly suspect that a significant factor is the attitude that went into producing the game. In this current generation of gaming, there are a number of differences between the development cycle of a Triple-A and an Indie project.

David Grossman, Tim Schafer, and the rest of the team behind the game collaboratively designed the characters, describing personality traits and aesthetic qualities that Larry Ahern then used to draw out what the characters would look like. Rarely do we see entire development studios all working so closely together to produce one aspect of a game in the Triple-A space; the individual aspects of a game are usually distributed to different teams within the studio in this environment, as opposed to modern indie studios, which seem distinctly familiar to the way in which Grossman and Schafer’s team operated.

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All of the art in the game is hand-drawn by Larry Ahern and other contributing artists. In the Triple-A scene, there tends to be a focus on realism, or at the very least, detailed 3D sculptures with selective texturing and numerous high-tier, advanced digital construction techniques. There seems to be a minimal number of hand-illustrated, 2D works; that is, until we observe the modern indie scene. In part due to the inflating costs of producing high-quality 3D artwork, and the often left-field personalities present within indie studios, there’s a wonderfully expansive collection of vibrant, quirky, and beautiful 2D illustrations that indie games are comprised of.

When playing certain games, I find that general atmosphere of the work behind that game leaks into my experience. Call of Duty, for instance, feels very calculated and blockbuster: it echoes an environment of intensity, pressure-rich and clinical. It’s a well-made game, no doubt about it, but in some ways it feels… forced, like the paperwork that’s due on Monday. This is something that I don’t feel when I play an indie title, like Super Meat Boy or Bastion. When I play games like this, a lot of the charm and passion rife throughout the development process very distinctly echoes throughout the experience. And it’s that same echo that I feel when I play Day of the Tentacle.

Nowadays, the Triple-A industry is a corporate machine. Hundreds of expendable workers on slave wages, tiring away, enduring and forcing out whatever they can on their computer screens in the hopes of retaining their jobs and raking in that paycheck at the end of the month. The focus isn’t on the fun of development or the passion of the project; it’s about making a product that’s easily marketable and that’ll make the shareholders the most money. Many employees are forced to endure the dreaded video game crunch, working beyond their hours and beyond their capabilities just so they don’t get laid off. It’s all time-sensitive and stressful, which often results in rampant employee burnout.

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Indie studios often disregard this methodology; with no corporate bosses to please and no adherence to the mainstream, developers are free to create whatever they desire, with whatever time they have on their hands. Sure, burnout is a risk, and sleepless nights will frequent; but this is often a choice on behalf of the developers, rather than an obligation.

But where does this work ethic come from? We often look back to the developers of yesteryear through rose-tinted glasses. We think of it as a time when the industry wasn’t as massively commercial as it is now, and development studios didn’t face the same pressures that they would face in the Triple-A climate of today. But this is far from the truth; think back to the console wars, when powerhouses like Nintendo grasped their developers with an iron fist, detailing the intricacies of what would be made and how much it would cost. There’s a great deal of nostalgia involved; we remember studios like LucasArts and Bullfrog as top development teams with passion and determination, hearing stories of the exciting and welcoming environments that manifested in their offices and their teams. But it’s an unfortunate fact that these studios were likely gems in a cave in the way that they operated.

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What’s definitely plausible is that these gems of studios have gone on to influence the ways in which modern indie studios function. Camp Santo, the developers of Firewatch, cite LucasArts developers as their inspirations for being developers and writers. Jake Rodkin, currently of Camp Santo and previously a member of the Telltale team, even wrote pieces on sites like AdventureGamers.com and mentions LucasArts adventure games as some of his favourites.

So what we in fact see is that the reason Day of the Tentacle feels like an indie game is not because of a stark shift in the ways that studios or the games industry as a whole functions now in comparison to before. But perhaps it’s because the current indie climate has been so heavily influenced by developers of old from studios that stood out amongst their competitors and left their mark in the history of video games, that the joyous and exciting atmosphere that went into Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle is the same atmosphere that goes into Super Meat Boy and The Walking Dead. Not made out of financial obligation and corporate gain; but made out of passion, creativity freedom, and most of all, love.

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Editor-in-chief

Astrid is the equivalent of Lenin if Indie Haven were the Bolshevik Party. But it's not, she's just the Editor-in-Chief. When she's not mashing Communism into video games and writing about how it makes sense on her personal website, they're manning the ship here, as well as writing news, reviews, and features all about the indie games industry.

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  • Well, this is one of those things that should be obvious. Video games were not always mass-market material, and the technology developed inch by inch, for the most part in the proprietary domain.

    What’s different about most of what is called “indie” (which is a vast spectrum) is the modern indie/DIY team typically has much fewer resources to bring to bare, and I’d expect far fewer staff than any operation that was making commercial games at the level of now back when the same big companies that mastermind so-called AAA games today were doing things at a level that is less sophisticated than what an amateur does today if they only considered “making a video-game” 3wks ago (and they’re competent enough to navigate the spaces that will orient them to do what they intend to do.)

    The trouble is, that while the resources (and this is mainly the availability of information) are far more vast than they were 20yrs ago today, they are still not at a level that can turn a team no larger than a garage band into something that can turn out product that is comparable to the big businesses of yesteryear.

    I think the resources will totally get there. I think the resources would’ve been there 5yrs ago if people were 1/10th as interested in developing resources as they are their little toy art projects. The good news is only a few of us out of billions has to actually prepare and somehow disseminate the small-team friendly development software of tomorrow. I think art resources are even more important, and those are more difficult to proliferate, but they can also come online in a more piecemeal way than the software.

    What is needed really is just more high-level development software. If you’re going to make a kind of video game, as an indie/DIY team, you need software tailored precisely to that specific model or standard. Standards would help very much also. It’s very difficult to switch from one kind of game to another. If there were standards for how games work, that would drastically lower the bar to consuming them, and unfortunately the trend now is to do anything to make your game different from all other games, in order to make something to standout. That runs counter to making something accessible. But games are sold on gimmicks rather than traditional media values; such as fully formed characters (which “triple A” games avoid like the plague, and indie games seem to be afraid to even include anything that looks like a human NPC, because they just can’t handle the pressure to make it come to life, much less be evocative of any kind of traditional medium standards: writing, characterization, compelling scenarios and themes, and so on and on.)