I’m going to let you in on the worst-kept secret of indie gaming: indie games can get pretty weird.  Part of the reason they’re weird is because of the very interesting people making them, but another is because indie games are often used to test out unexplored areas of game design. There’s more to exploration in gaming than just the experience of the player. Games are a young art and there’s a lot that hasn’t been tried with the medium. When indies go out and explore these dark reaches, it gives us more insight into what is and what isn’t currently feasible for games as mechanisms, pieces of art, and consumer products.

In this exploration of mechanics, indie games are one part prospector and one part mineshaft canary, all rolled into a single — and at times an utterly dysfunctional — package. Indie games have great incentive to be as novel as they can. Competing in the sphere of AAA polish, content length, and production value are all risky ventures for the smaller indie game.

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But taking risks is something that indie games do a lot better than their larger-scale counterparts. It’s one of the advantages of being small; you don’t have to answer to skeptical shareholders or stodgy marketers. If an indie developer wants to make a game about a family coping with grief, a cross between a rhythm game and a dungeon crawler, or some other crazy mashup of genres and mechanics that would give a focus group dictated marketing department a collective aneurysm. This risk taking and fusion of genres new and old is one reason I would like to thank a particular type of indie game developer: ones that tried – really, really tried – to do something bold and new, and fell flat on their faces.

Gaming as an art form that is all about understanding and working within limits. Typically, these limits are interpreted in strictly hardware terms – how many FPS does this get, how many enemies can we render, what kind of graphical fidelity can we achieve. But, there’s more to limitations in the medium than just the obvious. I want you to think for a moment about how Deep Blue – the chess playing computer – stacks up against Tay AI – the twitterbot that alternates between posting Nazi propaganda and Radical Feminist Blogger tweets.

As things stand right now, artificial intelligence is fantastic at being an opponent using abstractions of armed combat, but it’s terrible at simulating actual conversation. You had better believe that is part of the reason why so many video games are about fighting and so few are about social interaction. Still, if you look at a game like Facade – an admirable but mostly unsuccessful attempt at an entirely conversation driven game that works when you can guess what the developers want you to say but falls apart the moment you go off rails – it’s pretty clear that the indie games scene will eagerly ram into these technological barriers as they try to figure out the best ways around them.

That’s all before we even begin to touch on the business aspect of game design. Every time a genre falls out of favor, the AAA scene packs up and chases more lucrative grounds. This leaves the somewhat diminished, but still present market for that deserted genre starving for more with nobody to give them what they want. In the past three years alone, indie titles showed us just how viable the markets for “dead genres” like roguelikes, horror experiences, and 4 X games were. However, the parameters of what fit into each of these markets were found by trial and error. Though The Binding of Isaac may be one of the games that brought roguelikes back to prominence, it wasn’t the first one to be released to the indie market. Rather, it was the one that found the right combination of elements, whereas others failed to perfect that fickle alchemy.

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Each game that unsuccessfully tried something new was an expedition into the far reaches of game design. Viewing them as just bad games takes away the lessons they have to teach us; not only about what makes games good, but what can stop a game from reaching its fullest potential. For every Gone Home, there was a Dear Esther. for every Super Meat Boy, there were dozens of forgettable flash-platformers with a unique-but-not-quite-there mechanic. Heck, Meat Boy and Isaac creator, Edmund McMillen, even packaged all of the canary corpses that resulted in these opuses into a neat little package – the Basement Collection. Playing that game gives you an idea about how much work it takes to bring an idea from initial concept to flawless execution; some feathered friends are bound to perish in the mineshaft of creativity.

So I would like to conclude with a heartfelt “thank you” to every developer that ever tried something new. Every developer who looked for that peanut butter and chocolate combination of genres, who looked at rarely used mechanics and thought they could work, who tried to cover a topic that common sense says is unmarketable. Thank you for exploring the wilds of game design, and keeping this industry interesting.

 

  • A third reason they’re weird is it gets them the attention that makes them known. (A fourth reason is they’re doing their best with very inadequate resources and probably not enough personal time.)

    • Nikoberi

      That is a good point. I left out the PR factor because I wanted to keep this piece as optimistic as possible and that optimism goes out the window when we start discussing things being cynical and calculating in their weirdness.

      • Yes, this is why it’s criminal to disable the supplemental power of comments!

        (It could be calculating, it could also be circumstantial. Offbeatness that is. Heck, these days I’d go as far as to call offbeat, onbeat. It’s gone too far hasn’t it.)