Are indie games better?

What is an indie game? For the most part it’s one that’s been developed by a skeleton crew, unattached to publishing partners, licenses or anything else. Braid and Journey are both indie games and they have both completely shaken my previous expectations and understanding of games, as a nongamer, in a positive way. They were refreshingly approachable gameplay wise, and creatively engaging in an unexpectedly moving way. Turns out, they are both a part of a small revolution in the gaming industry.

In class the other day, we discussed whether Journey would be a better game and more financially succesful by being accessible to a wider audience if it had had a bigger budget. It sounds like a win win for everyone (more people play and the developers get more money)and made a lot of sense. It was in fact curious that both of the best games out there as proved by its selection for an in depth analysis of new media course like ours were not the products of moneyed and well staffed Triple A giants but instead small crews or even solo ventures of the indie variety. Why didn’t more money, experience and expertise produce anything quite as interesting or good? Of course, you can argue with me on the basic premise of a good game. But it seemed that at least trends in the larger game industry seem to also supported this phenomenon of smaller budget strapped teams producing increasingly popular games like Minecraft, Fez and Flappy Birds.

At first glance, it seemed to make no sense that games backed by better resources weren’t producing higher quality games? With more money, comes larger salaries for better and more developers, artists, software and hardware right? But this isn’t the first time the restrictions of budget and scope end up pushing creative boundaries. In the film, a very similar ecosystem of indie filmmakers on the fringes produce the more thought provoking and interesting work while the mass appeal intellectually weak blockbuster titles reap in the viewers and ticket sales.

Also in the fine arts world, there exists the avant garde work that shocks and offends most of the critics, galleries and museums of the status quo. Yet, eventually developments and shifts of these very same outliers get incorporated into the mainstream direction of institutional or official art. The indie game developers themselves have even expressed dismay at the counterproductive effect of larger budgets and widespread success on the creative spirit and discouraging further work. Markus Persson, the creator of Minecraft which has earned him more than a hundred million dollars, cancelled 0x10c the next game he was develping, citing “creative block.” While I don’t have the scope or space to get into a discussion of why there is an inverse relationship between quality and financial success in media today, the fact of the matter is that it exists. But unlike film, or the art world, the official status quo corporate giants are warming up to and supporting the indie sector actively and openly. Journey is a great example of that, with a publishing deal with Sony that making it possible to complete. The trend is also seen at major game shows like E3 where table fees for smaller indie studios that are in the thousands are getting covered by the bigger companies as support.

I see a potential in gaming to bring the kind of emotionally and intellectually engaging experience normally associated with high art to a wider audience than its counterparts in art, film or even literature. Weird art shows and indie films will always be on the fringes appealing only to a small cultural ‘connoiseur’ elite by the fact of their inherent strangeness. But games don’t have to be like that. Instead of thinking about indie games like Journey as making gaming more stuffy , intellectual and thus less accessible, we can think about it as making high brow and intellectually engaging art more fun and thus more accessible. The likelihood of a twelve year old playing Braid is a lot higher than the same kid going to an art house indie film or reading The New Yorker’s latest short story. Isn’t that kind of cool the way indie games can take an the elistism, stuffiness and ultimately alienation out of art and open it up to everyone as not only an accessible experience but a fun one too?

-Diana Zhu

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