No matter how many millions of dollars are spent, no matter how many months and sometimes years are spent … when the latest and supposedly greatest video games land on store shelves these days, I frequently find myself struggling to summon the kind of frothy-mouthed enthusiasm that the marketing campaigns pushing these games assure me I’m supposed to feel.
These are games in which I will most likely be asked to save the world from some especially unneighborly space aliens, or maybe take out some especially nefarious terrorist, or perhaps steal cars and gun down mobsters as I claw my way across the fetid underbelly of some crime-and-hooker-infested metropolis.
It's not that these games aren't great, because some of them really are. It's just that, after a while, it all starts to seem so … familiar.
And so, instead, I find myself getting all rabidly enthusiastic about a different kind of game — games made not by huge teams of developers at big companies with deep pockets, but by lone dudes (and dudettes) working in coffee shops or from the basements of their heavily mortgaged homes … games that were developed sometimes over the course of mere weeks rather than months or years … games that are sometimes made for less money than I spend weekly supporting my coffee addiction.
I find myself getting excited about games that, for example, put me in control of a flock of stretchy goo balls, or that transform my music collection into a super-cool racing-rhythm-puzzle mashup, or that play like a cross between an Edgar Allen Poe poem and one of those sex-ed films I was forced to watch in fifth grade.
Whimsical. Smart. Cool. Weird. These games are just … so … unexpected. And that's why I have a new gaming love — the burgeoning independent gaming scene. "World of Goo," "Audiosurf," "Coil," and indie games like them, they’re not only an increasingly important part of the gaming world both in a business sense and, especially, in a creative sense, they do something that mainstream games rarely do any more: surprise me.
Menacing bunnies and peace in the Middle East
“Independent games tend to explore topics that don’t really get touched by the mainstream industry, both in the sense of characters and narratives and also in terms of game mechanics,” says Derek Yu, editor-in-chief of the indie gaming news site TIGSource.com and the indie developer behind the award-winning underwater action-adventure game “Aquaria.”
Take the game “PeaceMaker” for example. Forget gunning down terrorists a la “Counter-Strike” or “Call of Duty 4,” this strategy game puts players into the thick of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and asks them to come up with (you’re not going to believe this) a peaceful solution.
Meanwhile, for anyone who enjoyed the way indie film “Donnie Darko” featured an oversized and vaguely menacing rabbit, there’s “Lugaru,” a game about a giant bunny with mad combat skills and a hankering to avenge the murder of his family.
And so it’s like this: On occasion I enjoy a big-budget, action flick, like, say, “Indiana Jones and the Lost Temple of the Crystal Crusade of Doom.” But if forced to watch nothing but “Die Hard 8” or, God help me, one more “Rambo” sequel, I’d have no choice but to pluck my eyeballs from my head with my very own fingers.
But thankfully, there’s this thing called independent film, and from it comes movies like “Donnie Darko,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Reservoir Dogs,” and “Napoleon Dynamite” — movies that aren’t so much about bombastic special effects and Hollywood flash but are, instead, about intelligent, innovative and sometimes even risky storytelling, the very presence of which keeps the silver screen a wondrous and surprising thing to watch.
A healthy disregard for convention
Indie games are to the video game world what indie cinema and even indie rock are to the film and music worlds. Much like independent films, indie games are often lower-budget or even no-budget affairs created by individuals or small teams of developers driven by a healthy disregard for convention.
Lacking the support, deep pockets (and the sometimes stifling controls) of the big game publishers, these titles often don’t appear on store shelves, but instead can be found lurking around the Internet, word-of-mouth being their best (if not only) means of advertising. And without the big budgets of your standard Triple-A games, these indie games frequently don't rest on the latest and greatest gaming technologies but ride instead on the creative vision of their makers.
"It's not about the technology," says Kyle Gabler who, with his partner Ron Carmel, started the company 2D Boy and created the game "World of Goo." "It's about having fun."
Indeed, the 2D Boy motto goes like this: “Our goal is to make games that everyone can play, with gameplay nobody has seen before.”
“World of Goo” is a deliciously addictive and delightfully oddball physics-based puzzle game in which the player uses cute little squirming gobs of goo to construct various structures — towers, bridges, chains — all in an effort to get the goo balls from one place to another. The game won the Design Innovation Award and the Technical Excellence Award at the Independent Games Festival this year. The 10-year-running IGF — which takes place during the annual Game Developers Conference — is a sort of Sundance Festival for independent games, a chance for the little guys with big ideas to show off their best work and maybe earn some cash prizes as well as some much-needed exposure.
'Trying the weird things'
Another winner at this year’s IGF was “Audiosurf,” a racing game, a puzzle game and a music visualizer all rolled up into one brilliant package. Created by developer Dylan Fitterer with some help from his wife Elizabeth, “Audiosurf” takes a song from your music collection and transforms it into a roller coaster-style racetrack that swoops downward as the song's tempo picks up and upward as the song slows. The game then gives you control over a ship that jets its way across this musical landscape, picking up colored blocks that appear in synch with the music.
“Indie games have always been there trying the weird things but lately we’ve been getting a lot more attention,” Fitterer says.
In part, that’s because the rise of digital distribution is making it possible for independent game developers to deliver their work to the masses like never before, says Simon Carless, chairman of the IGF. High-speed Internet connections make it easy to download indie games directly from the game maker’s own Web sites or through increasingly popular digital distribution services like Valve Corporation’s Steam service. “Audiosurf,” for example, launched in February and was Steam’s best selling title that month.
Meanwhile, as of earlier this month, all three of the big console makers — Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo — are now providing services that allow gamers to download some of the best indie games directly to their gaming consoles.
IGF award winners “Flow” (a Zen-like game in which you help an aquatic organism evolve) and “Everyday Shooter” (a space shooter that replaces the gritty sounds of a typical shooting game with guitar music that responds to the action on screen) have been a hit on Sony’s PlayStation Network. “Castle Crashers” and “Braid” will be available through Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade in the coming months. And this summer “World of Goo” will appear on Nintendo’s brand new WiiWare service, which allows players to download games straight to their Wiis.
"I think the big companies are kind of bored with the same old games and licenses they're pumping out," says 2D Boy’s Gabler, pointing out that the bigwigs are showing increasing interest in what indie developers have to offer. And that is: lots of fresh ideas. After all, Gabler explains, "The only way we can be successful is if we do something nobody has done before."
Average Joe games
In addition to digital distribution, TIGSource.com's Yu says something else has helped fuel the indie fire. “The tools for making games have become easier to use and more accessible. So, you’re seeing a lot of people who are not necessarily programmers but are artists and musicians and what-have-you getting into making games whereas previously they couldn’t.”
It’s a trend that mirrors one in independent film — a scene that’s seen tremendous growth as high-quality digital cameras and editing software have become more affordable and easier to use.
Microsoft intends to push the homebrew game-making a step further with its XNA Game Studio initiative — a set of game construction tools designed to make it easier for indie and hobbyist developers to create games for the Xbox 360, PC and Zune. Xbox Live Arcade users will get a chance to check out these Average Joe games when Microsoft launches its Community Games service later this year.
“This is a way for people who have less resources or experience to actually get going and make a game very quickly,” says Chris Satchell, general manager of the XNA group at Microsoft. “You’re going to see a lot more experimentation. You’re going to see games that you never thought about, new challenges, new ideas and new creativity.”
Of course, like independent films, much of what’s out there in the indie game world is amateurish and sometimes downright awful. But let’s face it: The same goes for the big-budget games, too.
So I say, bring on the quirky work from little game makers with big ideas. I’ll play a game starring a kung fu rabbit, some adventurous goo balls or an amoeba with a hankering to grow up. Please, just surprise me.
Winda Benedetti is a Seattle-based writer who loves badass bunnies and video games. Tune in weekly to her Citizen Gamer column for a look at independent and casual games, as well as games that are flying under the radar but shouldn’t be.