The indie gaming scene has exploded in the past few years, and is becoming a force to reckoned with.
These games are made by very small teams, sometimes just one person. The end results are games that are esoteric, filled with personality, and feel much rawer than what is feasible by the army of game makers who generally produce majority of today's games. Who must answer to many masters, including the mainstream audience and stockholders.
For these reasons, along with others, large publishers are paying increased attention to games that are made outside of the system. One such massive entity is Sony, who began tapping into such a scene around the time the PlayStation 3 launched.
Earlier this week in Toronto, Sony held a press event to highlight their latest crop of mostly downloadable offerings for the PS3 and Vita. But why Toronto? Because that's where most of the studios showing off their games call their home. And to a large extent, Toronto is the birthplace of the modern indie gaming craze that is in effect today.
MCGRATH: “A GAMIFIED TIE-DYE MACHINE”
Two stand-outs were "Dyad" and "Sound Shapes." The first is the creation of Shawn McGrath. When asked what it's about, McGrath simply picked up some of the postcards that are being used to spread word about the game and simply read their backs:
"Dyad" is a gamified tie-dye machine… "Dyad" is a tactical octopus action ballet in a reactive audiovisual tube… "Dyad" is a mind-alerting substance absorbed through your thumbs, eyes, and ears… "Dyad" will reveal to your the secrets of the universe via bright flashy colors and phat beatz."
To put it in simpler terms, "Dyad" is a racing game of sorts, that has you speeding through a tube. Along the way are objects that will either speed the player up, or cause put the brakes on the action. Because maintaining optimal speed is the key to success, split second reflexes is key, as well as the ability to discern the psychedelic visuals:
When asked what influenced "Dyad," McGrath simply answered, "A bunch of things: movies, books… everything I've experiences in my life. It's a manifestation of my personality."
One key defining feature of indie games is how personal they keel. "Dyad" clearly exhibits the traits of the person who makes them, and the same goes for "Sound Shapes." It's the latest from Jonathan Mak and Shaw-Han Liem.
LIEM: “OH MY GOD I’M MAKING MUSIC!”
Mak is best known for "Everyday Shooter," which was Sony's very first high profile indie acquisition when building up the PS3's downloadable library. Liem on the other hand is primarily known as a musician, one who goes by the stage name I am Robot and Proud.
The two have many things in common, including a strong interest in interactive music technology. Also, both are from Toronto.
When asked what "Sound Shapes" is all about, Mak explained: "It's a musical platformer, with no pre-recorded soundtrack. Everything you do, every enemy you encounter, every coins you pick up, adds a note to the game. What you see is what you hear, literally."
In addition to a traditional single player campaign, in which levels are considered "albums," since each environment and associated sounds is representative of a particular recording artist, there's a level editor that allows the player to create their own levels, and their own songs, with the same tools that Mak and Liem utilize.
In many ways, "Sound Shapes" could equally be considered a musical instrument as well as a game. "It was part of the design, to create something that would appeal to someone who is really into music, like an instrument or audio software, such as ourselves," explained Liem.
"But that's not our audience, they won't necessarily understand such tools. So our goal was to create something for people who never thought that they could create music, and have them say 'Oh my God, I'm making music!'"
“I DUNNO. I DON’T CARE.”
According to McGrath, Mak, and Liem, Toronto is a great place to make games, which was not only evidenced by the fact that they were in a room packed with other indie game makers, all being supported by Sony, but how the city is also the home for numerous other noteworthy indie game makers.
When asked to describe their local indie game scene, McGrath's response was an enthusiastic, "It's the best in the world. We have Capy [makers of "Sword & Sworcery"], Jon Mak, DrinkBox [makers of "Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack"], Metanet [makers of "N" and "N+"], all pioneers who were doing things before indie games was a thing.
"Everyone played them, a lot of people knew about them, they weren't on any corporation's radar, or the major news outlets's either."
McGrath cites "N," the game created by Metanet's Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard, was the watershed moment that put Toronto on the indie game-making map, and the current scene started. A sentiment that Nathan Vella, founder of Capy Games, echoed with MSNBC spoke with him at PAX East last month.
As for Mak, he describes the Toronto game scene as being "lovable" and "huggable." Liem elaborates: "There's a real sense of community here. Everyone is actually friends with each other. Relationships were friendships before becoming business partners. Which allows cool things to be made; everyone is helping everyone else with their projects, giving each other advice. Everyone is supportive."
Mak adds, "We have a really good ecosystem here. In addition to everyone watching each other's backs, there's government assistance, so we get financial backing. Plus there's just a lot of inspiration around. Film, comics, a really healthy indie music is also here… It's a really nice culture to create, not just for games, but anything."
And that perfect mix is also what attracted Sony to the city. "One of the reasons why I signed with them, back when I was doing 'Everyday Shooter,' is how they seemed to be interested in new and interesting content. Whereas on the other platforms, it was your run of the mill, run and gun shooting, whatever the heck. But Sony signed up thatgamecompany [makers of "Journey"] and Q Games [makers of the "PixelJunk" series].
"It's a really healthy attitude, and I think some of the people here could be the next generation of AAA game makers."
But until then, how will indie games fare, alongside the mainstream games of today? Can they compete? Are they even competing in the first place? When McGrath was asked what he was expecting, in terms of a reaction from the audience to "Dyad", it was again rather to the point: "I dunno. I don't care.
“I mean, that's a stupid thing to care about, right? If you did, then you would make things for an audience, right? But that doesn't sound like a smart way to make things. I'm just making what I think is really good, and cool, and interesting, and… you know… maybe there'll be some people who think that too.”
Matthew Hawkins is an NYC-based game journalist who has also written for EGM, GameSetWatch, Gamasutra, Giant Robot and numerous others. He also self-publishes his own game culture zine, is part of Attract Mode, and co-hosts The Fangamer Podcast. You can keep tabs on him via Twitter, or his personal home-base, FORT90.com.