State of the Art: Indie Games

That's The Spirit

In an industry that is dominated by AAA titles that rival Hollywood's biggest blockbusters, It's hard to remember that in the early days of the game industry, when it was first getting its feet off of the ground, that many games were developed by groups of one or two people. This was back before games had near photorealistic graphics or required teams of hundreds of people to create. 

The humble beginnings of the industry involved a ton of very smart people who were discovering what exactly they could do with this new medium; advancing the technology to optimize one thing: fun. The first game developers created a framework for how every game should be made that has been iterated upon for decades, and eventually has ended up being the ecosystem we have today.

One might take a look at the current state of the industry and think that era of small team development is gone, but that's not the case. The spirit of these pioneers lives on in the form of indie games and indie developers. And they're not just focused on fun anymore. This new class of small dev teams have moved on to the whole spectrum of human emotions while still keeping the fun intact. 

Indie games have managed to keep the envelope-pushing spirit of innovation and collaboration alive and well. Driven by a passion to create and unconcerned with the foibles that plague AAA game development. Small groups of people are pumping out boutique experiences that successfully appeal to human emotion. Now more than ever, indies games are leading the push for the medium to tap into the human experience in the same way that traditional art, film, and music do. 

In this installment of State of the Art, we're going to dive deep into the creative niche that indies have carved out for themselves and everything that landed in place to allow them to get where they are today. 

What's an indie game?

It's hard to actually define what an indie game is. The official wikipedia definition of Indie Game is: 

"a video game that is often created without the financial support of a publisher"

But that's not really the case anymore. Xbox, Playstation, Nintendo, EA, Ubisoft, and Activision all have their own programs put in place to make sure that there is a healthy ecosystem of indie titles available on their platforms. Yet some of the most important and groundbreaking titles do fall under the traditional definition. The one thing almost all indies have in common is that they rely upon digital distribution and not physical media. 

But the most important thing you'll need to know about indie games for this article is that, much like indie movies or music, they're traditionally created by small groups. Often times they even iterate upon established game mechanics in new and unique ways. Although some do take a real turn into something that is especially avant garde. Here's an example: 

The Year of the Indie

The Nintendo Switch's release has put indie titles into the hands of so many more people. Its release has sparked a whole new interest in indie titles since you can now take them anywhere. Developers are all porting their games over to the console because the ecosystem is so right. This has led to an overall rise in interest in indie games among the mainstream population of gamers.

While 2018 has seen its fair share of groundbreaking and innovative AAA titles, it really is the year of the indie. The best games with meaningful stories and rich gameplay to come out this year have undoubtedly been indies. You just don't know it yet (maybe that's presumptuous but just go with it). For your education here are three groundbreaking indie games that have come out this year that you should totally check out: 

Celeste

Celeste is a 2d action platformer with deep gameplay and an engaging story. The game's premise is simple: climb Celeste mountain. 

Multiple outlets have given it near perfect scores; contributing to its stellar metascore of 92. Many game critics have touted it as one of their games of the year. Which is a bold statement considering it came out in January.

Hollow Knight

Maybe you'll notice a trend here. Hollow Knight is also a 2D action platformer, but its come from its unique art style and skill-based mechanics. It's crazy to see a game that only costs $15 get better ratings than some full-price experiences, but the proof is in the pudding. More importantly, rather than focus on photorealism or pixel art like many games, Hollow Knight puts all of its eggs in the hand-drawn animation basket. The result is a challenging game that looks like a playable cartoon. How awesome is that? 

Inside

Okay admittedly this game didn't officially come out this year, but it did come to Switch this year. Inside is a exhibit A when it comes to what's called "environmental storytelling". It is a very lonely game that plays upon isolation and brainwashing in a realized world. It's only three hours long, so maybe next time you think about watching Return of the King for the 1000th time, pick this game up instead. 

The State of the Art

"The only unique contribution that we will ever make will be born of our creativity." - Unknown

Indie games have really solidified themselves as a whole other facet of the gaming industry. A facet that celebrates personal experiences that focus on a single idea and exhaust that idea until you have a complete game. The lack of huge marketing budgets and publishing rights means that indie games need to rest entirely on their laurels if they ever want to be successful. These conditions are perfect for breeding great games, which is why we see experiences so focused on story, gameplay, art style, and sometimes even self expression. 

Indie games have evolved into experiences that are entirely more personal than something a AAA game can deliver. They feel less like you're playing a blockbuster and more like you're reading novel by someone with a very unique writing style.

The perfect indie game is a direct extension of the sensibilities of its small team of creators (or even single creator). So in that sense indies have become the purest example of video games as an art form. Indie developers arguably understand the quote above more than anyone. They understand that somewhere lies a game that could only come from them. Which is why many indie games deal with concepts that are very human in nature even though what they're actually about could be entirely removed from humanity. The end result something entirely new, informed by what came before it, that is as close to a self-portrait as a game will ever be. 

End.

Thanks for reading! Tune in next month for the next installment!  

 


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