Arts feature Culture studies

How gaming grew up

A slew of artistic independent games are supplanting the big studio brands. Peter Hoskin reports on this boardroom-versus-bedroom battle

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

Sometimes a guy feels abstracted from the world. He visits Europe’s finest galleries, but the paintings seem to hang like corpses from the walls. The great symphonies fail to stir his interest, let alone his soul. So he goes home, pours a large whisky and does the only thing that’s left for him — he buys a PlayStation.

That’s what I did last year, and I’ve been wired to my screen ever since. Parachuting from skies to impale some oblivious mercenary. Driving off buildings to escape the cops. Shooting and shooting — and shooting. Why haven’t I done this all my life?

It was blockbuster games such as Grand Theft Auto that drew me in, but something else held my attention. There, in the PlayStation’s digital shop, are games that you won’t see advertised on the sides of buses. Each costs about five or ten pounds. And each is made by a handful of people, independently of the major gaming studios.

These indie games may be less expensive, but they offer more than just cheap thrills. One called Never Alone was made in conjunction with the Inupiat people of Alaska. It involves guiding a girl and her Arctic fox through the snow. The whites, greys and greens massage your retinas, while the soundtrack conjures aurorae in your mind. Jump, jump, weave and climb. You’ve probably never met an Inupiaq before, but here you are playing through their folklore.

But if that sounds too Greenpeace for your liking, there are plenty of other indie games to try. How about Resogun, a crazy Space Invaders for our crazy times? Or Fez, in which you bounce your character between two dimensions and three? There is even one that lets the player poke a scalpel around someone’s innards.

It must be what New York felt like for cinephiles in 1959. John Cassavetes’s Shadows had just been screened at Cinema 16, and suddenly every American knew that films could be made outside of Hollywood. A hundred thousand other independent movies followed. Some were great, others were as lousy as you’d expect from a bunch of amateurs with cheap handheld cameras. But — gosh! — just the very idea of it. People creating what they want to create.

This is the joy of indie games. Some of them are as lousy as you’d expect from amateurs stringing together lines of code in their bedrooms, but the great ones are great because they are personal. Indie programmers don’t just have the freedom to invent; they have to if they want to stand out alongside Grand Theft Auto and its colossal marketing budget. And so we get Monument Valley, in which you swipe a faceless girl through a dreamscape that’s equal parts M.C. Escher and Arabian Nights. Extra care is taken with the story and gameplay precisely because these creators care.

Why this new direction? Although video games have been made by individuals since their prehistory, it’s now easier to do so. There exist simple programs by which almost anyone can create a game. And the internet offers limitless space in which to peddle the end results and then beam them into our homes.

The internet offers another opportunity for wannabe game designers: crowdfunding. So far, more than £300 million has been donated by fans online to fund video games. It’s the most popular category on Kickstarter by tens of millions of dollars.

But how much cash does it take for indies to stop being indies? Much as happened with independent movies, the lines are becoming blurred. Rovio Entertainment started off as three students from Helsinki. But after selling countless copies of Angry Birds it has expanded far beyond that. It is now a major studio in its own right.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the existing studios, who are beginning to grow their own indie-style cells. And why not? These games can achieve the perfect corporate mix of cheaper and better. Just look to Child of Light. This was developed by one of the big boys, but it shares qualities with the small upstarts. Like Never Alone, it has you directing a girl and her companion, a ball of light, through a fairy-tale landscape, and it is as beautiful as it is simple.

Or perhaps, rather than bothering to make these games, the old crowd will simply buy them out. Microsoft did exactly that, paying $2.5 billion to acquire Mojang, creators of Minecraft, in 2014. This Swedish company didn’t exist five years ago. Now its principal founder is kicking back in Beverly Hills’s most expensive home. This weird amalgamation of boardroom and bedroom may perturb those who want to keep the independent flame alight. But, with games as straight-up artistic as Monument Valley, there’s no cause for fear just yet. All you have to do is download them and marvel. This is where the culture’s at.

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  • Ivan Ewan

    Journey (ThatGameCompany, Sony) is in my opinion, the greatest work of expressive art produced since the modernists arrived on the scene. And that’s saying an awful lot, I’m ranking it above every film and song I can think of.

    If you have not played it before, forget everything I just said about it and let it catch you unawares some day.

    I hate pretentious artsy things in general, by the way. Total philistine. This game spoke to a lot of people.

  • Ben P

    As a “hobbyist” indie developer and the bottom of the food chain (one man working alone with no budget), I can’t help but feel that we have passed “peak indie” and things will now go downhill, just as they did with home computers.

    Discoverability is now a nightmare unless you have dedicated budget and resources, and more and more often, the so-called “indies” whose games do well in the marketplaces are those who are being bankrolled by an outside investor, and are independent on insofar as they are not signed to a specific publisher.

    Another big problem are the abundance of clone games – near-exact copies of a title lucky or funded well enough to be successful, with their authors seeking purely to cash in. These titles often flood the marketplaces, swamping any other new titles before they have a chance to establish themselves.

    If indie games are to continue being a source of originality and innovation, we need to start seeing changes in the marketplaces so that low and no-budget studios are differentiated from the bankrolled “triple B” studios to stand a chance of being discovered and cloned titles are removed by default. Otherwise, we’ll soon be back to the bad old days of a few publishers – or in this case, financers – calling the shots.

    • Ivan Ewan

      If you’re talking about mobile, I completely agree. But on the PC, discoverability has gone up a lot in the last few years.

      • Dan Grover

        I’m not sure – at the start of Steam Greenlight, yeah; But there’s an enormous slew of utter nonsense in there now akin to a mobile App Store. There are also self-referential ironic titles like Goat Simulator which are simultaneousyl massively popular yet distracting from the “real” games.

        • Ivan Ewan

          I like to pretent Greenlight doesn’t exist. As for Goat Simulator, well, there’s a market for everything, and the people who made that game observed a gap in the “physics comedy” genre. Surgeon Simulator and Octodad made a big splash (sorry for the double-pun) in that field just before Goat Simulator did, but they don’t really distract from “real” games, just like Cinderella won’t distract from Star Wars VII this year.

          Is there something you’re trying to put on the market, or something?

          • Dan Grover

            Not personally. I work in VFX now but as a wee laddie I used to work on Mods for BF1942 – that’s as “expert” as I ever got in games!

            And I think the problem with Greenlight is that, whilst you can ignore it relatively easy, doing so shuts off one of the shop windows for Indie games. As was suggested, there are “indie” games out that actually have pretty massive marketing budgets because they know that it doesn’t really matter if the game’s great if no one knows about it. Sure, they’re big on the internet and if there’s one thing “the internet” likes to do is talk about games. But I’m not sure if this has really improved in the last few years as you suggested – the only thing that’s really changed is Greenlight which is, it seems we agree, basically a storm of feces.

          • Ivan Ewan

            I ignore Greenlight because they’re games which do not exist. A few years ago I made an error of judgement and “bought” Overgrowth, the sequel to indie hit Lugaru. That was in 2012 or 2011. It is still not done. Why would it be? The developers have got their money already.

            On the same subject there’s Kickstarter, which has actually had a few successes, and GOG has really come into its own. Game engines have become easier for one- or two-person teams to deploy on PC, Mac, phones, consoles. It couldn’t be that much better, and it could be far, far worse.

  • Mystified Man

    I think your headline is a little off as you seem to be talking more about how video games have become more arty as opposed to “how gaming grew up”.

    Games that I played in my teens like “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2” (published by LucasArts and developed by Obsidian) had some very sophisticated dialogue and philosophical concepts, but at the time I first played it these themes had very little impact on me because I cared more for the lightsabers and the shooting.

    It is the same with film and literature; you might not recognise their layers until you revisit them with a more mature mind. So I think the grown up themes have always been there, it’s just that you can switch your mind off and choose not to think about them.

    • Ivan Ewan

      Oh yeah. Another “grown up” game in terms of philosophy, themes, and so on, would be Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which on one hand offers you a cracking good stealth action RPG, and on the other hand asks, subtly but strongly, what happens to the world when man merges with machine. It’s a great prequel to the Ion Storm original.

  • Stephen Milroy

    Gaming has always had its mature and immature. From Ico to Shadow of the Colossus through to Okami and Silent Hill 2 (heck I would even argue Majoras Mask for the Nintendo 64 was deep in terms of its themes). However for each of these there are a 100 ‘free to play’ ‘early access’ and other general drek on Steam alone, not including the dumbed down ‘triple A’ never-endingly hyped and turned out to be rubbish products (see Watchdogs, Destiny etc.). If anything gaming has dumbed down…

  • Dauer_Gast

    The difference between games like Child of Light or Ori and the blind Forest are that they try to be beautiful in their own way. Something that was intentionally cast away in modern “art”. They are a nice change to mangled metal rods and vulgar display of genitalia, which somebody decided was supposed to be art today.

  • ardenjm

    Especially for the soundtrack.
    Anything by Amanita actually.

    Point and click!