In film production and music, the word indie described an attitude of being independent from the large studios and publishers. Hence the name, being a diminutive of sorts of independent. We are going to argue that in game development, “indie” tends to mean something different, even if the intention is to convey the same meaning.
What I found instead is that “indie” in game development generally means an excuse for making gimmicky stuff bereft of any narrative ambition. To be fair, this is obviously not true for all games referred to as “indie”. Besides, as of the time when I wrote this, I am not exactly regarded as an authority in game development. I’m sure many consider me to be a deranged senile guy (I’m 31) who has nostalgic if not outdated views on what makes good game design. Others – whose names I am not going mention here – may believe that while I have genuine talent, I am putting it to nefarious use, a characterisation of which I would likewise disagree with. Nonetheless, since the following views inform my game design decisions under SchiZotypy’s aegis, I believe these should be expressed here regardless.
What the large publishers have in avarice, indies generally have in lack of vision. Now, Indie has often been applied for Divinity: Original Sin or to all instalments in the Wasteland series since Wasteland 2, for instance. However, I would regard these titles as examples of Post-Indie avant-la-lettre (being French for “before there was a word for it”). When I use ‘indie’ as a – for a lack of a better phrase – term of abuse, I refer to titles which have retro-1980s gameplay (think of the gazillion tower defence style titles). Often, there is a high score counter. Either way, storytelling suffers.
Party like it’s 1999!
Sometimes, it’s good to build on tradition: Games were narrative- and gameplay-wise at peak complexity in the 1990s and 2000s. Let’s take some time to celebrate some titles which exemplify the excellence of narrative-driven game design achieved during that area.
Just look at Daggerfall (ok, that one was a bit too unstreamlined). System Shock 2 and Planescape: Torment were both released in the year Prince sang about. After that, Knights of the Old Republic, Morrowind and Beyond Good & Evil all went gold in 2003. On the other hand, 2015 was sort of a cut off point. The Witcher III could be seen as a swan song of a bygone era, if you’re pessimistic.
The gameplay styles characteristic of the 1990s, are falling out of favour since the growing prevalence of Microtransactions. This is because microtransactions are easier to integrate in competitive games, whereas nigh impossible to integrate in narrative-driven games. This is because microtransactions are a core element of the gameplay of any title which has them, so narrative-driven games must avoid them like the plague. Yet, narrative-driven games, including the FPS-RPG hybrids otherwise known as immersive sims, are essentially unexplored treasure troves.
Like movies, narrative-driven games are excellent storytelling media to explore politically relevant subject matter. I envision a future wherein partaking in such is a form of high culture.
Dancing with tears in my eyes
Indie games, generally build on the 1980s instead. This is what makes them gimmicky. Neo-Arcade would be a better term. In a neo-arcade, microtransactions can recreate the same sensation as an arcade hall where you put a coin to get an attempt.
In this sense, the competitive E-Sports titles (or should we say services?) like Fortnite are retro-1980s. Sounds familiar? Indeed, from that perspective, Fortnite is also Neo-Arcade.
This poses a problem for the so-called “Indies” since it undermines their entire USP.
Eyes wide shut?
Recreating the vibe of video games 1990s and early 2000s appears to be even harder. In some respects, video games of that era were genuinely more advanced and sophisticated than most games which came before or – crucially – after. Contemporary games engage less with the player’s emotions and psychology than older games tended to do. At least, in ways that were likely to lead to catharsis. The mechanics were more complex and treated players like mature individuals.
Video games as a service promise to investors greater returns. Moreover, too many investors have a tendency to think video games as a service has obsoleted narrative-driven titles. Yet, that is like saying Netflix isn’t necessary because you can watch football. That being said, there are positive developments too. Nevertheless, most indie developers do not really respond to the challenge. They are not trying to really stand out, because – daunted by the logistical complexity – they think they “don’t stand a chance” if they tried.
SchiZotypy rejects the “Indie” label. Hipsters have disappeared. Or maybe we are all hipsters now. Either way, indie doesn’t mean anything anymore. For we now live in a Post-Indie world. And SchiZotypy is a post-indie studio, arguably the first of its kind to be self-aware of that.