The Golden Age of Indie Games

This is a fantastic age of gaming.

It might not feel like it. When games like Fallout 76 that have more bugs than a butterfly pavilion are released or when a studio tries to squeeze a few more dollars with pay-to-win schemes, it’s hard to remember how good it is to be a gamer right now.

For the most part, games are growing to new heights of size and quality. There is an arms race of quality that is giving us some of the greatest titles to ever release. Many studios are committed to pushing the envelope for what a game can be.

Shawn Layden, the Chairman of SIE Worldwide Studios and the unofficial face of Playstation, put it best in his DICE 2019 keynote speech.

“We focused on the quality of our games, on making titles that would stand the test of time the way that the best pieces of art often do.”

But when the titans of gaming are growing bigger, so do their shadows, and many decent games that don’t quite reach those heights are being forgotten.

Agents of Mayhem is a great example.

For those that need a refresher, Agents of Mayhem is a spinoff title set in the popular Saints Row franchise. Its cliche action-movie story ramped up the insane juvenile antics of the third and fourth Saints Row titles while also introducing multiple playable characters, each with their own unique abilities and personalities.

On paper, this game should have been a hit with fans of the franchise. Saints Row 3 is one of my favorite games of all-time and, in my initial playthrough, I was amazed by how much I genuinely cared about the characters of the already-insane story. Running into traffic to commit insurance fraud or going through the gauntlet of Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax kept the game fresh and provided more reasons to keep playing. And of course, there’s no beating a day with a dildo bat.

Improving the gameplay from Saints Row 3 and IV, adding in new ways to create wacky destruction, and letting us play as a band of colorful rogues should have captivated everyone that loved the Saints Row franchise.

But the gaming climate changed between the releases of Saints Row IV and Agents of Mayhem. Games like The Witcher 3, Uncharted 4, Overwatch, DOOM, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild raised the bar to previously unimaginable heights of what a game should be and, more importantly, what our money is worth as a consumer.

Even Gat wasn’t enough to spice up Agents of Mayhem.

And so, Agents of Mayhem suffered. Its creator, Volition Studios, lost a fourth of its team in the months following its release. All of this not because it was a bad game, but because it was released after a drastic paradigm shift for the industry that made its smaller problems look like wine stains when compared to other titles on the market.

Agents of Mayhem is but one example of the new sea of decent games that never got their day in the sun. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to compete against the monolithic games that are made nowadays. Coming close to that level requires an extraordinary amount of funding, time, and talent.

Despite the growing shadow of these titans over the gaming industry, there’s one sect that seems to not only avoid falling into the pit of failure but thrive in the spotlight: the indie game.

The barrier of entry for making a video game has all but vanished. As a result, most of what people make is trash. You only need to browse the Nintendo eShop, venture past the front page of Steam, or open your phone’s app store to see for yourself.

But the great indie games, the ones we know and love, still pale in comparison in terms of scope and production value next to Super Mario Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2.

So why are so many people playing them?

To pull a quote from Anton Ego in Pixar’s Ratatouille, “Not everyone can become a great artist…but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

If you haven’t seen the documentary Indie Game: The Movie, I highly recommend that you do. It’s a gripping, in-depth look at the struggles of indie developers, specifically the minds behind Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Fez.

It’s a collage of crashes, failures, and inconveniences for these poor artists. The universe tortures them.

But as you probably know, these are three of the most successful and influential indie titles of all time. If you watch the film, you see how these experiences shaped their work.

Making an indie game is hell. It’s working into the wee hours of the morning, terrified that your game might not be any good. It’s the gnawing itch of wanting to give up and rejoin society in a normal job. Even if it comes out and it’s actually good, it might only appeal to a niche audience and not make enough to pay the bills. It is by no means a glamorous life. It sucks.

I had to make a simple side scroller for a class in college. It only had to be a few short levels and did not need to be a visual wonder. After pouring weeks of work into it, the game was a dumpster fire and barely worked. I couldn’t get the animations to play properly so my little knight just floated around while he hopped over snakes that also glided a few pixels off the ground until my brave hero got stuck on a wall. I never planned to be a game developer but my very brief career as one opened my eyes to the level of work that goes into even the simplest game.

When I hear that Stardew Valley, one of my current gaming obsessions, was made by one guy as a passion project, I can’t imagine how close he came to giving up and depriving the world of a beautiful work of joy.

Pain breeds art. Art is so benefitted by suffering that reading the biographies of any famous artist, no matter the medium, can feel like watching a Greek tragedy.

As a result, there’s a connection that exists in indie games that you rarely ever find in AAA titles and that is to the artist. That little game wasn’t made by a few hundred people with orders to maximize profits and build insane set pieces. It was made by a few dozen regular people–at most–who are crafting what they want to make. They reject tradition and when that’s done, money becomes much less of an influencer on the art.

Celeste was my favorite game of 2018. The top-notch platforming accompanied by a breathtaking score makes for an unforgettable experience. But that’s not why I love it.

Your constant failures are symbolic of protagonist Madeline’s own personal struggle and quest to climb Celeste Mountain. You see her go through an emotional rollercoaster not unlike the one that you will go through just by playing the game. Madeline doubting her ability to climb just a little bit higher is your own doubt in your ability to finish the next level. You’ll scream in frustration, question why you even try, and most importantly, celebrate every little victory along the way.

I quite literally jumped out of bed in the middle of the night to dance after beating the hotel level in Celeste. Mr. Oshiro’s Hotel is what I imagine Hell to be like.

Celeste is a number of things for a number of people and that’s what makes it so special. It’s one of the best platformers in level design I have ever played. The B and C-side levels have produced sleepless nights of yelling into my pillow.

But it’s also a personal tale of mental illness that has resonated with many players. It’s a lesson on why you should persevere when everything else is telling you to quit. Climbing the tallest mountain often gives the prettiest view.

I can’t tell you how many times I stared at a level and said out loud, “There’s no way I can do this. This is impossible.” So you take it one step at a time. You learn how to reach the first platform, then the next, and the next, and the next, until finally you’ve beaten that stage and you’re onto the next problem.

You can tell from playing Celeste that the artists have suffered in their own ways. The emotion in the game is genuine and could never have been faked, no matter how big the budget or team. I am so happy and thankful that they managed to harness that pain and turn it into something beautiful.

Pain isn’t the only thing that motivates creativity. Nowadays, there’s a AAA game for almost everything. Do you want to be an assassin and sneak around the ledges of tall buildings as you spy on your prey? Play Dishonored, Assassin’s Creed, or Hitman. Do you want to punch your friends? Play Smash, Tekken, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Soul Calibur, or Jump Force. Do you want to go on a grand adventure and explore a massive living world? There’s a million games out right now that can give you that.

To survive against industry titans that have made games for almost every dream, a game developer needs to invent a new fantasy.

Rocket League shows how smaller developers are forced to think outside the box for a new idea to distinguish themselves from so many other titles.

Why didn’t I think of this!?

They took two simple concepts, soccer and a car, and glued the two together. Anybody could have thought of it and yet nobody did. Now, it’s a huge hit. Why? Because there’s nothing else like it and it’s so fun.

The desperation and need to stand out in a sea of endless blockbuster titles forced the developers to think in a totally new way and we got one of the craziest, one of the most fun and addicting games out of it.

My best friend Jack and I finally got around to playing last year’s A Way Out. It was made by a small team, Hazelight Studios, led by a character named Josef Fares. You might remember him for his infamous speech at the 2017 Video Game Awards in which he defiantly proclaimed, “Fuck the Oscars!”

That line became synonymous with the man and it’s stuck with me now after beating the game in one sitting.

While not strictly required, A Way Out’s six hour story demands that you play it in one go. You and your partner feel the punch of the game much more if you’re strapped in and committed.

A Way Out managed to create more believable, relatable, and likeable characters with gripping personal struggles in six hours than Red Dead Redemption 2 did in 60 hours.

I doubt that’s a popular opinion.

Leo and Vincent, the protagonists of A Way Out, have two clear goals in the game, one of which is the title of the game. It’s simple and you always know why you’re doing the things you’re doing. The story never gets muddled by trying to do too much, as was the case of Red Dead Redemption 2.

You see how they ended up in their cells at the start of the game and you see who’s waiting for them on the other side. The character you play has a totally different personality, motivation, and methodology than your friend. It changes gameplay styles every half hour or so, keeping it constantly fresh.

Most importantly, it ends precisely when it needs to. Up until that point though, everything you do feels necessary and special.

Meanwhile, I lost track of how many plans fell apart, how many times Dutch needs money for some scheme, and what his plan is minus the word “Tahiti.” Its foundation is spread so thin that it feels like taking a wrong step or slouching even the slightest bit will make me fall through the floor into a pit of boredom.

A Way Out accomplishes these feats because the developers recognized that they only had a limited amount of resources but were still expected to craft a story on par with blockbuster titles. This prompted them to not expand outward but to instead develop inward, creating a tight and polished experience you’ll never forget.

Obviously, that’s just my opinion and I’m sure many will strongly disagree. That’s okay. Red Dead Redemption 2 is still a masterpiece of a game for its technical achievements and definitely should not be missed. But for me, the fun falters as it tries to balance its already weak narrative with its characters as it’s stretched thin around its massive world and the countless things in it.

I don’t want to spoil too much but A Way Out really is such a unique and different game that you really can only experience once. Its 6 hour runtime is perfect, but never would have made by a larger team looking to just make a profit.

EA has made a lot of mistakes in recent years but their EA Originals program is an absolute blessing. I look forward to see what comes from it next.

When I look back at Josef Fares rambling about the Oscars, I see a director who found that film wasn’t the medium best suited to tell his stories. I see a man who turned to the tortuous life of being a game developer to do his story justice.

He could have told this tale as a 2 hour long film with half the effort. He could have tried to win an Oscar for his work. But he didn’t. Instead, he created something that might not get the attention it deserves, but is the best translation of his dream and stays in the minds of those that do play it.

I look back at games like Destiny, Deadpool, and Defiance, some of the most expensive games ever made–more expensive than The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V–and I wonder what would’ve happened if they had taken a page out of the indie playbook and made much smaller, tighter, more memorable unique experiences at a fraction of the cost.

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