Independent developers are having to deal with what can only be described as a complete bastardization of the concept.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am in no way saying that I think developers shouldn’t be embracing the concept of small, innovative downloadable games. However, in the last few years with the explosion of the term on the App Stores, as well as on Steam and X-Box Live, has come a very strange new trend that big publishers and developers are releasing small games and branding them as “indie”. In much the same way as in the late 90s and early Noughties the music industry turned out “indie bands” – when they were nothing of the sort. Republica, a great act, was created in exactly the same way as the Spice Girls were.
The idea of “indie” is one of being a fireball against an oppressive, overly-commercial business. It’s about taking a stand for what you believe in, and doing things that many would find perhaps too edgy or niche. And there are many developers out there who ARE Independent. Who release clever games, and use the funds to push the games onward. VVVVVV and Cave Story were delightfully retro whilst taking advantage of very modern techniques, Terraria and Dungeons of Dredmor are wickedly clever takes on the Minecraft and Rogue-Alike genres respectively. And that’s before we mention my personal favourite, Project Zomboid. Where you can play it as it is developed, and is continuously being tweaked and balanced to be a great isometric little horror game.
However, it must be pointed out that these quirky games are increasingly becoming a minority as the likes of Ubisoft, Capcom and SEGA are pushing out low-budget but increasingly polished small, compact games and they’re being hailed by an easily hoodwinked media and consumerbase as somehow “indie”. There’s bugger all indie about them – they have a lot of money thrown at them to develop an idea. None of it is “independent”. It’s the same as the music industry – Indie has become a tag for something it really isn’t.
That, however, isn’t me saying I disapprove of this idea of big developers and publishers pushing out these sorts of games – on the contrary. Bastion is amazing, one of the best games of the year. From Dust – another Arcade title – is utterly enthralling and truthfully, a concept that deserves more love. None of this is bad for gaming, or gamers – cheap, good quality games make a change to the monotonous, tedious and often safe output that you find out there in the main commercial market. If not funding more risky ventures.
But indie they are not. And despite the quality of the output, you sort of have to take a step back to ask yourself the very real and valid question of why on earth they don’t develop these ideas into actual commercial games. From Dust is a perfect case in point – it’s fantastic, with real care and attention to detail and a heart beating inside it. But it’s small – and you can’t quite escape that niggle inside that if they had taken a risk, they could have pushed a bigger, deeper and perhaps even prettier game out of it. It’s a game which is hard to escape the feeling that releasing it is like testing the waters, or selling arguably a demo. A nice, lovely, meaty demo. But something is missing. It’s hard to put your finger on.
Big developers and publishers really should be taking some of their “indie” concepts into the commercial market. Because the general release pattern for big commercial projects tends to be The Usual Sequels, Obvious Movie Tie-Ins or COD-U-Clones. Where games are released that differ, you ask yourself… why. Battle Chess. I mean, okay, I like chess but didn’t we do this in Mortal Kombat a while ago? And wasn’t it just a tiny, tiny bit shit?
It’s nice to see however a game like Catherine get a release – and all signs point to a commercial disc release. And I for one am glad of it – Catherine is a game about a man torn between two women. By day, it’s like a social RPG of sorts, but in his dreams, he is half-naked, has the horns of a ram and is chased up a puzzling block-tower by various manifestations of his chaotic mind. There’s one sequence where he is chased by a razor-lined mange. I kid you not.
But if that sounds tacky – it really isn’t. Based on the Persona series, it’s perhaps the most clever and twisted take on a puzzle game in years. It’s grown-up, it deals with adult themes without cheapening them. It makes jokes, it’s not all doom and gloom but it doesn’t feel like it’s not taking itself seriously with its content. For all the weird and wonderful insanity inside the game, it’s pleasantly a game that doesn’t feel patronising.
And it’s anime-inspired, so it’s colourful. Full of quirky touches. Utterly manic angles, and crazy but interesting people. This is a game that in any stretch of the imagination these days would hit the indie scene so hard it would be at risk of breaking something – but Atlus made a proper, full and deviously delicious game out of it. Japan and the US seem to love it, and the UK gets it later this year after some fixes (and here’s hoping we get the boxer-short collectors edition as well).
It’s a game that for all intents and purposes seems an anomaly in the commercial arm of the gaming industry now. But quality – it shines. And from the start, from early trailers and screenshots, Catherine oozed quality and charm. And now I hope Atlus, and Deep Silver who are handling the transition from US to UK, reap the benefits of being a unique star in a line-up for the next few months that is – truth be told – a little predictable at times.
So if Atlus can do it – why are others afraid of it? Bastion was fantastic – but could have done with being longer. Daggerdale was shit, but you get the impression maybe – just maybe – it could have been better if they didn’t restrict themselves to such a small size and limited concept. From Dust deserves a full-blown commercial version and should be heralded as the return of the God Sim.
And they should be seperated from the likes of Zomboid, Dungeons of Dredmor et al. Which are equally fantastic games which ARE actually indie, and should be supported as such.
Indie gaming is cool – but because of it, a lot of people are exploiting that as well as exploring it. Publishers and developers need to ask themselves why the Indie and Arcade scenes are “better” for their often brilliant games than an actual, commercial release.
And then, the next few years we might see a hell of a lot more interesting games being released commercially…