Indie Game Development: An Art of its Own
In one sense, video games came into existence when they were first created.On the contrary, video games as a cultural revolution did not share the same starting point as their first inception, but originated when they first gained status in the community. For something to truly come to substance, it must first become known and then experienced. In this respect Pong was the first video game, as many had come to know and play it. It was on the path carved by Pong that video games began a journey of evolution.
What began as pixels traversing a screen became pixels with purpose. Gameplay began to define games and differentiated one from another. Then came art, unique sprites and characters players could associate with a particular game. A game’s aesthetics and controls were then merged with a storyline, giving players a reason to care about these characters, driving them to partake in their worlds. As time progressed, stories became more elaborate, and in line with the technological advances of technology, character models and the art of games became more elaborate as well, making the characters more realistic than they had been. Webster defines art as something that is created with imagination and skill, that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings. Art evolves with humans, as human potential is always growing. Whether be it musical, visual, or literary art, there is always new innovation that changes the art form. As a form of entertainment, video games by nature are works of art. However many of the unique qualities are lost through the mainstream production of games. Larger companies are obligated to keep sales numbers high so they tend to recycle formulas that work. As a result of reused mechanics and similarities, many games seem tired and washed up. It is because of this trend that independent game developers have become so successful in the most recent years as they have been able to break this cycle and bring back the special qualities games had.
The Art of Video Games
Art is forever changing with the times. The mediums of art have progressed from painting to motion pictures. In order to define a video game as art, a standard definition for art must be properly defined so that it may be related to works of art across all mediums. In “Will Computer Games Ever Be a Legitimate Art Form?” by Earnest Adams, he notes that in the twelfth century, the notions of art moved from art as a perfect representation to art being an expressive representation of the artist. This allowed for more expressive art forms, such as music or dance, to be included in the larger category of art. Through its expressive nature, art is able to create a dialogue between the viewer and the artist. In this sense, video games uses its interactive nature to create this dialogue. However, Adams states that when the viewer begins to interfere with the art, the original message intended by the artist is lost. Video games are able to overcome this as they contain dynamic narratives that rely on input from the player. For example, in the Indie title “Proteus”, there is no dialogue or plot in the game, so communication between the player and developer is solely dependent on the interactions with the in-world props. The player can move around the procedurally generated world freely, exploring and watching as the animals run and jump upon approach. Additionally, the music in the soundtrack changes depending on the players surroundings. This is best seen in Proteus after a season change occurs. During the spring, the player is greeted by bright colors, a light soundtrack, and the lively animals whereas in the winter, we see paled colors, little to no animal life, and a soundtrack that isn’t so upbeat.
Indie and AAA Development
AAA development is a term used to describe something that is made with a higher quality than most products. Indie games usually carry the connotation that they were made by a smaller studio. In some contexts, these definitions would suffice but in the argument of art, they will have to be revised. Nadav Lipkin realizes this in his article, “Examining Indie’s Independence”, when he must clearly separate Indie from AAA, as some Indie studios make games of high quality whereas some Indie studios do not have the same intentions as most independent studios. He uses the independent company, Zynga, as an example as they prioritize making money over creative vision. In order to separate the two properly in this context, the politics behind the production of the product are the determinants in the classification of a studio as an Indie studio or a mainstream AAA studio.
In the documentary “Indie Game: The Movie”, Indie developer Jonathan Blow says “Part of it is about not trying to be professional…What those game companies do is create highly polished things that serve as large of an audience as possible…That creation of this highly glossy commercial product is the opposite of making something personal.” Indie culture, by its nature, has always been opposite of mainstream. We see these trends in independent music artists and at independent film festivals where the general themes go against what mainstream media is trying to accomplish. The Indie agenda is not focused on appeasing large amounts of people, but on creating a unique and expressive product for those who would appreciate it. This is where the separation lies.
The Art of Indie
Independent publishers do not have the resources that large developers have. In “Indie Game: The Movie”, Team Meat only had two developers, Tommy and Edmund, and they were one of the larger teams. These developers do not have much funding either. The reason why they continued to develop Super Meat Boy was simply due to their want to create. Edmund reiterates the use of communication through his games as a way of relating to other people. Throughout the documentary, this seemed to be a reoccurring theme with the developers, communication. Whether it is communication through the gameplay or communication through storytelling, Indie games have had a subtle way of rubbing players in the right ways. For example, Super Meat Boy was one of the largest Indie successes to date. It is most notable for it’s fast-paced gameplay and its unforgiving difficulty. One of the strongest portions about this game is its underlying imagery. If you look at Meat Boy, he seems to just be red and made of meat. However, the developer states that Meat Boy is actually a boy without skin. Throughout the game, he is collecting bandages and is constantly chasing after his girlfriend, Bandage Girl. Though players may simply be drawn to the game simply because of the challenges it provides, the relationship between Meat Boy and Bandage Girl is a force in its own. Meat Boy needs her. He is not just a boy made of meat, but a boy without skin. Without the protection Bandage girl provides, he is completely vulnerable. It’s not just a story about another damsel in distress; the one in distress is Meat Boy.
The Current State of Indie
As current trends reflect, Indie games have been top dog on the market place for some time now, beating out some of the stronger AAA releases, showing they aren’t going anywhere for a while. Indie games are becoming competitive on the gaming front and AAA developers are trying to follow the trend they are setting. Indie games have created a culture around themselves with unique forms of storytelling and a strong communication with the player. This is one of the main reasons why games are so captivating to players. As an art form, video games in general have succeeded in creating an immersive environment for players. Mainstream games have created narratives that have hoarded the masses yet they continuously recycle elements in as though they are trying to stick with what they know in order to secure revenue and ensure that they will always have a solid fan base. It is these limiters that separate Indie games from the rest.
While AAA games try to become perfect products for the masses, Indie games have nothing to lose. Flaws in Indie games are what make them unique, as no human is perfect, and that is what Indie games are: human. They are relatable in the messages send to players, and they are a breath of fresh air in a sea of similarities. Because of this, Indie games have not only received the respect that they have earned, but have been placed in high regards in the art community. Look around the Internet for a while and you can find an Indie game on almost every gaming messaging board and forum. People are not solely talking about the game and how it plays, people are debating over these games as they would over any works of art. There are thousands of players deciphering the messages that these games have weaved deep down.
Art, by definition, is something that is created with imagination and skill, that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings. Art evolves with humans, as human potential is always growing. Whether be it musical, visual, or literary art, there is always new innovation that changes the art form. Video games have earned their spot as art, however not all art is good. With recycled mechanics and tired plots, the colors that games originally had have become grayed and dulled. However, in the nature carried by the word “independent”, some of these smaller Indie game companies have found the colors that players have long forgotten and have brought back in new ways the life games used to have. It is in their unique storytelling, gameplay mechanics, and the personal connections that Indie games make with the player that they have been able to separate themselves from the average art style that video games have become and emerge as something truly remarkable: an art of it’s own.
Adams, E. W. (2006). Will Computer Games Ever Be a Legitimate Art Form? Journal of Media Practice , 7 (1), 67 -77.
Pajot, L., & Swirsky, J. (Directors). (2012). Indie Game: The Movie [Motion Picture].
Gee, J. P. (2006). Why Game Studies Now?: Video Games: A New Art Form. Sociological Abstracts™ , 1 (1), 58-61.
Juul, J. (2005). Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Lipkin, N. (2012). Examining Indie’s Independence: The Meaning of “Indie” Games, the Politics of PRoduction, and Mainstream Co-optation. Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association , 7 (11), 8-24.
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