In this recurring column, Leigh Alexander visits exciting new creative frontiers in the video game space, which is seeing a period of incredible growth and diversification, attracting new talent and demonstrating intriguing innovation. Here she'll cover emerging artists, trends, and so much more.
The rise of the indie scene in gaming has led to nothing short of a revolution in the way games are created and purchased. It used to be the only way to enjoy video games was to buy a boxed product off the shelf, and an expensive piece of hardware to play it on.
But thanks to the bootstrapping work of small teams and creative studios, accessible artistic games flourished on computers, mobile phones and digital download channels, and an entire culture of festivals, art, and communities sprung up to support it. These days it seems less interesting to buy a $60 game that's been market-researched to death, and much more exciting to play something that feels groundbreaking, handmade, and easily-accessible.
We've covered indie games for for group play in public spaces; thought-provoking gallery showings, and experiments in new genres, among others. The traditional console space has been taking note, too. Where once selling game hardware used to be about how many exclusive titles each platform could gain, this generation's seen an unusually long console cycle and contractions in physical retail sales—that means hardware success is less about exclusive games and more about each platform having its own healthy digital channel populated by the unique and diverse. Smaller indie games are slowly pulling into the lead in terms of consumer interest.
Still from Porpentine’s The Sky in The Room
"Indie" is short for independent, of course, a reference to the freedom pioneering studios have from the traditional big-publisher ecosystem. But all media need their fringe culture. As indie takes the spotlight and becomes increasingly polished and forward-leaning thanks to increasingly-affordable dev tools, a new vein of experimental culture is springing up among outsiders. With such a robust community and such accessible utilities, almost anybody can make their own game now.
Welcome to an era where "indie" can also mean "individual." In her recent book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, independent designer Anna Anthropy (Mighty Jill Off, Dys4ia) draws an analogy to zine culture, whereby the unheard can simply grab their own supplies and make small experiences in order to add their voices to the landscape—thereby helping to enrich and diversify it.
Even though the spectrum of available games has increased significantly in the digital age, gaming culture itself has remained stubbornly static, a little too insular and self-reflexive. Retro aesthetics often dominate the indie scene, and a tight community of popular creators tends to stick close together. What Anthropy refers to as "freaks, normals, amateurs, artists, dreamers, drop-outs, queers, housewives and people like you" have an exciting opportunity to lead zinester culture around games by simply embracing the idea that games are now something that any person can make.
The rise of journal and blog culture rocked the world of traditional journalism when it became possible for anyone to start and regularly update their own media site for free; a similar thing could happen for games, now that there are so many tools available. This way of viewing games fully respects them as a medium of self-expression that any individual can enjoy.
Screenshot from Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia
In her book, Anthropy recommends several tools for the curious to get started. One of the most popular of these is Game Maker, which she describes as having "the easiest metaphor for managing all the pieces of a game," and for supporting a wide variety of graphical genres most easily.
We've covered the rise of text gaming as an exciting, accessible genre increasingly relevant to the tablet and e-reader age. Another tool gaining incredible popularity is Twine, a visually-simple utility used to develop text games. My friend Courtney Stanton has challenged herself to make an interactive fiction game in Twine every day this month, and many others in the community have been experimenting with Twine to do everything from telling interactive jokes to creating interactive journalism. If you're curious, Anthropy's own online tutorial comes highly-recommended.
Screenshot from Gamemaker Studio
Examples of individual creators doing expressive personal work are everywhere. Porpentine publishes artistic interactive fiction alongside poetry and photography; the prolific Stephen "Increpare" Lavelle creates haunting and often deeply-affecting work that frequently explores ideas about bodies and alienation (and here's one about history, migration and otherness). Game journalist and activist Mattie Brice recently made a game to help serve as "commentary [on] how we currently use game design for broad strokes of universal experiences instead of the hyper-personal, and often exclude minority voices."
Individual creator culture around games increasingly becomes less about pure entertainment and the "fun factor" to which the commercial industry gives primacy. It's more about the power in creating something as personal expression, as conversation, or simply for self-empowerment—and unlike other media, games reward these creators by opening a dialogue with players. It's an exciting way to think about gaming.
Previously: The Evolving Relationship between Film and Games