What Is the Greatest Indie Game of the Modern Era?
Two of VICE Gaming's writers debate this question, and discuss indie games in general, for your enjoyment and/or imminent arguments.
Mike Diver: Okay, to get the ball rolling here, Jake my man... I'm going to draw some lines around what I mean by "indie game" in this context, for this piece. I'm thinking independently produced video games that have emerged since, and not before, the advent of Xbox Live Arcade. So we're looking at the winter of 2005, to now, Xbox 360 onwards. "The modern era" of gaming.
Which leads me to say, straight away, that some of the most important, foundations-laying indie games of the HD era came out through that service: Castle Crashers, Braid, Super Meat Boy, 'Splosion Man, Limbo, Fez. Do any of those leap at you and scream: yes, Jake, I am the most impressive indie video game you set eyes on in recent history?
I think, for me, it was actually Limbo that most impressed the case that indie games could go places and say things, while retaining immediate playability, that titles in the triple-A sphere were never going to. It was so personal, but almost totally silent, and so stripped-back in so many ways. I had a massive emotional attachment to it, straight away.
Jake Tucker: I'm going to show my failures immediately here and say that I've never played through Limbo.
Shameful, I know. I don't want to rock the boat by bringing in more comparisons, but I think it's key to look at the flash games of the time, too. Many of the games on your magic list got their start either with a direct prequel in flash, or with the developer(s) doing previous work there. But I'm muddying the waters.
Looking solely at the list I'd say Super Meat Boy and Fez jump out at me as being the most inspirational. Super Meat Boy was just re-released for the PS4 – assuring that developer Ed McMillen has a perpetual money making machine while he's working on Mewgenics – and Fez is the product of one of the saddest personal stories in indie games.
I think what I love about many of the games on this list, is that it used to be that an indie was a couple of hours long and hung directly on a central concept. You could get the full experience of a game quickly and easily, without sacrificing anything for not experiencing the entire game as you would in the triple-A space. Does that make sense?
MD: Totally. Even the bigger (by which I mean longer) games didn't overload their, I suppose, mechanics too much by introducing completely new ideas at the four-hour mark. Limbo worked for me as it gave you all the abilities you needed at the very beginning; then it was just a case of applying them appropriately, ideally without dying horribly, which I did. A lot.
And here's my admission: I've played about ten minutes of Super Meat Boy. I'll get around to it, hopefully, again – I downloaded the PS4 version when it was on PS Plus. But that's my shameful fact for today's discussion. Moving swiftly along, where do you think indie games changed from being this "something else", which Fez and the like certainly felt on the other side of 2010, to generally accepted as every bit as "viable" for the mainstream as anything that EA or Ubisoft is churning out?
Or, am I totally wrong here, and the "mainstream", whatever that means in gaming terms, is still blissfully unaware of independently made games? I suppose I'm looking at the 2015 successes of Rocket League and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture (both of which are in VICE's top 20 games of the year) and naively concluding that their sales must mean that more people than ever are switched onto indie productions. Is it the greater access to indies through today's consoles that is having the greatest impact on their commercial visibility?
JT: I think, though many internet commenters will tell me I'm wrong, that the single biggest reason for uptake in indie games of late is their visibility on the consoles, primarily the PS4.
They're regularly given away with PlayStation Plus and often launched with exclusivity there. 2015 is the year Mike Bithell's Volume graced the subscriber cover of Official PlayStation Magazine, and we've seen so many strong titles: OlliOlli 2 was given away free on launch day to all PS Plus subscribers. You didn't get that sort of push before now.
We're also seeing massively increased visibility from the Steam marketplace, and the additional support of cool little indie services like Itch.io.
I think people are starting to wise up that indie games aren't necessarily just curios anymore, and as a result the market for them is growing stronger, which a few companies are getting on board with. Devolver in particular has published a string of independent hits; Focus Interactive have done a good job of bringing a variety of strong indie strategy titles to a bigger market; and developers like Klei are knocking it out of the park, most recently with my 2015 GOTY, Invisible, Inc.
MD: So we've just run a piece on Invisible, Inc. – what is it about that game, that you feel only an indie studio can get its head around? Is it the fact that you can lose, and that's okay? Indeed, it's part of the process. Whereas so few big games tell you: no, seriously, you're not doing it wrong, this is how it's supposed to play. I guess the (Dark) Souls series establishes that early doors, but it has a whopping barrier of entry, difficulty wise, that you're not going to get in something turn-based. Well, not in the same way.
Is it in the indie sphere – and boy do I ever feel like a douche for writing "indie sphere", but it's done now – that difficulty has become a real selling point for games, perhaps since Super Meat Boy? Super Hexagon is a game that's entirely based around crushing your spirit until you nail a stage. I've played Eitr, coming out in 2016, and that is built to punish idiot mistakes. But part of the fun is failing – and I can't see, like, the next Far Cry having that built in. You lose, you put the pad down, see ya. It's like Just Cause 3 could have had some of that, "Oh, I'm a fool, let me try that again" factor, because there are bits of it that do require several attempts, where the actual play might only last 20 seconds. But then it hits you with massively long loading screens and uh, forget about it.
I'm not entirely sure where I'm going here, so to drag it back: toughness, is that something that only really "sells" in indie games, and has it been a substantial factor in some of the best titles on the market these past few years?
JT: I don't think it's toughness, and I don't think it's losing. X-COM and Jagged Alliance were showing us that stuff was okay 20 years ago.
I think the biggest thing here is that indie studios can take risks. Some of the better triple-A games have been bold reinventions, and indie games are often bold reinventions. Klei's games are great because they understand genres and conventions. Invisible, Inc. is amazing because it understands the stealth genre and the turn-based strategy genre, and turns them both on their head.
Super Meat Boy was great because it understood that 2D platformers are supposed to be fuckin' nails and the movement needs to feel fantastic, and it got both of those down. Rocket League understands that sports games are kind of bullshit and injected a heavy dose of fun while keeping some tactical depth and teamwork. It's all about "getting" your material, which I think indie devs are great at.
Indie games are reinventing the wheel, so to speak, and I think that's why they do so well.
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MD: Okay, accelerating straight ahead with your "reinventing the wheel" point, right there: what indie games of this modern era do you think have brought something decidedly fresh to video gaming, that bigger studios have then taken and used themselves?
I think, in horror games, a lot of what we saw in Alien: Isolation was quite clearly "nicked" from Frictional's Amnesia, the first game at least. Can you think of other mechanics that have translated from indie productions to the triple-A market?
JT: I'll list a few in bullet points because the audience might dig them, and it'll emphasise that triple-A steals stuff from indies all the time.
Triple-A publishers usually can't take risks, the budgets don't allow it. But they can steal ideas from indies that have taken risks, backing up your point on Alien: Isolation half-inching some of the mechanics from Amnesia.
The Hunter from Left 4 Dead lifts his pounce and melee from the enemy in source mod The Hunted.
Sony's H1Z1 is basically DayZ with more shooting.
The portal system in Portal is from Narbacular Drop, an indie game. In fairness, Valve hired most of the people that worked on that game to work on Portal.
I think this is fine. In movies, directors rip each other off all the time, and it brings indie games, in one way, to a whole other audience. I like a lot of indie games – it's where my career started and I'd love to see more gamers getting their hands on their inventiveness.
MD: Do you think that indie games need more recognisable "names", behind the scenes? Perhaps we're getting there in studio and publisher terms – you previously mentioned Devolver as a publisher putting its money where its mouth is, and I'd say that Curve is in a similar position. But do we need more of the games equivalent of, say, Quentin Tarantino, or Thom Yorke – people who are recognised as being independent of spirit in their chosen mediums?
I mean, I know who a bunch of people like Jonathan Blow (Braid), Mike Bithell (Thomas Was Alone) and Sam Barlow (Her Story) are, but do these names mean anything to that outdated but still proverbial "man on the street"? I had a conversation with a gaming critic earlier this year about indie games, and she said the easiest way she found of explaining what that meant, to people on the periphery of the games industry, was to parallel it with movies and music. Do we need a couple of proper breakout talents whose games do numbers on a par with, not a FIFA or something, but certainly an Assassin's Creed?
JT: I think we've already got that. The fact you can pull out a Fez or a Super Meat Boy explains it all. I disagree with the theory of video game auteurs, but I think for an indie it's essential to have something to get buy into.
This can be a publisher (Devolver, Focus, Curve) giving you marketing money, or a recognisable talent (Bithell, Blow), but also a proven studio (Roll7, Klei, Vlambeer).
I think the biggest problem for indies looking to make it big in 2016 is finding the answer to one simple question: "Why does your game matter?"
MD: Okay: what indie games of the last, let's say seven or eight years, have mattered? Just hammer me out a list off the top of your head. I guess it'll be some we've already talked about.
And for newcomers to development, is it super intimidating to see these successes and know you can't simply ape a proven gameplay system in order to do likewise?
JT: I'm going to miss a bunch here, because I think most indie games are valuable, but: Amnesia; Mark of the Ninja; Stealth Inc; Super Meat Boy; Invisible, Inc.; Fez; Braid; Hotline Miami; Nidhogg; OlliOlli.
Those 10 were the ones I came up with in 15 seconds – I could do this all day. I don't make games, but I don't think anything should be dissuaded because everyone starts somewhere.
I think indie, and gaming in general, is at its best when things are being torn apart and redone, better and shinier. But do I think this means indies should be scared of starting out or reiterating a good mechanic? Not at all. I think the more people we have making games, the more new ideas we'll see – I want to see every risk taken, even the ones that don't come off.
The problem with this, of course, is that indies need to feed themselves just the same as everyone else, so I'm talking from a position of privilege. But I've always got a soft spot for a game that's taken a gamble.
MD: I think I feel the same, though it's no comfort to a developer that does something genuinely different to have critical respect but no sales. I guess Sunset stands as a 2015 example of that, even if it wasn't the most thrilling game "experience".
Would you say Gone Home took a risk, or two? I'm interested to see how it does on port to consoles in 2016 – and if some of that section of gamers who berate such a game without playing it might now be tempted, in the privacy of their own homes, away from message board cliques. Do you think that the level of acclaim that Gone Home achieved was warranted, and if so, does that deserve to be considered as one of the best indie games of recent years?
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JT: Honestly, I think a lot of gamers who have slaged off Gone Home or Everybody's Gone to the Rapture would actually enjoy them.
The level design is absolutely sublime. The idea I've been floating for a little while is that the hyper-detailed tiny maps of Rainbow Six Siege are largely inspired by the level of detail shown in these "walking simulators".
Gone Home is a masterpiece in environmental storytelling, and I think lots of people would get a kick out of it. And that's what we all want, right? Better stories, better mechanics and more opportunities.
With all of that in mind, I'd be inclined to say Gone Home probably was one of the most important games of the last few years, indie or otherwise.
MD: Okay, Gone Home's a big one. I've already gone and said Limbo's the one that really clawed its way into me. So let's go for crunch time: is it even possible to declare one indie game, in this post-XBLA era, "the best", as we could a game from a specific genre, or on a single platform?
The answer is no, obviously. Not definitively, anyway. But everyone will have their favourite. There's a lot of love for World of Goo. Likewise Spelunky. Hotline Miami. Cave Story. To the Moon. FTL. Braid. We could both be here all day. However, I'm going to go ahead and pick one indie game out as the most important made. In terms of what it's done for widening gaming's demographic. Its educational applications. Its incredible depth and scale. The creativity it promotes in players of all ages. I expect you've guessed. Weird that neither of us has mentioned it sooner.
Would you agree that Minecraft probably is the indie game of our times?
JT: I think it's definitely the biggest money-spinner. Minecraft single-handedly invented both its genre – building shit – and its payment model – early access, something I loathe.
For its sins with early access, Minecraft's also revolutionised education, gaming... it's the real deal. It's made everyone involved more money than really should have been expected. YouTubers, writers, Microsoft, Mojang, they've all benefitted financially. And all this from a game that took Notch's earlier ideas with Wurm Online and super-sized them.
MD: Are we saying that's "the one", then? Or can we argue a case for anything else? Because we do have to pick one, or we get subjected to nothing but Call of Duty campaigns from now until next September.
JT: I don't think anything else has had the same impact as Minecraft.
The problem with round ups like this is they're reductive, right? Gone Home tells a better story, Invisible, Inc. has better mechanics, Fez is prettier...
But in terms of influence? Nothing comes close. I can't think of a video game since Minecraft's release that's had the same staying power. It's going to be here for a while.
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