Disco Game Awards
ZA/UM winning for Fresh Indie Game at the Game Awards / Source: Youtube
Games

What Does It Really Mean to Be an Indie Game?

With 'Handmade Pixels' one of gaming's most popular academics tries to figure out the logic behind a messy, contested label.
January 15, 2020, 2:24pm

Journalists and game critics have never had a good, clear definition of what makes an "indie game" ever since the emergence and solidification of the term in the early 2000s. It hasn't stopped them from searching for one, nor has it stopped the term itself from becoming a label that is as popular as it is imprecise. From developer interviews to documentaries to economic and intimately personal analysis, many different methods have been used to try to determine what we mean when we say that something is an indie game as opposed to a blockbuster or AAA one. Now there’s an academic book that’s come along to set the record straight once and for all, Jesper Juul’s Handmade Pixels, which aims to give us some tools for thinking about independent games and their “quest for authenticity.”

It’s not uncommon for Juul, an Associate Professor at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, to approach big questions. His previous books address similar ones: Half-Real is about explaining what a game is; The Casual Revolution is on what makes casual games interesting for players (and why that matters); The Art of Failure is about why failing and starting over in games keeps us coming back for more. As a writer, Juul focuses on the things we take for granted in games culture, and drills down to tell us how and why those ideas have formed the bedrock of our assumptions about the world. In Handmade Pixels, he’s working through if and when it matters that we label something indie.

What he gets around to is demonstrating that the concept of “indie” is pretty hollow. Anyone who lived through the airwave dominance of indie rock could tell you that, but what’s fascinating about Juul’s argument is that he breaks "indie" down into its discrete categories. He’s not just telling us that all of this is hollow and that we should trash it. Instead, he’s explaining how the label of indie comes to dominate its own section of the gaming world and how the co-option or absorption of indie games happens in the games marketplace around distribution.

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'Kentucky Route Zero' screenshot courtesy of Cardboard Computer

As Juul explains, in the modern game economy co-option of independent games happens via distribution within platforms owned by Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and Valve in a network of “absolute monopolies for a given hardware, or as a practical monopoly (Google Play), or just as the most convenient option (Steam).” Indie games fit into this economic system as much as any blockbuster game, but we don’t call Kentucky Route Zero a AAA game and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order doesn’t get talked about as a scrappy indie, despite both being sold the same way on similar platforms. So what’s the difference? What is indie?

When we call something an indie game, we are calling on a whole host of assumptions, ideas, and pieces of received knowledge that constructs our concepts of independent. Some of these are global, some of these are local, and for the most part we just nod our heads along and go about our day playing Braid or Papers, Please or Dys4ia or Shank. Wait, you might say. These games are wildly different in tone and genre and form and, well, that last one was published by Electronic Arts! How could all of these fit under one umbrella? This is what Juul is trying to figure out.

To accomplish this, Juul works at deconstructing what it is we mean when we say indie. He comes to several general rules, but I think it’s worth honing in on three categories of independence that he outlines: games can be financially independent, aesthetically independent, and culturally independent.

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Still from 'Indie Game: The Movie' courtesy of Blinkworks Media

Financial independence largely means self-funding, which gives the developer the capability to make games more personal in the absence of a publisher holding monthly sprint goals over their head. Aesthetic independence simply means visual or audio styles that set them apart from mainstream. Cultural independence means that they have values and ideas that are also different from the mainstream and are therefore more fulfilling to make and, implicitly, make the world a better place.

These are ideological categories. They are ways that we think about game culturally, and they might not have much to do with the actual, practical ways that games work. What Juul is trying to do is take the claims that are swirling around in culture and trying to walk them back to figure out not just what indie is but what that word does when we summon it up. Better yet, he’s trying to explain what the indie label does for a game.

Let’s take the recent darling Disco Elysium. First, developer Robert Kurvitz is on record as saying that the game emerged from conditions of “total squalor and poverty” and the failure of Kurvitz’s novel to sell a substantial number of copies. For Juul, this kind of narrative of financial independence is about positioning a developer as putting their heart and soul into a game while being beholden to no one. Second, Disco Elysium hangs much of its uniqueness on its art style of blurred painting and oily backgrounds, which artist Aleksander Rostov explains in the context of rejecting the realism of contemporary games and injecting a sense of surrealism into the landscape. This aesthetic independence makes it clear that this game doesn’t look like its forebears. Its genre or its trappings might be familiar, but the sights and sounds you get are going to be unlike anything else.

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'Disco Elysium' screenshot courtesy of ZA/UM

Finally, there’s perhaps no better expression of what Juul means by cultural independence than the speech by development studio ZA/UM at the 2019 Game Awards where they shouted out Marx and Engels in their speech accepting the Fresh Indie Game Award. If one meaning of indie is demonstrating that the game does not share the values of the general culture, then going into the heart of capitalism and winning an award just to call out the name of economic thinkers who were fundamentally against this system is perhaps the strongest way of making that argument.

What makes Disco Elysium such a useful example here, though, is that its very ability to be positioned as an indie game, and to win an indie game award from one of the arbiters of what is mainstream in the industry, shows how much the very idea of indie is wholly constructed. The conditions of making Disco Elysium were obviously hard. It is a game with a fascinating and fresh style. It is a game that was obviously influenced by some ideas that are pretty far away from the mainstream. But it also fits into very easy categorization as an isometric role-playing building on its forebears with narrative and visual flourishes and referencing political ideologies with clear real-world analogues. In the same way that Super Meat Boy packed its quick-death gameplay into the familiar container of the platformer, Disco Elysium revels in both remaining understandable to a broad range of players and pushing the edge of what they’re used to.

It’s critical to note that Juul is never saying that indie is a bad word. Neither am I. What he opens us up to via his book, though, is the idea that indie is just another way that the market of games operates. The flux of capitalism creates openings for profit, and despite Disco Elysium’s press kit never mentioning “indie” or “independent” anywhere, they won the award for it predicated on the Game Awards’ category that combines an idea of being fresh with a vague notion of studio independence. The strangeness inherent in “independent” can be felt even in those awards, with fellow nominee Outer Wilds being published by Annapurna Interactive, a current powerhouse the publishing of smaller games. Whether you want it or not, the brand of indie comes down on you. The market creates a narrative. Awards are given. Ideas get solidified.

Juul calls attention to the fact that our very notion of indie is at play with a thousand other factors, and the end output is that our concept of indie is as much a product of the industry looking to categorize things as it is something that developers or players are claiming as a description. The digital object that is the game isn’t indie. The story of the game and the way we understand it is “indie.” It’s a context. It’s a narrative.

The label of indie is a way of drawing a box around something and making it perceivable by the mainstream, and a game’s capability to do so partially determines its success in the games market. Juul illustrates this most clearly in his book when he’s talking about the progression of independent game awards shows. From the Independent Games Festival to its Nuovo Award to IndieCade and then A MAZE, Juul argues that these shows are created as a way of responding to what came before. A festival is made, establishes itself and its brand, and some people feel it isn’t independent or experimental enough. Those people found their own festival. The process goes on and on, and the movement of labels follow it, the concept of indie trotting along behind them to categorize what was made.

This idea that indie is a concept that produces some kind of implicit understanding in the game community is extremely productive for me, and helps give me language for talking about things that have always felt strange to me in games culture. Why is Dong Nguyen, the developer of overnight success Flappy Bird, not considered an auteur to the same degree as Jonathan Blow? Why was it treated like a novelty instead of apex game design? Juul allows us to understand that it’s because the concept of indie couldn’t quite grasp onto what Nguyen was doing. It couldn’t claim him as an aesthetic hero, someone doing it for the love of the game, and so that wildly innovative game was crushed under the heel of history. Players, critics, and press didn’t give Nguyen the benefit of bokeh and light chiptunes. The context was different, and context is everything when we’re talking about indie (to be fair, some people saw the light and the interviews later were interesting.)

For me, what emerges from Juul’s book is a toolkit for understanding how indie games exist at this weird intersection of a bunch of different implied qualities. They’re a judgment call, an implicit morality play, and a place for the games market to constantly find innovation to grab onto and sell. Crucially, they are all of these, and none of those qualities are at the expense of the others. All of them fold together to create this thing we call indie, a place of self expression and triumph and tragedy that also functions as a feeding ground.

Juul paints a picture of the world of games not as a place where definitions or ideas fight one another but instead as a big, clumsy zone with fundamental assumptions are often taken for granted and games that get put into categories that allow us to make sense of the world. And it’s this sense-making, this formulation of categories like indie, that Juul asks us to do some introspection about. Handmade Pixels takes a scalpel to the words that we use to navigate our day to day life as game players, and it demands that we start really thinking about how hollow “indie” is and what we might do as a games culture to transcend it and find something new. But would finding something new simply feed more games into a system fundamentally predicated on categorizing, awarding, and selling them in a way that cares little for their specificity and everything about the stories behind them? This is the fundamental question that Handmade Pixels asks us to answer.

For disclosure’s sake: I am thanked in the acknowledgements of this book, and I’m not sure why. I once scanned an article from Electronic Gaming Monthly for Jesper Juul. These things might be related.