Are We Too Generous to Indie Games?
(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
Extra Credits host James Portnow recently discussed his thoughts on FEZ via Twitter, claiming that, while he enjoyed the game, he wasn’t sure it deserved the level of critical acclaim it was enjoying. While I’m not one to debate a game’s review scores (I’ve lately found such discussion to be a complete waste of time that cannot be held without a severe amount of imposition and projection), he did bring up one interesting point — that the gaming community might be too generous to independent games, willing to cut them an extra favor simply due to our love for the concept.
“I feel like this is a case of indie art hype,” Portnow suggested. “I love indie games for their innovation and their DYI spirit, but we can’t just call them all great.”
It is true that, for the most part, we do call them all great. Reviewers and readers alike gleefully delight in indie games, and we can’t seem to get enough of them. Games such as Castle Crashers and Braid were among the first indie games to grab the console market’s attention, and their success was practically a done deal the moment they were announced. Since then, we’ve had a slew of intriguing independent games come out, and they’ve nearly all been praised to high heaven. Meanwhile, upcoming games like Retro City Rampage and Spy Party can’t move for excited hype, heaps of applause, and high expectations that will likely translate into a near-predictable round of high review scores and fevered purchases.
There may be a ring of truth to what Portnow claims, for I have seen a little of it myself. There’s something of a trend where, if you don’t enjoy a particular indie art-style game, you’ll be sneered at as some sort of dullard. I’ve criticized Bastion for being a simplistic action game, barely above the quality of a free-to-play browser MMO, and my intelligence has been called into question by pompous self-appointed custodians of culture. See, if you don’t like Bastion, you clearly only ever play Call of Duty and thus you’re too backward to appreciate all the intricate subtlety. Same goes for Dear Esther, any negative review for which has been written off as the writer not “getting” it and being too stupid to comprehend all of the emotion that’s contained within every perfect pixel. If you’re somebody who is afraid to be considered unintelligent — a prevalent social anxiety — then your best bet is to march in lockstep and kneel at the altar of our art game masters. Otherwise, you’ll be considered a mundane sociopath with the emotional and intellectual depth of soggy toilet paper.
Reviewers, too, can get a bit too hyped up, and I won’t exclude myself from that criticism. It’s hard not to get excited over an indie game with retro graphics, old school gameplay, or both. I fell in love with Owlboy the moment it was announced, and I can’t stop myself being excited for it. I haven’t played it yet, but I’m finding it difficult to keep my expectations low. Games like Owlboy speak to our childhood memories, the same memories that convinced us He-Man was an amazing cartoon that looked amazing, and that Megatron was really scary despite getting his arse handed to him every week. It’s why, as cynical as we are and as trite as the visual style has become, games with eight or sixteen-bit graphics still make us feel all happy inside.
It’s true that not every indie game can be great, and we all definitely need to get ourselves grounded enough to realize that, for indie games to improve, we should scrutinize the latest offerings and demand more from future ones. Right now, we can’t move for 16-bit platformers or art games that use vague metaphors to obscure how shallow they actually are. Indie games risk falling into the same uninspired rut as the major retail game market, because right now it’s pretty easy to get our attention. Just look a bit like a Sega Genesis game, and watch the hits roll in.
That said, however, I think there’s another reason why indie games are able to get such high review scores and please so many consumers. It’s not a fear of looking stupid, and it’s not nostalgic hype. It’s the same reason why almost anybody can happily play Pac-Man and Tetris today, and why Super Mario Bros. has just kept on ticking. Simplicity is hard to get wrong, and most indie titles have a very clear and single vision. Unlike “AAA” games that throw a ton of features and intricate designs at you, there’s a purity to the vast majority of indie titles that makes it very hard for them to screw up. The reason why I don’t feel bad dishing out so many high scores to games like Limbo, Lone Survivor and FEZ is that they had one goal in mind, and achieved it. There’s very little to criticize in a game that kept its vision pure, and did what it set out to do. Unless that vision was shit in the first place, which can of course happen.
Limbo intended to be a morbid puzzle-platformer with an effective monochrome art style. It didn’t require any great innovation, and it didn’t require an overwhelming ton of features. That’s not to say no thought went into it — its puzzles were very carefully planned — but the central premise was so straightforward that it had only a handful of areas it could have failed in — controls, puzzles, and atmosphere. You get to tick those three boxes, and you have yourself a near-perfect experience. Similarly, the critically acclaimed FEZ is a cute platformer with one central gimmick — the rotation of its 2D levels — and from that one pure premise, Polytron was able to extrapolate all sorts of interesting and inspiring gameplay. So long as it got its puzzles working, its success was in the bag. The more options a person has, the more opportunities they have to mess something up. Indie games have fewer chances to fail because their options are far more restricted.
For me, a game gets a nine or a ten when the only complaints I can think of are minor, preferential, gripes. With indie games, they often set out to accomplish a few things at a time, so there’s far less room for complaint. I think that’s one part of the reason why indie games are able to get so many high review scores in general. They set out to accomplish their goal and achieve it, leaving little else to criticize. Is that unfair? Is it holding certain games to different standards? Maybe. But I think it’s ultimately the right thing to do.
We should all strive to look past the smoke and mirrors of modern indie developers, to see which ones are passing off shitty games as indie darlings by pulling on our nostalgic heartstrings. We ought to tell an emotionally engaging art game from one that’s just making indirect references to the “human condition” in order to look smarter than it is. However, we should also accept that, y’know, indie games aren’t as complex as AAA games, and that’s why we have so many success stories. That might suck for the developers pouring millions of dollars and man-hours into far more explosive, ambitious, feature-rich titles, but it’s the truth. You can get a lot more praise by doing something simple and doing it well, than you can by reaching for the stars and falling short.
Not all indie games can be great. However, many of them simply are, and they are … simply.