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.

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22 Comments on Are We Too Generous to Indie Games?

Tom Auxier

On April 25, 2012 at 8:58 am

This early coronation isn’t an indie-only problem. For instance, this reads the same way:

“Meanwhile, upcoming games like Borderlands 2 and Halo 4 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.”

Video games, in general, are hype machines rather than results. Even the rare game where there is significant dissension–Limbo comes to mind strongest in the indie sphere, Bioware’s latest offerings in the AAA–are held by the wide majority to “universal acclaim” because hype confirmed them as hits before release. Healthy dissension is always welcomed (a case can be made that Bastion is a boring action game; I can disagree and cite my reasons, but it’s a fair case), but in large part the hive mind has made decisions about every game a month before release thanks to marketing.

wzl

On April 25, 2012 at 9:00 am

>>Not all indie games can be great.
Did you realize that for every famous indie game there’s a hundred non-famous, non-great games?

Don’t judge a whole scene by the creme de la creme. The vast majority of indie developers are unheard of, unseen of, lurking in their communities while minding their own business and enjoying to develop games.

The games you mentioned (or are targeting with your article) are just a tiny fraction of the indie games that are made. They got famous because they indeed _ARE_ good or great by the standards of the default indie developer. Most indie games never get finished and rarely pass the prototyping phase, so finishing a game and being successful with it is a wonderful achievement and shouldn’t be looked down upon at all.

The fact that most indie games are simple has a similarily simple answer: Indies usually have no budget so they need to focus on the core mechanics and can’t afford to waste a lot of time and resources on extravagant features and graphics.

I really don’t like your attitude towards the whole topic. You make it sound like it is easy to punch out a semi good idea, put some mediocre/oldschool graphics on it and as long as you keep a few things in mind nothing can go wrong. This is definately not the case. Please get in touch with some real indies and learn what it really is about, and how hard it is to actually get successful.

Ben

On April 25, 2012 at 9:12 am

I think this is an excellent article. However I want to point out that there are many, many indie games out there that do not get showered with praise or adoration. Who’s heard of Aztaka? Vizati? Mr. Robot? Puzzle Bots?

Some of these are great, some are mediocre. My point is that in both the AAA industry and the indie scene, games get over-hyped (like Call of Duty and FEZ) and some get ignored (like Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and Waveform).

I don’t think what I’m saying directly contradicts anything in your article; just wanted to share.

Mike

On April 25, 2012 at 9:22 am

Wzl is correct, you’ve made a pretty poor leap in logic to assume that all these indie games are overhyped and succeed on “indie cred” alone. The ones that do succeed are usually genuinely good, and for those successes there are thousands of failures that are totally unheard of.

Also Bastion is totally rad, homie.

FlashbackJon

On April 25, 2012 at 9:23 am

More generous? Yes, probably.
Too generous? No.

Scott Rubin

On April 25, 2012 at 9:44 am

I think Indie games also get off the hook for lacking polish that would otherwise be necessary.

For example, Binding of Isaac has no gamepad/joystick support. They expect you to use the awful and untrustworthy joy2key. If that game were produced by a big name publisher, that would be absolutely unacceptable. Yet, I have had people actually defend the games lack of this essential feature.

Another example is netcode. Networked multiplayer, especially the real-time variety, is absolutely the hardest thing to get right when developing a game. Many indie games that attempt to include a networked multiplayer feature get something that barely works, or doesn’t work at all. Yet, nobody complains. Magicka is the first example that comes to mind where in co-op players are constantly getting out of sync. Natural Selection 2 improves with every patch, and is still beta, but the lag levels in the latest builds are still unacceptable.This is also the problem that killed Multiwinia and perhaps scores of other indie games.

CraigB

On April 25, 2012 at 10:12 am

” 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.”

Possibly. But it’s equally possible that you honestly missed what people thought was special about it, and that it’s not indie hype or over-hype driving the positive reactions to Bastion. It might be that you’re too critical of the game, Jim, instead of them being insufficiently critical.

It can happen, you know. Even the best critics get things wrong on occasion. Movie critics routinely look back and say “whoops, I miscalled that one”, and nobody gives them hell because everybody flubs sometimes. Siskel and Ebert used to kid each other all the time about their missed calls.

it certainly happens in gaming, too. I still remember the EGM issue where they gave Suikoden 2 a set of middling (and cursory) reviews, completely missing the plot, character, and gameplay elements that people point to these days when they call it a classic. Doesn’t mean they were bad reviewers.
Movie, game, book or whatever, everybody flubs.

Doesn’t mean that they should call you some unintelligent cro-magnon for not liking it. But it doesn’t mean that they’re effete poseurs either. Sure, you have a point. But, maybe, so do they.

Jason Seip

On April 25, 2012 at 12:03 pm

To second what Wzl said: being an indie developer myself, I come across hundreds, if not thousands, of indie games over the course of the year that are either flawed, unmemorable, or just plain unfinished. Games like Limbo and Fez rise to the top because they ARE good. You’re right in saying that shouldn’t give them a free pass, however. For example, I loved the first half of Limbo but found the second half disappointingly conventional.

I definitely agree that lately we’re just seeing too many indie games that fall back on retro pixel graphics and chiptunes to strike a nostalgic chord. And I’ll admit to having a soft spot for that. I think the main reason for that is inexperience, and using that style as a safety net (nevertheless, those who are good at it still stand out).

Another trend that’s starting to bother me is indie’s using emo music and onscreen text (whether in trailers or the game itself) to let everyone know how deep their game is. Yet in most instances the gameplay itself is no more refined than your typical platformer. Another short-cut to credibility.

I do have to push back on your declaration that indie games have it easy because they are “simple.” Trust me, a LOT can go wrong (and often does) even when developing what seems like a straightforward game. But I suppose making it look easy is part of the challenge.

MV

On April 25, 2012 at 12:55 pm

Not sure about that.

While brought point isn’t simply “stupid”, you need to compare indie games and judge them on their own league. And there, there you can be generous.

Daniel

On April 25, 2012 at 1:21 pm

“Controls, puzzles, and atmosphere. You get to tick those three boxes, and you have yourself a near-perfect experience.”

While I agree that many Indie titles receive more credit than they are due, I had to comment in defense of Limbo, one of my all time favorite games. Atmosphere is not a box that you tick. Limbo’s atmosphere was sublime and wholly unique, a 10/10 in that department. Many developers could attempt an atmosphere as immersive as Limbo’s and fail. If there were a list of boxes to tick and each was either success or fail, developers would prioritize immersion highly and succeed every time. This is not the case.

matthew

On April 25, 2012 at 1:39 pm

“With indie games, they often set out to accomplish a few things at a time, so there’s far less room for complaint…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.”

I think you’re close to the point here. I think modern video games have become, as force of habit, over-complicated and bloated. The mechanics tend towards indigestible BECAUSE they’re trying to accomplish so much–trying to be the full-featured blockbusters with high production values that the gaming community has come to expect (accept?) as standard. As such, these games are often rated highly, almost by default–not as games, but as products that obviously required lots of time, effort, and strategic marketings. And I think that would be fine, if the gaming media acknowledged it as such–instead, I’m afraid most push this misguided paradigm without second thought.

Indie games are definitely something of an anomaly. Sure, they’re “artsy,” sometimes almost pretentious–but what do you expect when you have a few people crafting something they’re passionate about, rather than a team working on a product where it’s many parts have been compartmentalized? The traditional bells and whistles (the DLC, the marketing campaigns, the hollywood-level production design etc.) aren’t afforded by these game’s comparatively low-budgets

I don’t think it’s a matter of developers playing marionette with our “nostalgic heartstrings.” I think it’s a matter of tried and true game design vs. convoluted attempts towards some established, self-perpetuating decadence. Gamers want simpler games.

Game journalists go into the industry because they love video games. Game journalists give indie games high ratings because they are, at the end of the day, the purest form of video game. It’s not a matter of “nostalgia”–it’s a matter of stripping away the gimmicks and providing an experience that’s inherently fun. I don’t think you need rose-tinted glasses for that.

“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.”

Do you have any examples of the latter? Games that might be pretentious and vacuous but nonetheless received critical acclaim across the board? I can’t think of any. I’m not sure they exist.

matthew again!

On April 25, 2012 at 1:57 pm

”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.”

Talk about setting up straw men. What are we talking about here? The industry in general or your anecdotal experience reviewing games and receiving backlash? You’re free to like or dislike a game however you please, but I don’t think that’s the point–and it’s unfair to call advocate for meaning in games “pompous self-appointed custodians of culture”. Game critics working for medium-big websites are custodians of culture in their own right–and part of the curating process is weighing cost/benefit and acknowledging both the medium and the message of a given product, as well as the process that drives its creation and distribution. While it would be wonderful if all games were reviewed on the same scale–as the games they are, with nothing else in mind–I really don’t think that ever happens. The more critics that acknowledge this and learn how to review games with the craft as a whole in mind, the better (not saying that you don’t).

All that said, I enjoyed the article. This is definitely a conversation worth having–I just think it suggests a bigger problem.

SinclairVox

On April 25, 2012 at 2:50 pm

I think your argument about simplicity is pretty near the mark, but I’m not quite sure that a game can just “tick off a few boxes” and be wholly successful, even if it is simple. I love Braid, for example, but I wasn’t particularly enamored of its storytelling… I appreciate it purely as a puzzle-platformer. I fell in love with the music, the narration, and the world of Bastion, even if its gameplay was relatively basic.

For the longest time, when anybody asked me why I thought Chrono Trigger was one of the best games ever made, I would reply “because there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s flawless.” By today’s standards, Chrono Trigger is very simple… but I’d say the same thing about it even now.

BNeutral

On April 25, 2012 at 3:57 pm

> “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.

WHAT? There are a million indie games that nobody even hears about, the ones that get popular do so because they are great and win awards. Of course all the “popular” ones are somewhat good the. Otherwise nobody would know they exist in the first place since indies have barely any marketing power.

stealth

On April 25, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Alot of this is generalizing, sensationalizing, doom and gloom

Bo

On April 26, 2012 at 11:11 am

I appreciate your willingness to consider the idea that we give Indie games too much credit. And you accurately describe the problem in a few of your paragraphs.

I disagree with one thing you say though, or at least I think it needs an addendum. Yes, some indie games are successful because of their purity of vision. But just because a game succeeds at what it set out to do, doesn’t mean its great. I know you understand that, because you point out that a game with a crappy vision, if it succeeds at its vision, is still crap.

What I want to add to what you said is a few more tiers of quality. In your article, you make it sound like an indie game either had a crap vision, or a great vision. But there are also games that have Just Okay visions, or maybe even Good visions, that are only that. To be great, an indie game needs to have a great ing vision. Not just a not-crap vision. Otherwise its only an okay game, or a good one. I havent played Fez, but in Limbo’s case: I would not call that a great game. A great game, to me, is one where I have so much fun I’m laughing and yelling. Games like Halo, and Super Smash Bros do that for me. Limbo was…. a good platformer. But that’s it.

Basically, just wanted to add that indie games aren’t either crap or great, they can be good, or just okay too. Just because Fez did what it sought out to do, and isn’t crap, doesn’t mean its great. Maybe its just good.

Diane

On April 27, 2012 at 9:41 am

“Not all indie games can be great.”

Replace long, rambling article with above sentence. Everyone wins.

Christopher Harwood

On April 28, 2012 at 8:38 pm

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article reflect its own criticisms so clearly while failing to make them stick to their intended targets. Jim makes a a simple, truly insightful observation about how many successful independent games are able to capture our attention with fewer resources than triple-A titles. The suggestion that simplicity is a strength in independent game design is a suggestion worth exploring. That kind of thoughtful exploration of a simple idea is non-trivial, but Jim does not even try. Instead, he sets his sights higher and tries to make a more complex argument that warrants a sexier, triple-A headline headline, and then rolls a 1 on it. Ouch.*

Not all editorial articles can be great. However, many of them simply are, and they are. . . simply.

——-
* It would be a bit of a jerk move to claim that the article’s argument is broken without at least pointing to the parts that need work, so I’ll try to do that without belaboring any of them:

1. There are two very clear selective reporting problems in this article:

First, Jim’s “data set” only includes successful indie games and newsworthy triple-A titles. Commenter wzl already touched on this.

Put flatly, the main reason that you only hear about “great” indie games is that only the great indie indie games have the leverage needed to get reviewed at all. Bad, mediocre, good, and very good indie games don’t get any press, so the we should expect the average review score for indie games to be much higher than the overall average.

Second, any argument that we are too generous to indie games requires at least a couple clear examples of indie games that enjoy acclaim and success without deserving either. That is an unbelievably high bar to pass, and it isn’t good enough for Jim to let us know he thinks Bastion is overrated: In order for the Bastion example to support his argument, Jim has to convince us that Bastion is overrated. (Same issue with the example of James Portnow and Fez.) Jim cherry-picks two individual opinions and assumes he can make these carry the argumentative weight of real, shared premises. They don’t.

(Full disclosure: I didn’t care for Bastion’s controls and didn’t finish the demo, so it isn’t like I’m entirely unsympathetic to this example. I just don’t believe that Jim and my dislike for the game warrants the claim that it didn’t deserve every bit of the attention that it received.)

2. Jim tries to pad his argument out by implying that many independent developers cynically rely on emotional manipulation to capture unwarranted praise. Not only is this kind of vilifying tactic manipulative in itself, it isn’t relevant to his argument.

Worse yet, this uncharitable claim is almost certainly false. If a developer claims that his or her game reflects something about the “human condition” it is far more likely that he or she genuinely believes this claim — even if the developer’s ideas are tripe. Plus, what manipulative cynic is dumb enough to invest the incredible resources and effort required to make a passable game if financial failure is almost assured?

3. As the article itself demonstrates in many ways, it is actually very difficult to find, explore, and express a simple and original idea. Sure, the expression of a simple gaming mechanic looks so obvious once a game has expressed it well, but there is a massive gulf between figuring that expression out for the first time and replicating that expression once you’ve seen it done. It is also very difficult to, as the expression goes, “kill your babies” by ruthlessly cutting out good (and bad) ideas that do not contribute to the core experience you are trying to develop. (Cf. discussions of overproduction in music, tight prose vs. self-indulgent editorializing, etc.)

There is no problem with how we review independent games, and no reason to be harder on independent developers. If we need to be harder on games that are easier to make, then indie games deserve the kid gloves. By comparison, it is much, much easier to crank out another high-polish FPS. Just more expensive.

Cool

On July 6, 2012 at 5:53 pm

But really, there are over a million crap games for each ‘indie darling’, just check out XBLIG sometime.

Epona Schweer

On July 6, 2012 at 6:16 pm

“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.”

Really? That’s the argument?

I’ve had the opportunity to be a producer on both AAA titles and indie titles over the last three years. After which I can easily say that I will take an indie project over a AAA ‘entertainment’ project every time.

Why? Because MOST indie teams are switched on enough to know that they needs to be agile, thrifty and highly respectful of the player – if only out of necessity, because if they don’t they’re dead.

(obviously we should ALWAYS be agile, thrifty and highly respectful of the player – but sometimes it takes the threat of losing a mortgage to switch that on)

Indie doesn’t have the advertising dollars to swindle the player community into paying for a regurgitated entertainment product dressed up as something “innovative” and new. The best thing they can do to increase their chances of success is focus on making a damn good game first.

Also – there’s a difference between complexity and waste. I see more wasted man hours, polygons and processing power in AAA than I do indie. The graphics card arms race is driven by fear of other studios NOT player need.

With the success of titles like Limbo, Journey and Super Meat Boy, indie is demonstrating to the industry at large that players don’t need ultra realistic photoreal graphics and 30% more explosions to get invested in a game. That’s a myth we’ve sold ourselves on.

Finally, who cares? Good games are good games. At the end of the day we’re all game developers. We may PREFER to call ourselves indie or AAA because that’s how we want to identify ourselves – but we’re still game developers. And the good ones will always be focused on creating awesome games, regardless of which side of the fence they stand on.

Talvy

On August 9, 2013 at 2:19 pm

Yeah, I hate it how half of the games on steam are these boring 8-bit 2D sky-view indie strategies.