“What’s in a game..”   Thoughts on indie game trends

I recently went to my second Screenshake, an indie game festival in Antwerp, Belgium, together with my fellow PhD candidate colleague Francisco. It’s a nice initiative that, among other things, tries to give the Belgian game scene a bit of  exposure and attempts to bring a diverse crowd together: a good balance in gender (both talks and audience), and the most diverse crowd on pretty much any level you can imagine. It’s.. impressive.

Francisco playing a Mexican character.. very Inception-like.

Francisco playing a Mexican character.. very Inception-like.

As a computer scientist, the event tends to get a bit too artsy for my taste. Choosing talks was difficult due to the limited information (only a short, sometimes very cryptic biography), and I couldn’t get to the Industry Talks on Saturday, which, I’m sure/I hope, were not artsy at all. So I chose the talks of  Annamaria Andrea and Pietro Righi Riva on Sunday morning, based on the fact that they’re academics as well, expecting very clear and fact-based presentations. Sadly however, they were both in a casual mode, presenting a lot of ideas and thoughts but lacking structure and a general clear message to take away (I have a feeling this blog post is heading in a similar direction). Okay, maybe that’s a bit too harsh, both were interesting talks. But it made me wonder where they want games to head. (Disclaimer: I might have completely misinterpreted these talks or their points being made, because everyone seemed to nod in agreement while we both looked confused. That’s what the comment section or @svencharleer is for).

I saw two trends, opposite extremes as you will: one towards too much freedom, and one towards too many restrictions in video game design.

Noby Noby Boy – PS3 2009

Freedom: Annamaria talked about authorship in games (I’m recently doing something in datavis around that topic. Totally unrelated! Not sure why I mentioned this. Hey it’s my blog): as a game designer, attempt to give a good amount of freedom to the player, try not to impose too much, and let them fill in the interpretations themselves. Made me think of Minecraft, or GTA when you rip out the story line. These sandbox environment promote creativity, personal input etc.  My question is, how do you categorise these games: where do you draw the line, when does it actually stop being a game. E.g. I can give a kid a stick, and they can pretend it to be anything, play for hours, but that didn’t make me a game designer. Sure, an extreme example, but a minimal guidance, a specific personal input from the designer seems necessary? How much deviation in interpretation do you want to give? How do you create those boundaries, for it not to remain a game? Nobi Nobi Boy comes to mind, by  Keita Takahashi. Sure, it looks like a game. But is it?  I’m biased of course, I like games with stories. I love Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian, Day of the Tentacle.. all linear stories that “hold my hand” so I don’t get lost. I’m not a fan of open worlds, except maybe World of Warcraft (but I’d hate it without the multiplayer aspect, which is a totally different story). Open worlds can retain my attention for about five minutes. Then I’m out.

Restriction: But that brings me to Pietro’s talk and his manifesto, and his attempt to broaden the reach of video games. A bit of a weirdly structured talk: he goes through all the steps of his manifesto but then spends half the talk about the issue of time flow. See, according to Pietro it’s important to create, say, a two hour experience. The player becomes more of a spectator, and has no real direct input on the outcome. You’d only play through it once, and using examples such as Zelda’s Majora’s Mask, he explains that it’s been done before, but not without the concept of looping, forcing the player to partake in some kind of Groundhog Day experience. He doesn’t want looping, but he doesn’t want you to miss out on anything either.

First concern? Why haven’t we seen real-time in games a lot lately? Because it doesn’t really work well. It puts a huge amount of stress on the player, and therefore it isn’t a good candidate to lure in non-gamers.  Secondly, how do you technically achieve this? One single run-through, but the player must be aware of all plot moments. I can think of two things: those 70s split screen cuts, and the FMV games Ground Zero: Texas and Night Trap (I bet the SJWs would have a field day with this one, if it were to be released today), where time moves on, and you have to constantly switch cameras to make sure you’ve seen it all (oh and shoot aliens). These mechanics might have been abandoned for reasons though.

Night Trap - Sega CD 1992

Night Trap – Sega CD 1992

A huge concern I have with this manifesto, is that it feels like Pietro is trying to copy, what is, a movie. A two hour experience you sit through. Interactivity is limited to changing focus, but if you want the player to not miss the important events, those interactions are by definition going to be meaningless. I don’t think it qualifies as a game, if you don’t actually play..  (that’s not completely true of course, and we can redefine this term as the industry continues to mature). Also, don’t try to appeal to such a large target group. If you want to reel in new crowds, design for them specifically. Do some participatory design, talk to your target audience. Whatever appeals to the masses isn’t necessarily good anyway.

Many games on demo did take queues from this manifesto: lots of games on demo were just  interactive experiences. It reminds me of the 90s, when the CD-ROM was released, creating an abundance of interactive multimedia. FMV was a big thing, but not an easy thing to interact with. The result? Lots of interactive movies. I’m sure it pulled in a lot of new types of gamers, but to those of us growing up with Mario and Sonic, it felt like a huge step backwards. I’m not saying there is no place for these experiences, but the classifier “video game” seems a bit far fetched. I won’t say “games” like Dragon’s Lair weren’t pretty though. But did anyone really enjoy playing those? Another example, I think this was L.O.C.K. by Tales of Tales, see below. Pretty? Sure…

today at #screenshake17 with @svencharleer

A post shared by Francisco Gutiérrez (@francisco.ghz) on

I appreciate Firewatch (loved) and Oxenfree (played through it yesterday) though. Those are good games. But I consider them on the border of being real games. Interactive stories, sure. Point and Click adventure? Barely..

OK, so with indie games you can experiment away. No barrier on creative freedom. That’s the beauty of it: no publisher breathing down your neck. And if it’s pieces of art you wish to make, only understandable and appreciated by a minority, sure, it’s your total right to do so. Abstract art has an audience. I’m not part of that audience, as you might have guessed. But again, do not coin the term game. Games can be art, but interactive art isn’t necessarily a game. And that brings me to a final “little” frustration that came up seeing some of the demos (totally due to the fact I’m working in Human-Computer Interaction, or maybe my impatience as I’m older now): “it’s not good practice to make something hard to use as part of your design” (messy controls aren’t art either). It took us (two average intelligent guys) a couple of minutes to understand the input methods for If Found, Please Return, which then sadly enough only seemed to act like a Prezi presentation. OK, too harsh, I’m just trying to make a point, I can’t judge a game properly from a few minutes on a demo floor. But it made us walk away,  which isn’t a good sign. Then some games will throw away a good button layout for a complete random mess no gamer would ever understand, e.g. triggers for jump and shoot in a shoot’m up platformer called Hivejump. As if Contra never happened :/ .. Recently I saw a friend try Broforce. He wasn’t new to games either. Felt like watching a toddler discover a platformer for the first time. (Phil Fish can say what he want about Japanese video games, but at least people don’t feel/look stupid when playing them) What I’m trying to get at is this: involving your audience in the design is important. Learning from successful designs is too. Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Experimenting with new things? Sure. But do some solid user evaluations. Real users. Not your techy friends.. Don’t take it from me (hey it’s just part of my research/job), take it from Silicon Valley:

Being my blog, I have the freedom to do whatever I want. So I’m not going to give you a proper conclusion (I already have enough work trying to do so for my PhD dissertation). This post was a personal interpretation of my experience, so, in line with what I’ve learned at Screenshake,  I’ll leave the interpretation of this blog post to the player.. I mean reader. Feel free to contribute (or criticise, that’s .. the academic way!).


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