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Indie gaming: A culture of creation and appreciation

| Friday, February 8, 2019

Diane Park | The Observer

For those who subsist upon the urge to leave a mark on this planet, the technological developments of the 21st century provide a shred of solace. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection has the opportunity to share his or her human experience with a global community, and the recent rise of indie gaming epitomizes the positive implications of worldwide digital interaction.

“Indie” games, or video games created by independent developers, occupy a relatively new niche within the gaming industry. Excluding small-scale passion projects, developing a video game previously required a plethora of resources only available to corporate monoliths like Nintendo and Sony. Employees, typically grouped in teams at a separate development studio, specialized in areas such as graphics design, musical composition and programming. Production costs — including marketing and manufacturing expenses — often stretched into the millions.

Moore’s Law, the prediction that the processing power of computers is constantly increasing as costs drop, has liberated aspiring game creators from the chains of technological constraint. Development no longer necessitates elevator pitches, impersonal cooperation and financial backing from faceless shareholders poised to condemn a project to the gallows. Hence, the indie developer is born.

Many games that achieve the nirvana of mainstream recognition still emerge from the dollar signs in the eyes of business moguls, as evidenced by the current prevalence of microtransactions and downloadable content within supposedly complete games. A handful of indie titles such as “Minecraft” have managed their own cultural takeovers, but the majority thrive within an expanding community of spirited developers and supportive fans that rally around appreciation for artistic enterprise.

Indie games are creeping toward the forefront of the gaming world. “Undertale,” a role-playing game about a child who falls into an underground realm of monsters, became an overnight cult sensation and snagged the prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts Games Award for “Best Story” in 2016. Developer and composer Toby Fox’s quirky sense of humor permeates every nook and cranny of the unrefined adventure and cleverly complements a deceivingly complex plot. By successfully financing the venture on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, an ordinary 20-something could transform the sketches from his old college notebooks into a poignant appeal for pacifism and compassion that influences players around the globe.

Other indie games illustrate the variety within the genre, although the zeal and ingenuity of their creators remain constant. “Stardew Valley,” a farming simulator bursting with charm and attention to detail, sold more than 1 million copies within two months of its release and earned a spot as one of the top-paid releases of the year. Eric Barone, who spent years toiling over the game for 10 hours a day and seven days a week, lived with his girlfriend and worked part-time at a movie theatre to stay afloat. Like Toby Fox, Barone composed the soundtrack himself to ensure that the game’s emotional tone matched his vision of an immersive and gratifying experience. The 2D platformer “Celeste,” created by Matt Thorson with the help of a few friends, landed the “Games for Impact” award in 2018 for inventively representing one’s struggle with mental health as climbing a mountain.

Indie developers often derive inspiration from a lifetime of gaming. Thus, they belong to their own target audience. The line between creator and consumer melts away, resulting in an engaging culture that anyone can enjoy or contribute to freely. Developers feel like old friends with whom gamers can bestow adulation or honest criticism appropriately, and the utility of cheap programs like GameMaker Studio 2 can mold a gamer into a developer with the assistance of YouTube tutorials and dedicated learning. Not only do fans appreciate the grit required for game creation, but they determine the worth of unrealized concepts through platforms like Kickstarter. Digital distribution stores such as Steam and the Nintendo eShop eliminate the need for costly manufacturing, and the enthusiasm of players alone can substitute marketing.

The accessibility of indie development reflects an exercise of Internet-era free will. Power lies with the anonymous user. For every innovative game designer there exists a lazy or deceptive swindler. In this way, leaps of faith presuppose any amusement to be yielded from indie gaming. However, a cynical perspective of humanity’s digital presence trivializes the possible payoff of such gambling ─ an artistic manifestation of someone’s passion and perseverance. As indie gaming continues to steal the spotlight at events such as the BAFTA Games Awards, it proves the potential of all people to bring their talent to fruition through a leap of faith and the trust of others.

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