There has been a watershed moment for public opinion towards Indie games: the release of Journey. On paper, a game which grants the player no capacity to attack, a limited capacity to jump and fly, and the ability to make a ‘cute’ but largely unhelpful chiming noise hardly sounds like a game at all. Yet as you play, familiar gaming tropes start to manifest themselves: altars become akin to checkpoints and, most strikingly, the distant mountain peak is essentially one great big objective marker. It is this duality – between the most comfortingly familiar, simplistic game format, and something so dynamically and artistically striking that it hardly feels like it ought to be called a game at all – that makes Journey so uniquely powerful, and illustrates what Indie games can do best.
Mainstream, or AAA, games carry with them the weight of a billion dollar budget and a 1000 people strong production team, but are as constrained as they are aided by this corporate might. There is very little room in this environment for the individual voice, especially if that voice proposes something which doesn’t sound immediately commercially successful. It is perhaps for this reason that new ideas from AAA developers have become pretty uncommon: the established formulas of the Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty franchises still make money, so why fix something that ain’t broken?
The few new IPs that do come out stick anxiously close to the formulas of their predecessors: Watch Dogs used the same parkour and map trope that had become so familiar to players of Assassin’s Creed, whilst dumping the player in a world described as “a poor man’s San Andreas”; equally, Bloodborne adapts the artistic style and brutal gameplay that has become so familiar to players of Dark Souls and Demon Souls, even bringing back the same walls of fog.
In an industry where AAA budgets have grown so large that failure simply isn’t an option and “play it safe” seems like the collective motto of all the big game companies, Indie games are finding an increasingly sizeable niche, illustrated by their growing presence on consoles. Indie games have traditionally enjoyed a greater exposure on PCs thanks to systems such as Steam’s Greenlight, yet Sony in particular have gone to a huge effort to make their console seem Indie-friendly, even offering to fund any Indie developer who wanted to have a booth at the Tokyo Game Show.
From a cynical perspective, that consoles are going to such lengths to appeal to Indie developers is an acknowledgement of just how much money there is in the Indie game industry. Yet when I look ahead to the Indie games being released this year – No Man’s Sky, WiLD, The Witness – they all seem to possess a certain, good ol’ fashioned gaming magic that I just don’t see when I look at the majority of the AAA line up. As long as AAA games remain so prosaic and Indie games continue to be so darn innovative, they will continue to gain space and influence in the industry which, for me, can only be a good thing.