The Romance of Indie Games

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A screenshot from Bontãgo, a finalist in the Independent Games Festival.
I came across Ernest Adams as the writer of a column for the excellent gamasutra.com, a website dedicated to “the art and science of making games.” Adams’ column, The Designer’s Notebook, discusses some of the arcane and complex issues facing game designers in language understandable to people outside the inner circle, managing to be rigorous and accessible at the same time. His critical eye on the industry he’s spent 14 years in allows him to raise questions like “How can we introduce sexuality into computer games?” and “Why are most black videogame characters rappers or athletes?”

I met up with him for lunch at Saving Grace and he answered a few of my questions about Dogma 2001, a tongue-in-cheek call to the videogame avant-garde that was a reference to Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s movie manifesto, Dogme 95. Dogma 2001 requires the designer to submit to rules such as “There shall be no knights, elves, dwarves or dragons” and furthermore bans cut-scenes and first-person shooters.

That basically disqualifies most of the games on the market.

What intrigued me about Dogme 95 was the challenge posed by the limitations, and the underlying philosophy that they were trying to discourage an overemphasis on fancy production values at the expense of drama. And there’s a lot of parallels with us in the game industry. You get the emphasis on fancy production values occasionally at the expense of gameplay. The problem that I saw was that every time there was a new generation of consoles, everybody scrambled like mad to take advantage of the hardware, so game innovation drops. I didn’t intend for Dogma 2001 to start a movement. I didn’t have the time or the energy for the necessary publicity, I just wanted to get people talking by writing something that was funny and attention-getting.

And movements aren’t started by one person.

And now, two years have gone by. It’s funny, you write these things and sometimes something really grabs people and it sticks and lasts and becomes real and important. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s introduction to Lyrical Ballads that he wrote with Wordsworth was the opening salvo in the Romantic movement. Their essay was kind of the manifesto for Romanticism and quite possibly itself could have disappeared. A big difference is that Coleridge was creating what he was talking about — I haven’t made any Dogma games myself. (God forbid you should tell people I’m comparing myself to Coleridge — I’m comparing myself in a negative fashion. He created a great movement, I didn’t!)

If people can see that manifestoes are connected to a person’s work, they gives it power and legitimacy. On the other hand, it’s only in retrospect that the intro started the Romantic movement, it probably took a while to get going too.

And in that case, there were some total geniuses who jumped on the bandwagon, Lord Byron and so on. I would like to see an indie movement form. There isn’t an indie games movement in the same way there’s an indie film movement. There’s no place for indie game developers to come together: the Independent Games Festival is just starting to get off the ground. It’s the only magnet for these things we have.

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The finalists for the Independent Games Festival were recently announced at indiegames.com, and most of them have free downloadable versions you can play on PCs. The ones that don’t are the ones that are the most ambitious and innovative, and I expect there’s a connection there — as good as they sound, I’m not going to write much about them until I can play them. ACMI {{park}} is subtitled “myth-engines for a next-generation public-space.” Façade is an interactive story: “During an evening get-together at their apartment that quickly turns ugly, you become entangled in the high-conflict dissolution of Grace and Trip’s marriage.”

On the less ambitious front, Chomp! Chomp! Safari is a puzzle game with a nicely thick-lined cartoon style and three different modes (action, puzzle, action/puzzle). For people who like lovely piano music with their word games, Beesly’s Buzzwords is worth checking out. And Dr. Blob’s Organism is a satisfying, if one-note, arcade shooter in which you have to guard the perimeter of a petri dish.

A screenshot from Bontãgo, a finalist in the Independent Games Festival.
But Bontãgo was easily my favourite of the games I played. Players go head-to-head attempting to build structures that are tall enough or extend far enough to throw a shadow over the flag first. You’re given a variety of shapes of blocks, and that’s where the similarity to Tetris ends, because this is a beautifully realized 3-D environment with dramatic backdrops played out on a shiny reflective disc. There’s a visual sophistication and alien complexity that evokes that old Star Trek episode with the multi-tiered chessboard, and a physics engine that makes you feel like you’re building things with Stonehenge-scale blocks.

And while it did make me think of the ancient Celts, I’d like to point out that there’re no knights, elves, dwarves or dragons in this game.

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4 Comments

  1. Dear All
    We here at Edge forum (http://forum.edge-online.co.uk/) are planning on making our own development games project. So far, we are presently in the early phases as we are presently recruiting (on a volunteer basis) for programmers, artists and other eminent positions that enable us to work towards a goal of making an indie game. In case you would like to know, the thread which prompted such an action is http://forum.edge-online.co.uk/viewtopic.php?t=7522 and I hope we can get as many talented developers as possible.
    Thank you for reading this. I have looked at your website before and hope that we can glean a genuine respone from people who are just as passionate about games as we are.
    THANK YOU!
    Prankster101

  2. I recently came across your website and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice web. I will keep visiting this website very often. Thank for your post.

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