Are Indie Games The New Vehicle For Narrative?
I’ve always been a sucker for games with an excellent narrative. I’ve written quite a number of times about the value of narrative within games and how it propels the medium to a new level of art. But I’ve noticed that the mainstream AAA market has begun focusing less and less on narrative quality and more on gameplay mechanics. So where is the narrative greatness that I love come from in recent times? Indie games. Almost exclusively indie games as well. I’ve played most of the new AAA offerings and all have left me wanting in the narrative department. While they were very fun to play, they still lacked good storytelling and interesting characters. And then indie games have excelled in that department.
I think it all boils down to creative freedom. AAA developers are limited in what they can achieve in their games with regards to narrative because of how the business works. They need to focus more on how pretty the game looks and how good it handles and less and less resources are placed into the whole story aspect. Indie developers don’t have that problem. They can essentially do whatever the hell the want to do and that amount of freedom allows them to create some genuinely captivating experiences.
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Look at a game like Gone Home. Pitch that idea to an EA marketing board and they will laugh you out of the room so that they can get back to sacrificing firstborns. A purely narrative driven game with little to no gameplay and some controversial ideas is exactly what the AAA market tries its hardest to avoid because it isn’t at all marketable. Indie games have that freedom of expression that is being slowly taken away from mainstream gaming in favour of dudebro gunplay and big robots.
Thanks to services like Steam, these games can find their way into our gaming lives. A game like Papers, Please will never be able to get a boxed release purely because of how abstract it is. Try writing a box blurb for a game like that. “Be a border control officer at a fictional communist country and check papers of foreigners trying to get in! Experience emotional turmoil and action packed cross referencing in this stellar bureaucracy-em-up!” It just won’t work.
Indie games are fast becoming the only way narrative driven games can still get out there because you have passionate people trying to tell their story in a creative way. AAA games are all about the sales and the action. They don’t particularly care if the story is bland, as long as the guns fire correctly. We still get narrative games from the mainstream, but they are becoming scarce. I can’t truly remember the last time I played an excellent AAA game with an excellent story to boot. But I can say I’ve played The Stanley Parable, Gone Home and Thomas Was Alone that each had amazing stories and ideas.
Maybe this is for the better. We can get solid gameplay experiences from the AAA, but when we want a good story we can look at the indie scene. They can easily exist in unison. I hope to see a lot more stellar story experiences emerging from the indie community because the offerings I’ve seen recently are all amazing.