Abyssal Pixels: Indie Games Are Starting To Get Boring
Continuing with our tradition of setting the internet on fire with our column titles, I present to you that bombshell on the top of the screen. It’s not really intended to piss everyone off, but I’m sure I will manage it. So yeah, as the title suggests, indie games are becoming a bit boring to me recently. I love indie games. Some of my fondest memories from gaming come from indie games such as Gone Home, Hotline Miami, The Stanley Parable, Telltale’s offerings, Papers Please, Journey, Brothers and so on. I’ve been constantly arguing on the internet trying to make people realise how strong indie games are and even how they are the new vehicles for narrative driven experiences, but recently, I don’t feel anything for them.
This internal debate of mine started when I downloaded a whole bunch of the free PS+ games that are released each month. With the PS4 not having any big releases coming to the service any time soon, for obvious reasons, all we have been getting are indie games and a lot of them. The first few were great. Outlast was amazing to play and I think it’s one of the reasons why we are seeing a resurgence of horror games in the industry. Resogun (which I ‘unfortunately’ had to buy, but giving support to developers is always good) was a bucket of fun and a seriously good shoot em up. But the next slew of indie games kind of dampened my spirits in some unforeseen ways.
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The first game that started all of this was Mercenary Kings. It’s a game where you play a mercenary and kill stuff, collect stuff and then build stuff. It has an interesting art direction and a unique style, but man did it bore me. I could barely play more than 30 minutes without feeling the overwhelming desire to fall asleep. There was nothing wrong with the game, however. The mechanics worked well and everything was functioning greatly, but I was just not having any fun. There was nothing to engage me whatsoever and it just felt like a chore to play.
Strider was also a game that was well made and played fantastically, but I didn’t feel it once again. I’m just so tired of platformers at this point. It seems to be the go-to genre for indie developers for reasons I cannot really understand. Granted, Strider is a remake so I can’t fault it too much for being a platformer, but the principle remains. Platformers are overdone at this point.
Then we get the newest offering, A Road Not Taken. It’s a game where you control a little hooded character in a sort of chess-like environment and throw children to their mothers. You probably know what I’m going to say at this point. Yeah, I didn’t feel it. It didn’t captivate me enough to warrant my attention for very long.
What can be the reason for this? Am I becoming more cynical about games and turning into one of those, “I like about 3 games and fuck the rest,” types of gamers? I don’t think it’s as clear cut as that. Indie games have become increasingly formulaic over the past few years. I’ve started seeing a pattern in how they are developed. Use a stylized art style, preferably pixel art or some form of colourful palette. Take an existing gameplay mechanic and change it slightly. Add a unique selling point in the form of a certain character or weird mechanic. Boom, you’re done.
I’m probably oversimplifying it a bit too much, but I’ve noticed this trend so much that it kind of spoils my experience of indie games. There’s only so many puzzle platformers using pixel art I can take. It’s also a sort of rule to be retro when you create an indie game. Shovel Knight flipped the table and made the game look entirely like an NES game. Why this fascination with retro? It’s not the end-all-be-all of indie game design and I think more developers need to realise this.
A game like Papers, Please kind of falls into these rudimentary patterns I have set forth, but it also does something truly unique, which I think recent indie games lack. A game about checking papers turned out to be one of the most emotional and immersive experiences I’ve ever had. It’s that level of uniqueness that I want from indie games. Not some puzzle platformer that does nothing new except some set-pieces and a quirky design. Of course, I know I’m sounding like a pompous asshole right now, but that’s how I feel, whether I like it or not. I want something that truly engages me, not trying and copying what so many games have done before already.
I also think a problem we have is the over-saturation of indie games right now. One glance at the Steam latest releases will give evidence of this. There are so many games out there right now competing for relevance that it gets flooded with plainclothes platformers and “quirky” shoot em ups. Combine that with the fact that the new generation is off to a very slow start and the only available games to play between releases are indie games and you have the symptoms of a burnout on your hands.
Let’s not forget the YouTuber-bait games like Octodad and Goat Simulator that sparked a massive surge of rip-off simulator games and unremarkable tosh that tried to do something funny but horribly failed. I respect Octodad enough because it knew what it was from the start and rolled with it and in that process it made a unique game. Goat Simulator did it to attract online personalities so that it makes a buttload of cash, but they put some effort into it and made a worthwhile game to be played. But fucking Grass Simulator? Rock Simulator? Baking Simulator? Can we please just stop now.
It’s not just the simulator games, but also the platformers and “retro” style games. Everyone is trying to capitalise off what is popular at the time. Remember the crappy horror games that popped up because of Slender? And when you’re just doing it for the money, your experience will suck, guaranteed. I’ve seen video reviews and first impression videos on YouTube of games from the more lesser known circles on Steam and I can see that there is clearly a problem. Games aren’t made with passion anymore. They’re just copies of other games that had success.
Gone Home did its own thing and told a compelling narrative. Outlast made a genuinely terrifying experience. Papers, Please tried to break new ground in narrative. Bastion and Transistor were beautifully crafted experiences. Journey and Brothers used gameplay mechanics to tell truly remarkable stories without any dialogue or cutscenes. What do these games all have in common? They were made with passion. If you don’t have that passion for your project and just treat it like an attempt to make money, then it will fail to be anything remarkable. This might be why I didn’t feel all of these indie games when I played them. Some might have passion, but I couldn’t feel it. It felt like the developer was “just making a game”.
Of course, you might love those style of games and adore all manner of indie games because after all, this is all just my own opinion. But I want something unique from the people that have full creative control over their projects. Don’t just “make another game”, make something that can be remembered. I’m not pessimistic about all indie games releasing right now, obviously. It’s just the games I have played recently haven’t succeeded in captivating me at all because of their simple designs.
The future is looking strong for indie games, however. There are some strong offerings coming up that I hope rejuvenate my faith in indie games. There might be gems that pop out of nowhere too. I didn’t expect a game like Papers, Please to make me feel guilty or Brothers to make me cry. It’s these fantastic surprises that still have me invested in the indie scene.