I spent a few challenging, unsettling and hilarious hours together with a guy named Stanley the other day. It made me realise two things: 1. don’t even try to follow the yellow brick road, and 2. indie games are the future.
Sometimes it seems that we are fed the same concoction of ingredients over and over again when it comes to triple-A releases. There are times when I wonder how many military FPS games have been released since the Wolfenstein franchise was born. Or how many games have been released as part of the Assassin’s Creed franchise (Google will tell you that the AC banner includes more than twenty releases)? We are fed a new FPS game every other week, and dare one think of how many rpgs there are out there about some curse or dragon or other equally dangerous threat that must be overcome? Open worlds, talent trees, rogues, mages and brute warriors… Same developers controlling the market, supposedly giving us what we want. Throw in a story that is mildly controversial or offers an emotional tangent, and we’ve got the next hit game of 2014.
Now, I’m not saying that these games are not fantastic or worth playing; if I did, I would be a hypocrite seeing how many hours I’ve devoted to the fantastic series that is BioShock, or how much time I’ve spent customizing the look of a character I won’t even see properly in one of many Elder Scrolls releases. I don’t even want to know how many hours I spent grinding in World of Warcraft back in the days when I passionately proclaimed that the Horde is forever.
There is a reason as to why these games are so successful – they are often involving experiences allowing us to explore frightening or magical stories with gameplay that is often equally scary or beautiful. Personally, I’m counting the days to September 9 and the release of Destiny, and I already have a vague idea of who I am going to romance in Dragon Age: Inquisition. So what am I getting at here?
Again, it comes down to this guy called Stanley and how he is a good reminder of an industry that tend to follow more or less the same recipe when creating new releases. However, step back from the giant developers and you’ve got an endless field of games that will provide you with unique and downright weird stories and approaches to gaming and gameplay. That field over there with its strange approaches to gaming, that really green one that the AAA titles seem to be unaware of? It’s where indie developers and games reside. There are no rules there, only efficient chaos. And it is beautiful.
Let me offer a few examples of my recent experiences with the indie game industry to illustrate my point.
The only things I knew about The Fullbright Company (now rebranded as Fullbright), and their 2013 release Gone Home when I installed it were that it was a good old point and click game with content and characters deviating from binary gender roles. Both things sounded excellent to me, although I did not quite know what to expect as the game informed that my name is Katie and I’ve just come back from Europe prior to depositing me on the front porch of what was apparently my new home. A hastily scribbled note on the front door informed me that sadly, no one was at home, and thus the mystery started to unfold itself – promptly aided by me switching on every single lamp in the house while getting excited over a collection of VHS recordings of The X-Files. I soon felt unexpectedly intrigued with this family; Sam, mum and dad seemed so real. The more pieces of at times seemingly random information allowed me to assemble a picture of the Greenbriar family and what kind of individuals I was returning to.
That is one of many reasons why Gone Home is so convincing; it lures you in and keeps you invested as you slowly get to know a family that feels surprisingly authentic. The game generates a sense of mystery with insinuations of a ghostly presence in the house which happens to be known as “The Psycho House”. The point and click gameplay aids to the detective aspect of the game, as the player can search for clues in bins, drawers and lockers requiring codes.
The exploration of every inch of the house serves to engage the player in an intimate story that is made real by seemingly insignificant traces such as post-it notes, forgotten homework assignments, and pop culture references such as aforementioned X-Files recordings. The main narrator might be the literate Sam, but the house in itself is the conveyor of clues and information. In fact, there is no grand mystery that is waiting to be solved. The goal is to unfold the story of several individuals with the character of Sam in its midst. It is a story that does not have a direct message, instead it serves as such merely by existing.
I must admit, I felt a slight disappointment as the credits rolled away. I like how Katie slowly starts to become a part of the new house as your search takes her through the entire house, slowly settling in by getting to know every nook and cranny of the new family home. But for all the mystery that the game hinted at, the ending doesn’t follow up on the aspect that defines it initially.
I felt that some kind of direct interaction with Sam would have added to the conclusion, because as we have finally got to know her, she’s already gone. But that is also the beauty of the game, it plays as a kind of slice of life-episode disguised in a multitude of puzzle pieces waiting to be put together into a fulfilling story. So while the supposedly supernatural mystery leaves you empty handed, the story is engrossing and incredibly well told.
Another defining aspect of Gone Home is its quiet yet powerful statement. The game may not wish to be political, but it becomes just that because of its natural inclusion of gay characters as an ordinary presence. Gone Home is so much more than a game, it is a message to triple A developers that offers an excellent example of the possibility of creating a game with gay inclusion without this aspect having to pose as the focus of the game.
Gone Home knits together a game that is excellent in itself with the inclusion of gay characters as an addition that proves that a game does not need to rely on a white heterosexual protagonist in order to be positively received. It bridges the gap between gay and mainstream, as it overcomes the desperate social norms most A devs seem to cling to. Sam is a literate and intelligent teenage girl, her aptitude for writing and her thoughtful personality is what defines her as opposed to simply just being gay. That is why Gone Home was such a refreshing experience; it not only revived the beauty of exploration in a point and click game, it also provided stellar storytelling outside of the mainstream norm without trying too hard.
It may not be to everyone’s taste that the corridors of the house are not brimming with enemies or monsters, but it has a lot to teach gamers and developers about what a game can strive to be in terms of storytelling and queer inclusion.
Moving on, this next game has created quite the debate over whether or not it is actually a game. I am of course taking about Curve Studio’s indie gem Proteus, a game where the player is only in control of basic movement in an ever changing and dreamlike world. Proteus is an immersive audio and visual experience with the setting slowly changing as you move around on a surreal island with a unique set up each time you play the game. Strange creatures are fleeing as you chase after them, the chase creating a beautiful dance on a simplified music scale. Sometimes all you hear is the wind or the soft buzzing of bees. Flowers (or mushrooms or… whatever they are, there are no rules in Proteus) covet as you make your way through a hypnotic paradise with remnants of unknown precedents. As the clouds grown thick and the season changes to autumn, the game turns into a beautiful and almost haunting solitary experience as the sky lights up in soft, ambient colours.There is a strange timelessness to Proteus as the game plays like a lingering whisper of an unknown past and a peaceful present. It feels like a dreamlike experience; in fact, the game is almost childlike in its basic innocence. Because of this, Proteus feels like a true revolutionary game in the way it deviates from standard gameplay and structural regimen completely. It does not quite tell a story but instead provides the player with a peaceful, hypnotic moment outside of fighting aliens and shooting military personnel. There is no motivation except observing and exploring your surroundings, finding places where time seemingly stands still or where the right position can make it speed up.
The game lacks the mystery and puzzle aspect that makes Gone Home such a joyful experience. Your wandering on the island is not a search for anything specific, or anything at all for that matter, it is simply an encounter with sound and imagery for the senses. There are no notes, voiceovers or clues whatsoever to guide you forward. Proteus just is.Granted, it is a game that will leave a lot of players disappointed and bored, but as soon as you realise that there is no grand motive or no final boss, the beauty lies in allowing yourself to lean back and letting the engrossing experience that is Proteus enthral you. What is so important about Proteus is the way it deviates from every rule of what a game should amount to be. While some may claim that it is more of a cinematic experience, the fact remains that it still is a game where the player actively interacts with the game. Another reason why Proteus can teach us something lies in its simplicity. Same goes for Gone Home, both games presenting fairly basic gameplay without any swift combat rolls, combo attacks or precise aim. These games are out there demonstrating that you do not need an SMG or a sniper rifle to create a memorable experience.
Lastly, I mentioned that I spent some quality time with a guy Stanley the other day. I am, of course, referring to one of the most bizarre and entertaining games out there, Galactic Cafe’s release The Stanley Parable. It is notably tricky to figure out what the game is really about, if anything at all. The onset is fairly straight forward; meet Stanley, employee 427, initially posing as a metaphor for the treadmill that is the unimaginative repetition of everyday life as exemplified by Stanley’s cyclic job of pressing buttons on a computer in a neutral room in a neutral office. Then again, is Stanley really an image for the classical 9-5- “I’ll stick to the blue pill and keep on eating steak in the Matrix”-idea of an ordinary life? Is the game really about Stanley at all?
The player has the choice of following the interactive narrator’s crisp instructions, or to disobey and seek another path. There are only so many paths the game offers until you reach some kind of end and is prompted to start over again, only to find that this time around the rules have changed. At one point, the narrator will address the player directly, breaking the fourth wall in one of many instances that will often leave you uncomfortable as the feeling of being stuck inside the game itself slowly wraps itself around you.
There are paths that will lead to the narrator maliciously declaring its control over Stanley. Another instance has the narrator directly acknowledging the player directly, complaining about how the game is ruined by you, the player, refusing to follow directions. The game gives you the illusion of choice as it drags you deeper and deeper into its metaphysical net, a net where you find yourself influenced by clear rules or the complete lack thereof. You will find yourself manipulated by the presence or absence of a narrator, and by the control that the build of the game exerts over you no matter how many variables your choices seem to create. The thought provoking question that eventually arrives of who is in ownership of your choices is as disturbing as it is brilliant.
The Stanley Parable is self aware in the most precise sense of the word. There is an area within the game that can be reached depending on a specific set of choices that offers insight and information about the game and its progress during development. The game does this whilst still maintaining the aspect of the player moving around, so while you are finding out about crucial elements in the game and how they were developed overtime, you are still actively maintaining the part as an active player as you explore the many rooms only to eventually find yourself in a completely dark area with the name of the game being illuminated above an on and off switch. Again, the game efficiently reminds you that you are free to make a choice, but is it really by your own free will that you will make a decision?
The compelling aspect of The Stanley Parable is its uncertainty and the questions that arises from its obscure construct. Is it a game about choice? About chaos? Inevitability? Is it about ownership? The limitations of gaming? Control?
I don’t know, the narrator doesn’t know, and if the game knows, it certainly is not willing to provide a straight forward answer, only what appears to be endless examples and variations. I found myself feeling genuinely uncomfortable after having played the game for a couple of hours because every step I directed Stanley to take suddenly seemed to have the potency of changing the game while at the same time I kept on getting the feeling that it was all a part of a design. The Stanley Parable challenges ideas of conventional gaming and draws attention to the calculated choices within them. It is a game that gets under your skin and the overall experience stays with you and provokes you to take a moment to really think about what is going on rather than reload your gun for the next wave of enemies.
These three examples have all gained critical recognition, and while players loyal to AAA releases may not be aware of their brilliance, they have gained a fair amount of attention. They are games that subverts the idea of what gaming is and should be. They are all built around aspects that are either under-represented or non present in 95% of the games available at GameStop. It is important that we keep on talking about these games, that we are open for the new possibilities that they are paving the way for in the industry. Perhaps it is time that we consider the basic approach and expectations we have when we sit down for a few hours of a gaming and look at creations that will challenge the norms. Because I’m telling you all, it is to indie games that we need to look in order to see what the future of gaming has, or at least may have, in store.