The Indie Revolution

In the words of the Violent Femmes, You won’t fool the children of the revolution.

So, I talk about PC gaming occasionally on this website. I do this in an attempt to demystify it. There is a bit of mystique on spending a minimum of $1000 on a computer just for computer games. I’ve known cars that cost that much (mind you, the computer will last longer with less maintenance than a $1000 car). Personally, I’ve always justified my computer over a console for several reasons ( a computer can do more functionally than a console, storage space is fairly easy to expand, it’s a mostly centralised place for all my games). Not to shame anyone who prefers and uses a console, there’s merit in the simplicity of the console (no-one has had to configure the display on a console, or edit the ini files or such on a console). However, this paragraph of parentheticals is distracting from the initial point I was trying to make.

When people talk to me about building a computer (it’s decently cheaper to construct your computer than pay someone to do it for you and all you need is a spare afternoon and the ability to Google your problems), I tell them one thing about computers: They’re expensive initially but gaming gets cheaper almost instantly. Between the frequent Steam sales, Humble Bundles, and free games occasionally, it’s quite easy to build your library up. I’ve owned my computer for almost three years now and just recently passed 500 games on Steam. Of those, I have about 150 in my favourites. There is a bit of a shotgun approach to my method but I’ve found some hidden gems among my collection in the process.

Over the past five years, the world of gaming has had a sort of indie revolution. For those unaware, indie is short for independent and generally refers to any game without a large publisher or huge marketing budget behind it. They might simply be games without a huge budget. Not often can games be compared to the world of film but in this instance, they can quite neatly. Indie games have a similar reputation as indie films. Smaller, often passion projects, often deeply personal stories. Sometimes recognised, sometimes not. So, my praising of the darlings of the indie world might make me that person in your social circle who talks endlessly about foreign films and how much better they are than big budget action movies. I promise it’s not that, I love both, both are valid. I play the big budget games just as much as the indies.

With that said, it’s good to look at what the indies are doing and hope that makes its way into more mainstream gaming. Because we are in a revolution, and Minecraft was George Washington. Minecraft invaded the world with such force but it like many others, started as just another indie. What followed was an explosion of indie games on PC. Not all good, some playing far too much to the Minecraft formula, but there were diamonds amongst the cobblestone. Also, the video game industry is, you know, an industry. I reckon I could make an argument that there’s already been some cross-pollination upwards in the industry, but more on that later. Let’s look at the revolution.

(Over the next few paragraphs, game titles will be italicised and hyperlinked)

So, let’s start by highlighting some high profiles games that are older than five years and then some later games. I sort of want to look at how earlier games influenced later developers and how that bled into the industry. Sort of like how Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? used colour grading and how nearly every modern movie followed suit, for better or worse.

Notably, the Indie Revolution might have started in Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade. Xbox reached out to indie developers to get their games onto Xbox’s digital marketplace. Many critical darlings of the initial indie world saw their first life on the Xbox 360 such as Jonathan Blow’s Braid, Phil Fish’s FEZ, and Ed McMillen’s Super Meat Boy. Interestingly, all three of these games share some similar characteristics. All three are 2D platformers, with a twist (Fez is a little different from the others as it’s 2D platforming in a 3D world). All three are now available on Steam after being initially launched on Xbox Live Arcade. All three are $16 USD on Steam. All three were featured in the documentary Indie Game: The Movie.

Two of them (Braid and SMB) are inspired by Super Mario Brothers. Also worth mentioning, while Phil Fish may have quit the games industry due to abuse thrown at him across the Internet, the other two have gone on to create more games that are in different genres from their first games ostensibly (The Witness and The Binding of Isaac) and are remarkably well received (Both notably, not sequels to their previous works).

To bring it back to the Super Mario Brothers comparison. Last generation, there were no best-selling 2D platformers in terms of worldwide sales (Japan’s domestic market had New Super Mario Bros as the best-selling game on Nintendo DS but that’s neither here, nor there). The best-selling genre of the previous generation was the first-person shooter. All the above creators were responding to a hole in the market, as indies often do, as I’ll show later. They are all of a similar age and thus probably grew up playing games in the same era. The late 80s and all of the 90s was dominated by 2D platformers. I don’t think the use of the same source material for inspiration is a coincidence. These guys grew up playing games and then when the market offered them an opportunity they made games like the ones from their childhood, their golden age of gaming.

Gamers making games because the tools become inexpensive. In the same way that the 1977 blackout caused the rise of hip hop, the ready access to game development tools like Unity (and others) and Blender (and others), (while it has spawned its fair collection of shysters and charlatans) has given the tools to the people and led to a sort of indie renaissance.

So, how has this indie renaissance changed the game industry? Well, I’m going to look at one case study: Resident Evil 7. So, Resident Evil 7 came out earlier this year. For those unfamiliar with the RE series (as I largely am) they’re zombie games that began on the PS1 as slow, suspenseful horror with moments of camp. As time went on the series changed many times over the years and Resident Evil 6 was largely a camp fest action shooter because it might sell better. Jim Sterling notes that the games industry last gen moved away from horror for one reason or another.

However, RE7, when it came out most recently, was a slow, suspenseful horror jaunt with moments of camp as you explore a mansion with monsters roaming around the place. It’s a mirror to the first game, albeit it uses a first-person perspective rather than a third person one. What happened? As many have noted, critical indie darling horror pieces Amnesia and Outlast were released and gained massive viral traction because PewDiePie needed something to scream about (You know, when he’s not throwing money at poor people to make them write hate speech).

Anyway, you can see the similarities if you examine the game’s trailers. This is not a dig at Resident Evil 7. It’s smart of them to see the success of indie horror and realise that they can market to the exact same audience. Resident Evil, one of the tentpole franchises of gaming, learnt from the little guy about going back to your roots, and it served the series well. Resident Evil 7 is the second highest rated game in the series according to Metacritic. Its predecessor, notably, is much more uneven in terms of critical appeal.

I hope this is an example the games industry learns from. Indies have more opportunities to try out things in order to stand out. Big budget games have a chance to take those ideas that were ironed out in the indie scene and give them the spotlight they deserve. Can you think of games that took indie ideas and put them on the world stage? Let me know below or on social media.


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