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Let's Ditch the Indie-Blockbuster Divide

Have you ever said "I don't like indie games?" Stop and think about what that actually means for a moment.

"I don't like indie games, so Sony's Gamescom conference didn't really do much for me."

That's a sentiment I saw expressed yesterday following what I found to be an extremely strong, impressive showing from the PlayStation team. And not just from one person, either; I saw more than a few people protesting that they had no interest in "indie games" and consequently their feelings about both the PS4 and Vita weren't exactly changing.

Here's the problem with that attitude, though: saying that you're "not interested in indie games" is pretty ridiculous, largely because there's no set definition for what "indie games" are… beyond "developed by a company that isn't beholden to a publisher." The attitude of "I'm not interested in indie games" largely comes from misconceptions and prejudices about exactly what indie games are.

Fairy Bloom Freesia: Indie, awesome.

Exactly what are those misconceptions, and where have they come from? Well, they're largely the result of a problem the entire industry occasionally finds itself afflicted with: oversaturation and gushing over a select few titles, while others pass by completely unnoticed. Everyone reading this has probably heard of, say, Fez or Braid, but have you played Fairy Bloom Freesia? Dungeons of Dredmor? Fortune Summoners? Hate Plus? Gone Home? Papers, Please? Hammerwatch? (I have.)

All of those titles are ostensibly "indie games," but all are very different experiences from one another. Fairy Bloom Freesia is an arena-based brawler; Dungeons of Dredmor is a comedic roguelike; Fortune Summoners is a Metroidvania-esque JRPG; Hate Plus is a visual novel; Gone Home is… Gone Home; Papers, Please is, equally, Papers, Please; Hammerwatch is Gauntlet. Not only are they all very different types of game, but they have very different moods, too, ranging from the colorful silliness of Fairy Bloom Freesia to the seriously dark narrative of Hate Plus.

With that in mind, how can anyone possibly in good conscience say that they're "not interested in indie games?" By doing that, you're dismissing a diverse array of experiences without even giving them a chance. Not good.

And yet... I sort of understand why this situation has arisen in the first place: it is, I believe, due to a growing sense of confusion between "indie games" as a whole and what I like to call "art games."

Gone Home: Indie, awesome. Different.

Art games -- stuff like Braid, Flower, Journey, Gone Home, Dear Esther, even Fez to a certain extent -- are games that have something to say. They have an underlying message. It could be argued, of course, that all games have something to say to one degree or another, but art games are experiences that specifically set out to achieve a particular effect, not necessarily in the most direct means possible. Art games are often open to interpretation or not intended to be taken literally; for this reason, they're often derided as being "pretentious" or their creators being "arrogant" when in fact, they're often among the most creative uses of games as an interactive medium.

However, just like other forms of art -- visual arts, music, dance, theater -- they're not to everyone's taste, and neither are they designed to be. Rejecting a work of art because it doesn't speak to you is a perfectly valid response; if everyone thought alike, the world of art as a whole -- not just in games -- would be a dull place indeed.

Here's the problem, though: the fact that art games tend to be the most "interesting" (subjectively speaking) from a creative standpoint means that they also tend to be the ones that get the most attention from both press and public alike. This can lead those who haven't delved into the independently developed games market to assume that all indie games are art games -- something which is, as we've already discussed, a completely mistaken assumption. Not only that, but look at the list I gave above: although all are, to varying degrees, art games, all go about delivering their message in very different ways. Even within the "art game" descriptor, you can't guarantee that because you feel one way about one experience, you'll feel the same about another; Dear Esther is a very different game to Braid, after all.

Moving away from the art game angle, though, independent developers are often also the ones who are putting together more "pure game" experiences rather than taking the Hollywood-aping triple-A approach. This is, more often than not, down to limited budgets and/or technological limitations, but in a lot of cases it's a deliberate design choice: as high-profile, big-budget games do their best to try and be interactive movies, many independent developers are still flying the flag for what is often termed "retro-style" experiences: games that focus on gameplay rather than storytelling or flashy presentation. Games that, in short, would absolutely appeal to the people who complain, paradoxically, about indie games being too "pretentious" or "artsy," or about modern games having too much story fluff when all they want to do is shoot something/jump on some heads/match some colored blocks.

Spelunky: Indie, awes-- oh, you get the idea by now, right?

With all this in mind, isn't it about time we dropped this big divide we've got going on? Is there really any great value in drawing a line in the sand marking where indie games end and everything else begins? For one thing, the fact that non-indie games are typically just referred to as "games" means that independently developed titles are made out to be somehow "abnormal," which isn't particularly helpful. For another, as we've already discussed, there really isn't a single useful definition of the term "indie games" that will help someone decide whether or not they'd actually want to play something, just as telling someone a big-budget game is a "blockbuster" or a "triple-A" experience isn't necessarily a guarantee that they'll enjoy it, either.

Gaming is a broad and diverse creative medium, and far more complex than a simple binary "indie/non-indie" divide. As it continues to expand and creators on all sides push the boundaries of what's possible to achieve with interactive entertainment, we should instead be celebrating the fact that we're all involved with a medium in which both Titanfall and Gone Home can comfortably exist alongside each other, not segregating experiences according to some arbitrary criteria that seemingly no-one can agree on.

Games are games. No-one's saying you have to like everything on the market -- there isn't time to! -- but equally, I strongly believe it's not helping anyone to segregate a growing part of the market in the way we are today. Each game should, in an ideal world, be taken by everyone on its own merits; in doing so, everyone will develop their own unique tastes rather than feeling bound by arbitrary groupings. And in that way our medium can continue to grow, flourish and diversify, helping to ensure that, across the entire gamut of experiences available, there really will be something for everyone to enjoy.

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