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.

Article by Pete Davison, .

"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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Comments 13

  • Avatar for Mad-Mage #1 Mad-Mage 4 years ago
    I think when someone says "I don't like indie games" they are referring to art games that eschew traditional gameplay in favor of artistic qualities. And I think that's perfectly valid opinion for some people to have. But there is no denying that the term indie is overused and has too many different definitions applied to it. Especially in today's modern game industry where there are but a few big game companies and everyone else is, well, indie.Edited August 2013 by Mad-Mage
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  • Avatar for evarofzentral #2 evarofzentral 4 years ago
    You know I was one of the 'I don't like Indie games' people before Sony's Gamescom conference. But what they showed changed my mind - in particular Rime as it looked like something I would be interested in and in the end that's what is going to be key to attract my interest. Perhaps there have been indie games in the past that would have also appealed to me but I didn't see them. This in turn lead me to have the perception that indie games were almost exclusively either arty games that I wouldn't be interested in or games that were predomenantly 2D platformers that just played on the nostalgia of people who grew up with those kind of games. Now I think things are changing for me.
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  • Avatar for pjedavison #3 pjedavison 4 years ago
    Thanks for your comments, both -- you're actually confirming my hypothesis in the article, which is helpful to know.
    @evarofzentral -- what was it about Rime in particular that caught your interest?
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  • Avatar for evarofzentral #4 evarofzentral 4 years ago
    @pjedavison It looked like it had the scope and depth that many AAA games, especially RPGs, have. Previously I've had the preconception that idnie games lacked that kind of depth and scope.
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  • Avatar for weevilo #5 weevilo 4 years ago
    Terraria was one of the first 2d indie games that I really got into after watching a good let's play video. I'd played Minecraft and Torchlight, but didn't really consider them indie. To me an indie game meant a 2D platformer/sidescroller of some variety like Braid or Cave Story which I got bored with quickly, and I never bothered giving them much thought until after Terraria.

    Games like Mark of the Ninja, FTL, Frozen Synapse and a few others have given me way more enjoyment for a much cheaper price than all but a few AAA titles. I'm glad I got over my initial prejudice to 2D games, which is probably still what most people think of when they hear the word indie.Edited August 2013 by weevilo
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  • Avatar for inkphantom #6 inkphantom 4 years ago
    Some of my favorite games in the last couple games have come from indies. It can be really tough to sell people on games like Fez and Journey with just a short description, though.
    Thanks for mentioning Fairy Bloom Freesia. I had never heard of that before now. Downloading the demo as we speak!
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  • Avatar for TotalHenshin #7 TotalHenshin 4 years ago
    "Did you see that new indie game? It's a 2D platformer with a twist!" That's a common joke that's been said about the emerging indie scene. And the joke is often true. You, Pete, of course, named some exceptions, but "2D platformer with a twist" does describe many of the emerging indie titles, and that's a significantly more specific description than "game where you kill things" before someone tries to make a counter-point.

    I love many indie games, but this is simply what people think when they think of "indie games", and while the actual majority of indie games can't be categorized as such, a quick count of 30 random Greenlight games strongly suggests they are the plurality. The majority certainly were 2D, however. It's a matter of taste, as some people just expect an awe-inspiring level of detail (and set-pieces) with each new game they buy. Others do not.

    I will certainly say that I think it's very hypocritical for people to say "I love indie games" and "I hate iPhone games."Edited August 2013 by TotalHenshin
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  • Avatar for Stefarooh #8 Stefarooh 4 years ago
    Seriously - the indie scene is where most of the creativity is taking place. AAA titles with their budgets the size of the Empire State consistently play it safe. Yeah they may have all the bells and whistles of a parade and graphical prowess of a tiger but that does not excuse their often dull as dishwater approach to actual gaming.

    Over the years I have been getting increasingly bored with the larger titles with very few being able to sustain me longer that a few hours before I give up entirely. Every one of those titles I have ditched I've ditched through boredom purely because its become a situation of seen this, done that!

    Indie scene is a bit of a rough diamond. There are so many little studios out there producing quality stuff but there are also those out there pushing utter crap out. It's a matter of sifting through the noise (since a lot of these titles don't get the luxury of reviews from websites).

    To completely dismiss the entire industry of indie gaming is a short sightedness on gamers parts that I will never understand. Sure you will have your more obtuse games that tend to be boundary pushers (titles like Dear Esther and Gone Home come to mind), games that provoke a deep inner response and ask us as gamers to question things - is this such a bad thing in gamers eyes - games that actually ask you to think!

    Not every indie game is a platformer - that is a cliche right there. Its only because of the successes of FEZ, Braid and Super Meat Boy at what really was the turn of indie scene but dig deeper than that and you will find every gaming genre adequately covered by the indie scene, and the real good ones, whilst they may be rough around the edges, pip their AAA compatriots to the finish line each and every time.
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  • Avatar for chaosyoshimage #9 chaosyoshimage 4 years ago
    My issue with the Vita announcements weren't that the games were "indies", but that they were already available elsewhere. Hell, I HAVE most of the games announced already (Minecraft, Rogue Legacy, Borderlands 2, etc.) and while I'll likely buy them again, I'd have rather seen more titles unique to the platform. Gravity Rush was my favorite game last year partially because it used the new hardware in unique ways that made it feel like an experience that could only be found on Vita. I love ports of great games, but they should be secondary to stuff like Gravity Rush, not the main course.
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  • Avatar for stalepie #10 stalepie 4 years ago
    Deleted January 2015 by stalepie
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  • Avatar for jimboton #11 jimboton 4 years ago
    I fully agree with this article, but there's another reason for the 'divide'. See how many sites have already given review coverage to say the latest Splinter Cell or XCOM and how many have reviewed Toki Tori 2+, Hammerwatch or even Spelunky and you'll see what I mean.

    Your move, USGamer!
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  • Avatar for RoninChaos #12 RoninChaos 4 years ago
    There are two reasons why indies are so popular. The indies are filling out the middle of the game market that fell out this generation. That's the big one. They aren't trying to be AAA or anything like that and are priced accordingly. This is good for gamers because there are a lot of unique titles that can be had for cheap. Rogue Legacy is one I'm really excited about that's coming out for consoles. I've played it on my PC and it's fantastic.

    Second, I think the best thing about indie games is that they're actually games. I've played numerous games this generation that would have been better movies than an interactive experience. It feels like a lot of AAA titles are movies with a controller and indies are focused on being games. I think that's the reason why so many people love indies currently and that's the reason why you have Sony focused on getting indies on their platforms. It's also why MS is now flipping the script by allowing self publishing on the Xbox.Edited August 2013 by RoninChaos
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  • Avatar for AvocadoHate #13 AvocadoHate 4 years ago
    Who even thinks that such an Indie-Blockbuster Divide exists?

    Niche games that are made by proper companies but without the budget of AAA-games are still as popular as always. A good and current example would be Dragon's Crown which was made with a smaller budget then some indie games but still had a publisher and was normally released.
    Also when I say "I don't like indie games", which I do about once a month, I generally refer to the broad mass of indie games and not specific titles.
    It holds the same meaning as saying "I don't like AAA-games", which I say about once a week.

    I don't see a reason to protect pretentious games like Gone Home, Dear Esther and Fez either, all of them gained better critic scores and popularity then they deserved.
    Your opinion about the usage of categorizations is about as wrong as an opinion can be, categorizing games makes it easier to get the premise of a game out in a couple of established terms. These categories are not limited to production types but are also about genre and sometimes style of play.

    Also why is it that many gaming “journalists” pretend to write and publish articles while they post nothing more than blog posts such as this one?
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  • Avatar for Yourty #14 Yourty A year ago