Why Indie Games Need To Lighten Up

“Can their be misery loftier than mine? No doubt. Formerly. But now? My father? My mother? My… dog? Oh I am willing to believe they suffer as much as such creatures can suffer. But does that mean their sufferings equal mine? No doubt.”

–Samuel Beckett, Endgame

We’ve been talking, this month, of things in indie and art games that we love. But now we’re going to talk about something that frustrates us: a general trend in storytelling and narrative towards big-picture, misery-porn, thematic stories. It was inevitable we’d get here; one of us is an indie game developer and the other a writer and literary critic. The huge number of indie games that want, not to tell us a story or to put us in a particular mood, but to tell us a Big Idea about life. We live in an incredible age for games as art and the potential to communicate new ideas with them is greater than it ever has been– one of the best indie games (if not one of the best games) of the past few years was Bastion, which created a wholly unique fantasy setting and told a pretty powerful story about war and humanity that made the player an active participant in it. And yet a huge number of designers seem to think that the highest goal of their art is to deliver a truism about the nature of life. Lots of artists in lots of mediums think talking about Death or Relationships or other capital-letter Platonic concepts gives their work additional weight. But it’s especially frustrating in games, which should by their very nature be the farthest from the artist sitting down and talking to us about broad, impersonal concepts.

How EA Published a Better Story About Love and Death than Jason Rohrer

Truly a powerful moment of complex emotion.

You knew this one would come up. Passage is one of the ultimate “games-as-art” arguments, proof that games can talk about the big concepts, a game that has reportedly brought people to tears and which the creator says is an artistic statement on mortality. And, well, we think it’s kind of crap. Here’s how it goes: you walk right for five minutes, slowly aging. You can either hunt for treasure or pick up a wife, which increases your score. As you move forward, the compressed area ahead of you slowly decreases. Eventually your wife dies, then you die.

The game is about the inevitability of death, the trade-off of freedom and wealth for happiness and stability that comes through a committed relationship, and the pain of loss. How do we know this? Because that’s all the game is about. (Not to mention that the ultimate moral– outliving a loved one hurts, and eventually we all fade away– is the same as the Epic of Gilgamesh’s, making it literally the oldest observation in the history of human art). Because the gameplay’s boring, the characters are nonexistent, the art is grating, the gameplay can be done without thinking. The only amount of meaningful player interaction is the thought and effort required to understand the obvious symbolism.

Replaying Dragon Age: Origins lately (SPOILERS AHEAD), it was surprising how good a job Bioware (a company infamous for a “tell-don’t-

Alistair struggles with some manner of basic concept.

show”) approach managed to make the player’s involvement in the story a part of gameplay. Whereas most games with dialogue systems and player choice usually have that as an addition to the core gameplay, DA:O manages to make that as central as its RPG elements– building good relationships with your teammates and making sure they trust you has as big of consequences as leveling them up correctly and equipping them right. And in the game’s climax, depending on your choices, there can be a pretty powerful and tragic moment.

Alistair is the first of your allies that you meet and, unless you make a deeply questionable choice near the end, will be with you for the entire game. If you want, you can pursue a relationship with him (like in Passage, this is completely optional, although Passage doesn’t have deeply cheesy sex scenes). Along the way, you can help him grow as a person and become braver and more mature. And then comes a revelation near the final mission: either you ask something of Alistair that goes completely against his moral code, or one of you will have to sacrifice themselves to defeat the enemy and save your homeland. And, if you’ve done all these things– made friends with Alistair, started a relationship with him, helped him become a more heroic person, and let him stay true to his ideals– the game suddenly takes your choices away. Alistair approaches you at the climax of the game and says he loves you and will never, ever let you die. And so one of the game’s main characters sacrifices himself as a direct consequence of choices you made in your relationship with him. In a game where being friends and doing right by other characters has so far guaranteed their survival, the game reminds you that part of being in love means watching the person you love die, and it’s a sickening gut-punch.

Dragon Age works where Passage doesn’t because of specificity– it’s a story, not an allegory. Because Passage tries to be so broad, so universal, and puts its lesson above all else it feels cold and obvious. By wanting to make a point and express an idea more than telling a story or being fun to play, it ends up feeling empty and didactic. Dragon Age’s story is all manner of cliche and hokey, but it actually has characters to get invested in and real conflicts, and Alistair’s possible death is a result of gameplay choices the player made, rather than how far right they walked. In terms of both narrative and games, these are advantages.

Seriousness is the Death of Art

Game designers want to be taken seriously as artists, and that’s understandable. This is especially true of indie designers, who have both incredible freedom and strong financial limitations that encourage finding some manner of unique style or theme. But great art doesn’t have to as serious as so many game designers want it to be.

Cute, cartoony, and colorful. The only time you’ll see that in this entry.

One of our favorite indie games– one of our favorite games of 2011, to be honest –was  Bastion, and it’s a fantastic work of art. It’s lush and beautiful, well-written, combines story and gameplay almost seamlessly, has fantastic music, and raises some really serious questions about war, society, and responsibility. The creeping dread as you go through it and gradually realize that the civilization you’re trying to rebuild was in fact cruel and oppressive is a beautiful example of making the player and their exploration a major facet of the story. It’s also really, really fun— combining varied hack-n-slash gameplay, RPG elements, clever and dynamic level design, and a creative and original fantasy world. You don’t just walk away from it thinking “man, war and the cycle of revenge sure is brutal,” you also think “oh man remember that time I fought a giant sandworm-gator using a pike and a pair of revolvers? That was awesome!” It had genuine emotional moments and it earned them through being a fun game.

That issue– earning an emotional payoff –is where a lot of the serious indie/art games fall down. Limbo was an unrelentingly oppressive black-and-white experience that made you feel hopeless by pitting the world against you, making you struggle to survive, and having a general tone of decay and entropy reflected in the crumbling, barren level design. The Graveyard  is a black-and-white game with a sense of despair because the old lady you play as might die and old ladies dying is sad. Loved may well raise some points about free will in a relationship and the need to be an individual, but those points would seem a lot more meaningful if it didn’t express them through finicky platforming in an uninteresting level with no story or characters– think of how Portal felt like a portrait of an abusive mother-child relationship, and used its puzzles as a way to create conflict between you and GladOS and give you a sense of struggling against her.

The general issue seems to be that “fun” is the opposite of “serious” and that serious art about serious things has to be serious. There’s something to this– if Mario suddenly stopped, turned to the camera, and lectured us about the evils of monarchical rule it would be jarring –but the purpose of a game is to be played. Of our three core principles, agency and satisfaction both require the game to give the players choices and to be fun, and so many art games either ignore the first in favor of making sure their message comes through, or the second to make sure they stay artistic. In the worst case, they’re so serious and so obsessed with having a big bold idea that they go past “unfun” and just become ugly.

Edmund is the worst case. It won contests and praise for putting the player in an uncomfortable place and exploring mature topics, but once you

Maybe if this is the level of tact you’re capable of using you should try a less sensitive topic.

get past the description “the game where you play as a rapist” there’s not much of a game there. Some platforming (because big Mario-hops over bottomless pits is thematically appropriate in a bleak game about sexual assault) and a couple rape minigames– wait, what? The combat consists of beating a woman and then pressing X repeatedly to rape her, and that’s the core gameplay. This is an extreme case, but it’s symptomatic of the problem that art and indie developers have– Paul Greasely was so focused on making a game that was dark, serious, and explored real-life issues that he thought marrying the button-press-satisfaction mechanics of platformer combat to the act of rape was a bad idea.  It doesn’t raise any serious questions, it doesn’t flesh out the female characters more than “they are there so you can play as a rapist,” and it doesn’t have any real reason to exist besides its creator’s original mission statement: “I want to make a game where you play as a rapist.” The general shallowness turns it, basically, into a gritty noir version of Custer’s Revenge. It’s the ultimate case of what we’re looking at: a fixation on being serious, dark, and meaningful, to the point where that’s the only purpose the game has.

Rape itself shouldn’t be fun, but it’s possible to talk about sexual violence in a game and still have the game be worthwhile. In No More Heroes, it’s pretty clear that Travis on some level is a sadist who gets a sexual thrill out of murder. When Travis Touchdown kills people and his phallic sword grows more and more erect, it says something about our culture’s issues with sex and violence because he’s a fleshed-out character whose dysfunctions grow from his pop-culture addiction. And the game has context that offers to flesh out these issues– it’s a game about how modern culture and geek culture combine sex and violence, how the escapist nature of violent media is scary, and how living a life defined by pop culture makes you dead to humanity. Edmund is a game about rape– not its effects, not the societal causes of it,not why people do it, just the act itself. Edmund doesn’t say anything besides “rape sure is ugly” because fleshing out characters, putting in human elements, or adding personality to the game would have made it less grim and serious.

Is There A Solution?

Yes, and it’s an obvious one. If you ever take a creative writing course, one of the first things any good teacher will tell you is to put ideas and themes on the back burner. Focus on making the language sound right. Write good characters with complex emotions. Have an interesting plot that grabs the reader. While the greatest books marry theme and story, and while philosophers made great books out of great ideas, a well-written work of fiction with an interesting plot beats one that has big ideas but nothing else every time.

Games are fiction, and they need to follow the same rules. They don’t have to be fun all the time, but they have to be more than a vehicle for the big idea.

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