As I sit here reviewing my ramblings on the subject of video gaming, I’ve noticed one very distinct common thread among nearly all of my articles. I talk almost exclusively about the $9,000,000 big-business corporations that collide and interbreed to form something that I tend to lump together into an uncomfortable amalgam called “the video game industry.”
Completely absent from my analysis of “the video game industry” to this point is any discussion of the little guy—the small, one-to-four person teams who make up less than one percent of the total profits of the previously mentioned $9,000,000 industry—the fringe group of self-publishers who tend to put more heart, soul, energy and life force into their less-than-five-dollar game offerings than you’re likely to find in the entire Call of Duty franchise combined.
Yes, I’ve neglected to talk about the self-published indie gaming crowd for far too long, and I’ll admit: it’s a major injustice. I suppose I could attribute the lack of an indie-focused column to my previous lack of understanding about the indie scene in general, but I’m here to correct that now by telling you about my experience at Indiecade, one of the region’s largest showings of all electronic (and tabletop) products indie, held in Culver City a few weekends ago.
This small convention, nestled in the commercial district of an L.A. suburb and largely run from the interior of the local firehouse, is not something that can be attended by the bigoted or the self-righteous. Games on display at Indiecade range from the extremely detailed and realistic to the extremely abstract and conceptual, but they will all certainly broaden your mind immensely, if you let them.
At their roots, most indie games are extensions of concepts that nearly every gamer knows and probably loves. The classic platformer, the classic shooter, the classic strategy game and the classic adventure game are all heavily tied into the mechanics of most indie titles.
However, whereas major franchises seem rather rigidly bound to the conventions and trappings of these age-old archetypes, indie games by and large use the familiar mediums as a way to contextualize and ground larger philosophical commentaries on practically everything you can imagine.
An example from the simplistic side is Bloop—a four-player iPad game with perhaps the simplest concept I have ever heard. Four players are assigned a color, and each player has to tap as many squares of their color as possible within a short time limit. As the time grows shorter and shorter, more and more squares appear on the screen, turning the iPad into a veritable finger dueling arena as the four players battle it out with their digits to get through to the screen below.
At face value, the gameplay mechanics are so simple they defy analysis—there is literally nothing to be gained by trying to analyze the purpose or message of the gameplay itself. It is rather the players who become the central focus of the game, as the frantic pace and limited opportunities for points almost invariably bring out an extremely greedy response from all players. Games get downright nasty, with people brushing hands out of the way and veritably stabbing others with their fingers and nails just to get at one more colored square.
It’s a fascinating psychological study, all told; if you ever need to gauge just how nasty people are willing to get in order to achieve their goal, challenge them to a game of Bloop. The results might astound you.
On the other end of the complexity spectrum is Cart Life, a game that, going by its graphics, could have just as easily appeared on a Commodore 64 as the sleek Alienware laptop I played it on. The game itself is something that I can only describe as a poverty simulator, as it follows the life of poor protagonists as they attempt to get themselves established as street vendors in the downtown district of a gritty, industrial city.
Where this game truly shines (or rather, the opposite, really) is in how successfully the game recreates those little excruciating, almost unbearable moments in everyday life.
Gameplay goes something like this: In order to become a street vendor, you have to buy a cart, but in order to buy a cart, you have to get a business permit. So despite the fact that you took a bus crosstown to get to the carpenter, you now have to take another bus crosstown to get to the courthouse, where you get to take a number … and wait … in real time … for the privilege of forking over $300 to a listless public servant in exchange for a business permit. Then, since that process took so long, you missed picking your daughter up from school, which means that your ex-husband had to go pick her up, which means that you’ll have to have a long and awkward conversation with him later that night. And so it goes.
One might wonder why in the world anyone would even want to make such a game, which, rather than offering an escape from the harsh realities of life, drives them home with a sledgehammer. I’ll admit, I’m curious too—that’s why you should look for my interview with the game’s creator Richard Hofmeier in a later issue.
For now, though, check those games out if you get the time, and keep on fighting the man by supporting the little guy in gaming! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go preorder my WiiU.