In recent years, people have started to become aware of the indie gaming scene. The advent of smartphone gaming and widespread digital distribution along with the success of games like Braid has really started to push this once niche area into the public eye. However there are still countless great PC indie games released each year (often for free!) which most gamers never hear about. I will highlight what I think are some of the best and most interesting indie games in this column.
The most exciting thing about indie games is the freedom they allow to developers. Indie games are usually made by single people or small teams and they don’t have any Publisher backing. Although these games are hardly ever as complex or pretty as their big-budget counterparts, they really allow developers to experiment with new gameplay and narrative techniques. A lot of indie games strive to create more meaningful player experiences and elicit bigger emotional responses from players. There are many ways in which this can be achieved of course, but most of the time it relies on an engaging gameplay experience and good writing.
One such developer is Christine Love, who has received widespread acclaim for her recent games. Both of these games are visual novels, a genre popularised in Japan which resemble old-fashioned choose your own adventure novels, but on a computer screen. There is not much gameplay in the traditional sense of the word but the player can sometimes change the course of the narrative by making choices on what to say or what action to take.
Love’s most recent game (which she made in just one month) is quite a traditional visual novel in style titled ‘don’t take it personally babe, it’s just not your story’. Released for free in April this year, it contains some of the unfortunate hallmarks of the genre such as ridiculous anime style character designs. However, there is more to the game than first meets the eye.
The player takes on the role John Rook, a new teacher in a Canadian high school. The school has recently introduced a policy (intended to combat bullying) whereby all the teachers have access to the school’s version of Facebook (called ‘Amienet’ here) that enables them to read all of the students private messages. This creates an interestingly uncomfortable atmosphere as the player struggles not to get involved in the student drama whilst trying to hide all the intimate details they know about their students. The cast of characters is varied and fully realised although a few do stray into cliché at some points. However the game manages to deal with topics such as teenage sexuality in mature and interesting ways, which is a rarity in modern video games (as pointed out in Edward Owen’s recent article). The game also functions as a really interesting exploration of how social networking is affecting our relationships with each other and our notions of privacy and image control.
Another of Love’s recent games is called ‘Digital: A Love Story’ and was released for free in February 2010. This is a much less traditional visual novel and is all the better for it. It is set in 1988 at the dawn of the internet age and the player takes on the role of an unnamed person who has just received their first computer. The entire game takes place on the desktop of this computer as the player uses an old-school dialler to dial various BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems) and send and receive messages from various other characters. The messages which the player sends are never explicitly stated however, which lends the game an interesting layer of ambiguity and makes it easier to project yourself onto the player character, which makes it more immersive.
What follows is a short but effective love story combined with elements of mystery and conspiracy. The player can’t really change the narrative direction but they have to solve a few puzzles and interact with the computer interface. You have to dial the relevant BBs code manually each time you want to connect to send or receive messages which gives the whole experience a more tactile feeling. The writing is very strong in this game as well; the characters are well formed considering how little time there is to establish them and the game effectively recreates the strange disconnect there is in relationships formed purely over the internet.
In both games, the narrative is revealed entirely through the writing, with minimal gameplay involvement. This is one solution to the problem of creating meaningful and effective game narratives, although you could raise the question of whether these visual novels really qualify as games at all, considering how limited their interactivity is. Trying to create narrative solely through gameplay is an option than many developers, both in indie and mainstream gaming try to explore but the very nature of the medium often inhibits this. Interactivity can spoil potentially moving moments by allowing the player to miss them entirely or ruin them by messing around. Constantly running pedestrians over in GTAIV made Nico Bellic’s reluctant criminal shtick feel a bit hollow. Whether meaningful narrative created primarily through gameplay is preferable is up for debate however.
What is certain is that there is a distinct lack of the quality of writing seen in Christine Love’s games in modern videogaming. I would encourage anyone who is curious to download these games (they will run on just about any machine) and give them a try. They might just make you reconsider the potential of games as a storytelling medium.