Complicated Games: Anarchy in the E.B.

Games Features
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When the entertainment industry starts to falter—when gutless executives pour waves of sequels and risk-free, cookie-cutter sludge into our cinemas and concert halls—we look to the fringes for someone to save us.

Pink Floyd and Yes dropped one concept album too many, and punk music rose to destroy them; and every time Hollywood veterans grow too complacent, a new pack of rebels strolls out of film school ready to eat their lunch.

This could be the year it happens for gaming—and you’d be hard-pressed to find a business that needs it more. Of last year’s 10 top-selling games, only three actually came out in 2005. Budgets have climbed to the millions and even tens of millions of dollars, scaring game publishers away from everything but movie tie-ins, knock-offs of other hits, or this year’s update of Madden or Burnout. And even when a game wins space on the shelf at Electronic Boutique, it only has a few weeks to make an impression before the next big thing pushes it aside.

Developers, critics and—increasingly—gamers themselves have griped about this situation, but it seemed as if nothing was happening. Until last year, that is, when indie games started creeping into the mainstream. For me, the first sign of life was Façade. The work of self-described “artist-programmers” Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas, Façade has an unusual premise: you’ve been invited to dinner by your good friends Grace and Trip, who are celebrating 10 years of marriage. But as soon as you get there, they start bickering, and in no time they’re telling you their marriage is on the rocks. Your job is simply to talk with them, like they’re a couple of old friends, and help them work out their differences. (You can try it yourself for free at interactivestory.net. Here’s a gameplay tip: kissing either of them won’t help you save their marriage.)

Façade scored a lot of press last year, for obvious reasons. It’s closer to sex, lies and videotape than Halo; it offers an uncomfortable but intriguing experience where you least expect one, and it makes you smack your forehead and think, “Wow, we really could play games where people just talk to each other!”

Of course, finding developers with new ideas doesn’t help if you can’t get the games into stores—and that’s where we see the other half of the trend: new channels that skip the retail trap and bring indie games to the people who want them.

Veteran gamemaker Greg Costikyan and former Computer Gaming World editorial director Johnny Wilson have launched a new company, Manifesto Games, that’ll act as an “indie label” for games.

The annual Game Developers Conference hosts the successful Independent Games Festival, and last year’s winners ranged from cartoony sidescroller Alien Hominid to Steer Madness, a vegan-action game about a cow that saves other animals from the slaughterhouse. Darwinia (reviewed in this issue) landed U.S. distribution via the Steam-engine technology developed for Half-Life 2. And Telltale Games sells adventure titles over the Internet in regular “episodes” at $20 each; the first, Bone: Out From Boneville, adapts the Jeff Smith comic book in the style of a classic ’90s LucasArts adventure.

Even the Evil Empire, Microsoft, has given indie games a boost. When Microsoft’s Xbox 360 launched last fall, critics dismissed the derivative $60-a-pop titles that shipped for the system—but they fell all over themselves praising the Xbox Live Arcade, a collection of lower-budget games including another Independent Games Festival winner, Wik and the Fable of Souls. Available online through the Xbox Live Arcade, the titles cost around $6-12 each, and slant toward fast-paced action games and retro arcade classics. Who knows if Microsoft will leave room for anything radical, but at least they’re giving an outlet to a few small, creative shops.

So we could see a revival of the indie spirit that ruled gaming two decades ago, back when a lone developer could code a great game and sell it in a Ziploc bag. Widening the field will bring new ideas and fresh blood to a stale industry, and it could also expand our sense of what games can be, and of who wants to play them. An indie renaissance would draw new audiences the way that art houses have coaxed Hollywood-weary filmgoers back to the medium. And if that means playing some games where you have to watch married people scream at each other? Just remember: it can be therapeutic.