In gaming, as in all things, there is a sense of duality. This is perfectly fine and necessary, as one can only appreciate the glory of Alien: Isolation if Aliens: Colonial Marines is there to put it into context. You can’t really loath modern Sonic The Hedgehog games without knowing the superior titles they came from. It’s not really possible to feel horrified by the bloated budgets of the Triple-A industry without seeing just how much money one man can make with a few new ideas and the most basic of assets. Or, to stay within the indie theme, you can’t lose your innocence if you weren’t previously cute and cuddly with a head like a beach ball.
Context. It accounts for everything.
It’s not a particularly fresh observation that indie and low-budget games tend to gravitate towards stories that focus on charming little entities being stuck in a grim and terrifying world, with the theme always being “the ascension to adulthood,” kicking and screaming if need be. And whilst it’s not always the case, they’re often platformers. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
Bear in mind that I’m not saying that these things are bad for any reason. Limbo, The Binding Of Isaac, Bastion, all these titles are worth playing and don’t suffer for their relative proximity to being “yet another game about big-headed cuties getting the emotional shit kicked out of them.” But in the same way that I railed against the stagnation of zombies in the last article, here I think that indie gaming needs to get over this idea and move on.
Why? Well, I think a lot of developers consider it to be a lot cleverer than it actually is, when really it just betrays how little they realise the medium has grown up.
“Look at our game.” They burble, puffing out their collective chests and grinning from ear to ear. “I bet you thought games were all for children and not to be taken seriously by adults, didn’t you? Well, look at what we made. On top of being an emotionally powerful coming-of-age drama, it’s playing on your expectations and being really poignant about it, isn’t it?”
“Er, no.” We respond, looking back at several decades of intellectually sophisticated examples of the medium and wondering whether we should break it to them gently.
“Yes it is.” They insist back. “What should be a game for kids is actually all about growing up, do you get it? Do you, do you? Because we’ve all grown up, do you see? And this shows that games have grown up too, do you get it now?”
Yes, we get it. We’ve been getting it for years, the medium is now venerable enough that there are adults who have always grown up with the idea that games can be for everybody. It’s hardly even relevant anymore. You might as well tell people that they need to keep praising Caesar, or to remember to have a bunker nearby if the Soviets launch the nukes.
I think it’s why the platformer is such a go-to option when making this sort of thing. Platformers bring us back to the age of the NES and even older, when the kids would spend hours with their digital happiness box after a hard day at school, in between episodes of that new “Saved By The Bell” show and playing hacky-sack in their Jelly Shoes.
Look it up.
Anyway, it’s why it’s so much rarer to see these themes in first-person games, because they didn’t come around until the late nineties and even then it still looked pretty awful, like a series of cardboard cut-outs in a kaleidoscope. You can’t stretch that nostalgia angle if you’re utilising a medium which people don’t feel nostalgic about yet. And platformers have fallen a little out of the popular mainstream in recent years, allowing us to look back on some of them with perhaps more affection than they deserve.
It’s a sticky issue with indie games, because on the whole I never object to any game aspiring to have greater depth than “put bullet in meat,” but this isn’t original any more, it’s just getting old. Can you claim a game has depth when it’s aping something that’s been done a thousand times before? Can you attribute profundity to something that’s been copied from the kid at the next desk? Again, it’s the zombie problem. If you don’t have some new take on the matter, we don’t have a reason to take you seriously.
Look at the Stanley Parables, that’s how you do profundity. It’s a satirical take on video games and the relationship between player and player character. Except when it isn’t. Or when it manages to be both at the same time… Urgh, I have a headache.
Nevertheless, I invite indie developers to look at the already-existing games that feature adorable balloon-headed heroes, then look at your own versions and wonder if you’re adding anything to the genre. Maybe you are, I wouldn’t say otherwise without seeing it for myself. But most likely… Well, it’s probably been done already. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but it’s all part of growing up.