Indie games are a passion of mine and I’ve spent countless hours of my life scouring the internet and chatting with bedroom developers about them. I think I’ve played every type of indie game, from the hypnotic and synesthetic rail-shooter Rez, to the bizarre and mostly pointless IF adventure, Pick up the Phone Booth and Die!.
Still, even I find it hard to define just what an indie game is, especially in a time when many bedroom developers are proving themselves to be just as capable and successful as the larger companies. Some of the best indie developers, like Introversion Software for example, are rapidly expanding from small teams of friends with similar interests into large companies with games available in any good store.
So, what exactly is an indie game and how can we see them to be shaping the future of the industry?
Well, although the strict definition of an indie game is a game developed without the backing of a large publisher, indie games are usually understood to mean something very different. To me personally, an indie game isn’t anything to do with the financial backing the game may or may not have received. Look at Rez for example, often said to be one of the best console-based indie games available but which also had the backing of Sega and Sony.
Rez was a fantastic on-rails/music game
Indie games are, I think, understood by most not as being separate from a large publisher, but a recognition of creativity and inventiveness which pushes back against the grain of current gameplay trends. Take, Narbacular Drop for instance. It’s a wildly imaginative indie game produced by a collection of programmers which sees the Princess No-knees trying to escape a dungeon by using a system of inter-connected portals which she can create on the fly.
Sound familiar? Probably because the team were quickly snapped up by Valve and put to work on making Portal, the new Half-Life puzzler with similar gameplay (but no dungeons). Now, although it’s possible to argue that Portal isn’t an indie game because it’s being made under the supervision and guidance of Valve, I’d say that the main reason people don’t consider it an indie game is because it isn’t as inventive as Narbacular Drop.
Although the financial backing plays a role to be sure, the main reason behind the indie status of Narbacular Drop is because it was made by a small staff of enthusiastic developers who wanted to make something new. To me, Portal isn’t an indie game because it is made by a group of already established developers who want to use an already existing concept.
Portal was inspired by the indie game, Narbacular Drop
No offense to Valve though, I wager that Portal is going to be awesome, but it simply doesn’t have the personal and low-tech feel of Narbacular Drop. Indie games can be free or expensive, professionally backed or independently published – but in the end it’s the enthusiasm and originality of the designers which makes an indie game what it is.
So, the question now becomes how important are indie games to the way the games industry expands and grows over the next few years? What can smaller developers bring to the table when compared to mega-corporations like EA and Microsoft? More importantly for most readers though, what are the best indie games out there and why should you play them?