Indie games are a different beast nowadays. Before the Xbox 360 and PS3 era, experiences from independent creators and smaller studios were few and far between on console, with the term “indie” growing in widespread appeal after the launch of classics like Braid and Super Meat Boy. From here, the field grew exponentially, with the advancement of technology allowing more and more people to jump into the daunting world of creating games we’ve never seen before.
These days, anyone can download Unity, Unreal, or RPG Maker and begin giving life to their own unique ideas. Of course, it takes a lot of practice, and arguably even more patience – especially if you try to make a door. Some of the most energetic and innovative ideas can be found on the likes of itch.io, but these are seldom the ones we see at major trade shows. Instead, it feels like the definition of an indie game is becoming increasingly more muddy – it’s basically used for anything that isn’t a blockbuster helmed by a major publisher. Sometimes it’s even used for that. Hellblade 2 had the backing of Xbox, but some people still call it an indie.
It’s great to see games that would previously pass most people by gaining exposure by congregating under the banner of publishers like Devolver Digital or Annapurna Interactive, but they’re being shepherded into a homogenous definition of what it means to be indie – far too often, this comes down to being too weird, wacky, or outlandish for a more mainstream audience to take you seriously. It makes sense that these titles would appeal to a smaller selection of people, they often occupy genres or explore settings that simply don’t gel with those who pick up FIFA and Call of Duty every year. On the flipside, I feel labelling them as outliers does a disservice to many of progressive themes they’re known for bringing to the forefront.
Take Devolver, for example. It’s made a reputation for being the cool kid in the gaming industry. Each of its annual E3 conferences directly parody the wider medium, poking fun at consumer practices and evil corporate meddling in a way that we’re meant to accept as biting satire. I’ve always found it to be woefully cringe-inducing, especially when they could throw aside the jokes and take a more sincere look at the excellent games the publisher is inevitably going to showcase. Once again, it dilutes the worthwhile meaning of being an independent creator in favour of memes and spectacle. These are fine in isolation, but together it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
If Devolver Digital is a hipster bar, then Annapurna Interactive is an artisan coffee shop. Also widely labelled as an indie publisher, Annapurna has gained critical acclaim in recent years with releases such as Sayonara Wild Hearts, The Outer Wilds, and What Remains of Edith Finch. All of these games are innovative masterpieces, pushing the medium into places it’s never been capable of before because small, passionate creators are being provided a platform to shine. Unlike Devolver, Annapurna treats its games with an element of prestige, as artistic endeavours that can’t be found elsewhere. They are – but they’re also receiving a backing that is substantial enough that I’d be reluctant to call them ‘indie’ in the traditional sense.
Publishers like this alongside the larger ones such as Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony appear to have developed a single generic definition for indie games, and it’s whatever goes outside of their own library of first-party exclusives and other blockbusters worked on alongside external partners. Everything else is too small or not worth their attention, even if said games are amassing millions of sales and thousands of fans across myriad platforms. Knowing this, what does indie even mean anymore?
I feel it’s a label better used for genuinely independent creators, those who are struggling to find a foothold on digital storefronts and desperately require coverage to succeed. As I said earlier, many of these games are the most interesting, and only the lucky ones will be singled out by a publisher and given the resources required to form an audience. Without a lucky break, many are doomed to fail, and given the capitalist nature of this industry, only the most interesting and profitable will be torn from the flock and shown to the masses.
E3 2021 didn’t help matters, even if it showcased a more diverse selection of games than ever before. It’s ironic that as the medium grows more varied and ambitious with the experiences it can provide, the way in which we define them is becoming more confined, constricted to a few select terms and genres that massive audiences can learn and adapt to. Anything that dares venture outside of this is viewed as a threat, or something that meddles with a status quo that is much too busy printing money to encourage creativity.
Annapurna Interactive and Devolver Digital are doing wondrous work, as are the likes of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, but it’s important to remember that true indies sit on the fringes, producing games outside of the usual genres and storefronts simply waiting to be noticed. Don’t forget about them, and don’t forget about where indie games came from as they continue to grow into an increasingly homogenous juggernaut.
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