Indie Games in the Digital Age

Indie Games in the Digital Age
M.J. Clarke & Cynthia Wang, Editors

Bloomsbury Academic, NY, NY, 2020

240 pp. Trade, $120; eBook, $86.40

ISBN: 9781501356452;
ISBN: 9781501356438.

Reviewed by
James Sweeting
August 2020

When first attempting to type up my thoughts for this book I found myself puzzled as to how to proceed. What is this book about? To answer this question I had to dissect the title and revaluate my own preconceptions about it. This is not a book solely about independent videogames, as it includes a chapter on what started as an independent physical game. Nor is it strictly about the digital age. In practice, this seems more like a catchy title rather than a meaningful use of an epochal term to contextualise the work.

Edited collections of work can struggle to find a collective voice. Unfortunately, that is the situation here. That does not mean that the included chapters have no relation to each other. Yet, I am unable to adequately provide a short and clear sentence to sum up and contextualise this book. Even if I wanted to. The book is divided into three sections that do help to provide some cohesion to chapters found within. This gives a semblance of an overarching structure which is most useful when returning to this book.

Part I provides insight into the wider aspects of people and organisations/services involved with the creation process for indie games. Beginning with the example of one of the more notable publishers of indie games “Devolver Digital”. This is a helpful way to start the book, giving some insight into how this publisher uses its deliberate outsider status, which has been an effective tool to help the videogames it publishes stand out. For a while, there was an identifiable Devolver style, a focus on highly stylised, pixelated, ultra-violence. This is identified by John Vanderhoef who elaborates further by critiquing the publishers’ focus on overtly masculine content, that was also present with its earlier marketing persona exemplified by Devolver holding demo events for the press with free beer outside Hooters. Whilst this critique is apt, Devolver’s approach has matured slightly more recently, toning down the focus on crude masculism and, instead, favouring a more general absurdness to its persona. This is present in both its more recent games, such as Pikuniku and its alternative press conferences which parody those previously put on by larger publishers.

The following chapter makes a shift to the individual indie developer in the form of an in-depth interview. This highlights the feasibility of creating a videogame for a niche audience that will also likely alienate the mainstream, something that the creator Mo Cohen seems to embrace. Ordinarily, such a decision would be non-sensical in the commercially focused industry, but with digital distribution and continuous small funding through platforms like Patreon, such a videogame is feasible. The issues of scope and funding development continue to be addressed by M. J. Clarke in Chapter 3. Identifying examples such as videogames developed by “thatgamecompany” where a deal existed with console platform owner Sony to exclusively release videogames on PlayStation systems for a period in exchange for financial support whilst others have experimented with crowdfunding (typically Kickstarter) to support development or to help generate additional attention towards the end of development. It can also be a way to generate early sales of a videogame, with crowdfunding in practice acting more like a pre-order.

Chapter 4 introduces the presence of fan labour or specifically “lovebor” in which certain indie developers seemingly benefit from the “unpaid passion of their fans”. Betsy Brey has examined the Five Nights at Freddy’s series of videogames. These have generated a voracious response in fan-created content, from art pieces to whole videogames replicating the experience, the quality of which being so high that when an external developer was officially working on a Virtual Reality version, they inadvertently included a piece of fan-made character models in the trailer. The significance of this is to highlight the unpaid nature of fan labour. Significant time is invested in creating work that will bring the creator no financial reimbursement yet does contribute to the overarching recognition of the initial franchise that inspired the work. Brey also identifies the work of fan-made remakes such as The Silver Lining project which is a spiritual sequel in the King’s Quest series. The owner of the Intellectual Property – Vivendi – have allowed development to continue, but on the condition that it must be released for free. Meaning the fan developers cannot financially benefit from their work, all while Vivendi receives free publicity for a series which it has only recently given attention to again.

Part II focuses more on the creation process but is still guided by the role of fans in said process, be that financially and/or creatively. Videogame creation tools such as RPG Maker – which itself has a history of evading strictly legal aspects of IP use – has enabled fans of JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games) to create their own. Despite the tools allowing users to create their own fully working videogame, Emile Reed notes that many do not consider themselves to be a developer or creator because of using such a tool. Undervaluing their own effort in producing the final result.

For those, however, who make their “fan game” from scratch, in the case of Eric Barone (AKA ConcernedApe), it is possible to achieve critical and financial success. Barone initially wanted to use his expertise productively after being unable to find a job after completing a computer science degree. Having been a fan of the Harvest Moon series, which in his opinion (and many others) had been diminishing in recent years, decided to make a spiritual sequel. Whilst Stardew Valley was developed by Barone (along with support from then-publisher Chucklefish) he also received substantial feedback from the online community of fans. These fans were invested in the videogame from an early stage and provided feedback on various elements that Barone was working on.

Kevin Rutherford is particularly critical of this approach. Not because of the process itself – as it is an efficient way of developing a well-received videogame – but because of what Rutherford deems to be crowdsourcing of ideas and feedback for development. The alleged problem is that Barone is given too much credit for the work present in Stardew Valley at the expense of the fans that helped him. This is an interesting interpretation, yet I consider this to undervalue Barone’s contribution. The analogy that comes to my mind is that of having a room, such as a kitchen, renovated. It is quite likely that you will have a builder do most if not all the work for you. Whilst you might have selected the style of worktops and tiles, someone else did the actual work. Meaning, despite your ideas being utilised, you cannot claim to have “built the kitchen”.

From idea crowdfunding back to financial crowdfunding, Cynthia Wang (also one of the editors) examines physical board game Escape Room in a Box. This initially seems jarring to move away from videogames. But difficulties and successes experienced are cross-compatible regardless of the type of game. Emphasis is placed upon the two creators, both then “stay-at-home” mums, Juliana Patel and Ariel Rubin. They are fans of escape rooms but found that with the difficulties that come from childcare it was difficult to visit the places that would organise the sessions. This was where the idea came to bring the experience of escape rooms into the home so that more people could experience them.

Wang also identifies the affordance that something like Kickstarter provided Patel and Rubin, two women who had no prior experience in producing a physical game, let alone getting it into the hands of players around the world. It is here that the “digital age” is apt in that it enabled such a project to exist. However, this is where the indie side of the discussion abruptly breaks apart. As the continued success of Escape Room in a Box is dependent on a licencing agreement with toy behemoth Mattel producing and distributing the game. This aspect is an interesting conundrum and one that could have been explored more. For this is not unique to this example, with many indie videogames being in a similar position with a major publisher such as Microsoft and Sony in charge of publishing.

Part III is titled “Indie Game Texts”, yet in practice focuses more on the adaptation of genres and the evolution of indie economics. It continues exploring the role of queer in indie games with Cody Mejeur examining why the “walking simulator” genre of videogames has been particularly prominent in providing “queer spaces”. This genre provides a suitable blank slate in terms of gameplay mechanics that can be adapted to how the developers want to get their narrative experience across. Mejeur does have criticisms of how this genre has been used though by developers in attempting to provide queer experiences though yet does accept that it has been crucial at helping the medium begin to address the existence of queerness.

Aaron Trammell provides some awareness into the underlying economic interpretations that can be associated to the videogames industry. The memorable aspects of this discussion are not isolated to just indie videogames. Acknowledging critiques of media such as Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno’s “The Culture Industry” and “encouraging a bling sort of consumerism” acting as “a mass opiate of sorts”.

The final chapter by Patrick Davison feels like an odd choice to end the book on, given that it is based on the oldest case study, that being videogames associated with The People’s Computer Company (PCC). The PCC was an American hobbyist newsletter from the 1970s, and it included what is referred to as the “type-in-game”; videogames the reader can type out on their own computer and run the resulting videogame programme. This also provides an entry into the fascinating contradiction between the early indie scene and associated countercultural ideology alongside an enjoyment from playing videogames based around economic dominance and imperialism. In short (it is worth reading Davison’s chapter for the full explanation) the freedom that technology – especially early computer technology – provides users is naively seen as a great leveller, a form of meritocracy in action. These early videogames provided in PCC were part of an independent movement, not from large videogame corporations as these did not yet exist, but rather instead from the military, corporate, and academic centres that had previously controlled much of computing. Yet, these users miss the inherent problems with this line of thinking, disregarding their own privilege of being able to access a computer at that time, which automatically puts them at an advantage over most of society.  

Indie Games in the Digital Age seems like a difficult book to recommend in its entirety. The individual chapters will certainly be of use to certain readers. But collectively, not all the chapters coalesce together effectively. Perhaps, the medium of a book is the wrong format? Whereas a journal issue would justify the overarching looseness in the compilation. However, for those that are interested to explore broader insights of indie games – ones that could be considered to sit just outside of the expected understanding, this is a curious read.