Why Gaming should NOT Become Art: Pointers for Indie Devs
Where is the Fun?
2012 onwards saw an epidemic of walking simulators/games with no interactivity except for WASD/movement keys (e.g. Dear Esther, Gone Home, Everyone's Gone to Rapture) which frankly are boring and looks like a fun experience was not on the list for the developers. These "games" were selling themselves on a "good story" and visuals when describing themselves on Steam. I asked myself, "why not make a movie then?" as I marked them as "not interested" on my Steam queue.
However, walking simulators are not the end of it since there exist other games such as "Thomas Was Alone" which also have little interactivity and an emphasis on the story and emotions; conveyed through semi-hidden methods. When did we go from Road Rash (Sega Genesis) and The Witcher 3 where we just had fun and if there was a message we got it from the gameplay and we made our own stories there?
While I am not the target audience for these games, I feel I have the right to criticize them because I am a gamer and these are being sold to me on a digital storefront next to other games. Sure no one is asking me to purchase them but they are still recommended, praised and promoted by prominent figures whose opinion is sought and trusted by many. This motivates developers to make more of them and frankly rest on their laurels.
My main problem with "artful" games is also the lack of mechanics in them and if there are any, they are bare bones and either done better elsewhere or are not fun and come off as a gimmick. However, this issue is universal as they mainly focus on story and imagery rather than the gameplay process. Finally, my goal is not to bash indie games since there exist excellent independent releases which are fun and most importantly, do try to achieve something which raises the quality bar for their space; after all, the greatest offense one can commit is not have any expectations or standards for other people.
So the Story is your Selling Point?
Since most indie games like to focus on the story and therefore, try to bank on that feature and in most cases, that feature alone; I would start my list here. In good games where the fun is the focus, the storyline is not forced onto the player and instead, conveyed through the gameplay process and interactivity; even created by the player through in-game interactions. Games that tout their story as their main feature tend to deliver it badly; forcing the player to listen to voice acting (voiced by a person who is clearly bored with his role) and trying to make him care way too much; about virtual pixels at that.
A game like Gone Home is one example of forcing the player to care; making me feel as if I was lead by gunpoint by the developer while he demanded me to care. Gone Home has a storyline that can happen in real life in the worst way possible; this, in my opinion, defeats the purpose of a game by eliminating any kind of mystery, excitement or a sense of wonder; it was almost like watching a terrible soap opera. The game in question did not do anything special in the way of interactivity too; just walk around rooms and click on inanimate objects; not far from a Facebook hidden-object game.
Why do I have a problem with this, point-and-clicks were a thing back in the late 90s and early 2000s so why not have one today? Well, I did play a few of those (Zork Grand Inquisitor, Harvester, Darkseed and Dead City, another indie game) and they were great games; but why? Well, the above games had interesting premises; Darkseed had two worlds for the player to traverse with many things to see; with art done by H.R Giger. (Alien) Harvester had an insane cast of characters to interact and meet while Dead City (a freeware indie game) had subtlety which made a game composed of still images feel scary.
In conclusion, if you are an indie developer and want to make an adventure game, take note of the above games in the same genre for inspiration and see how would their mechanics play out in yours. Make the player believe your world exists; build it up with other characters, establish some laws and consequences; Harvester had some instances where the player could die hence actions had a meaning as opposed to the passive nature of Gone Home.
Finally, we as players see enough of our world and we come to games to have fun and not be exposed to the same problems we have outside, therefore, consider not having it that way. Unconventional love stories, for example, are not fun for me personally because there is too much angst and forcing of emotion onto me which is done to absolute death everywhere else; consider this like watching a politically-slanted lecture where everything is slanted in favor of an extreme.
Overall, my final point on over-focus on storyline is that when there is too much of it most of the time while being force-fed to the player which is akin to strapping him to a chair and showing a glorified slideshow instead of allowing him to interact and actually become invested. Effectively, making the whole thing a lecture on something the player doesn't care for.
Consider becoming a Painter.
Moving onto games that focus too much on visuals where it's either pretty graphics or just a slew of hallucinogenic sequences that resemble visualizations from Windows Media Player; such games are in great abundance where all of them just feel like those annoying, self-indulgent "hallucinations" sequences from Far Cry 3 which last forever and move slow at that. Yet, they are highly praised by many mainstream gaming media outlets for the visual style alone, almost trying to hide the fact that the game just isn't that good.
Indie games that stake their reputation on visuals also focus too much on how good they look to the point of not having anything else which are not far from walking simulators. Dear Esther is one such example which has beautiful graphics and nothing else. There are too many such games where those who criticize them are accused of "not getting it" as if trying to dodge and dismiss genuinely valid points in self-congratulatory glee. Such games are pretentious in a sense that the developers get on a high horse and claim there is something more to their game; well we, the players are not seeing it.
Finally, the takeaway from this is that developers should give us something to do in their world besides making our W key beg for release. Yes, you made a beautiful world but so did the first Far Cry; yes it was a AAA game at the time but the graphics are almost on par if not inferior to Dear Esther, it had a lot to do in it. It's time we stopped accepting emptiness in games just because they are indies and held them to higher standards to make gaming better hence improving the reputation of indie developers.
The Most Obnoxious.....
Finally, another major problem with most indie games professing to be "art" is that they flood the player with 4th wall breaking additions to the gameplay; I cannot think of a more obnoxious, patronizing elements. While everyone loved the Stanley Parable for this, I despised everything within it because the whole experience felt like sitting with an overly annoying kid who kept regurgitating facts from an encyclopedia he read 5 minutes ago.
Most of the time, such style of narrative points out the obvious borderline trope-y things we have seen regurgitated elsewhere beyond gaming. Being challenged mentally and physically is one thing but most 4th wall breakers are just stating the obvious and cliched; "look, we know this cliche and you saw it before!" is 4th wall in a nutshell. This is just a joke that gets repeated ad nauseum.
Overall, indie devs should realize that being independent is no longer a free pass and lackluster output is no longer a lamentable by-product of "low budget" and "indie" status. Indie development was initially supposed to bring new ideas to the scene yet instead, they follow trends more successful titles set or just take the easy way out and bank on a non-gameplay element which is supposedly "too deep" to grasp.
Finally, not only a shake-up on the indie scene would do us gamers a favor but it would also help indie devs establish themselves within the industry. id Software made their name on groundbreaking shooters with new features in times of platformers. Just a thought.
© 2017 Jake Clawson