Is the Indie Game Development Scene ‘Stagnant’? (and other questions whose answer is ‘No’)

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A few days ago the website gamedaily.biz published an interview with veteran indie developer Jonathan Blow (best known for (a) 2D puzzle platformer Braid, (b) 3D open-world puzzle game The Witness, and (c) saying something mildly inflammatory on Twitter every 3-4 months). In it, Blow argues that, at least in terms of creativity and innovation, the indie game development scene is largely stagnant – “There’s a small number of people who I would say actually do creative stuff, but everybody else is trying to be like a cheap AAA game.” 

This has, predictably, caused a fairly big backlash on indie dev Twitter. Many people responded to the interview by posting examples of recent creative, innovative indie games (I’ll be doing the same throughout this post). Others responded by calling Blow willfully ignorant, disconnected from the indie gaming scene, and (again, predictably) a dick.

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Heaven’s Vault (Inkle, 2019) – a game about archaeology and translation. Its way of handling and presenting information to the player, as well as turning translation of a dead language into a central game mechanic, are just about as innovative as games can get.

I should put forward right now that I disagree pretty strongly with what Blow said. But while I think he’s wrong, I don’t think what he’s saying is the result of willful ignorance, a disconnect from the indie scene, or being a dick. And while I’ve seen lots of responses to Blow’s claims, I’ve yet to see one that actually gives him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not either (a) an awful monster, or (b) an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn.

So yeah, let’s do that.

I think Blow’s claim that indie games are largely creatively stagnant – either just trying to be follow market trends, or copying older games the developer really likes – is unfair, but I can kind of see where he’s coming from.

If you look at the vast wave of games being published on Steam nowadays, it’s hard for your eyes not to glaze over at some point. A while back I started following a Twitter account called Steam Trailers in 6s, which shows clips of the trailer for every game released on Steam. At first I was excited by the idea, but I quickly noticed that roughly 90% of all the games fell into two camps: ‘barely finished prototype; or ‘oh, it’s a RTS/deckbuilder/RPG, only the twist is that there are no twists’.

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Hypnospace Outlaw (Tendershoot, 2019) – a game about surfing the World Wide Web in your dreams, in 1999. The humour, creativity, and player freedom of its investigation-and-puzzle-driven world is really something special.

But “ninety percent of everything is crap” , so it’s hardly fair to judge all indie games by the hobbyist devs putting their first game project on Steam. What about actually finished, actually respected and (occasionally) actually financially successful indie games?

Well, again, while I disagree with Blow, I can kind of see where he’s coming from. I’ve grown increasingly wary of slick-looking indie games that slot easily into a specific, popular genre, because I often find them to be initially exiting, then deeply, deeply boring. More than once I’ve found myself playing the first hour of a 15-hour indie game, and realising: “Oh, the next 14 hours are just going to be ‘perform this same gameplay loop again and again while incrementally unlocking upgrades that marginally alter the experience’“.

A lot of indie games do chase market trends, and a lot of indie games are focused on making a fairly unoriginal gameplay loop as compelling as possible (while making sure the visuals/music/etc. are slick and enticing enough to draw attention), at the expense of doing something new or surprising. And that’s, well, fine. But there are so many games that are so much more.

There are loads of games coming out at the moment that are weird, creative, and innovative in a dozen different ways. So for Blow to make his claims that indie games are stagnant, he must either be so busy making his own game that he’s not paying attention what anyone else is making, or he’s working from a wildly esoteric definition of the terms ‘creative’ and ‘innovative’.

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Pathologic 2 (Ice-Pick Lodge, 2019) – a reimagining of cult classic Pathologic. Ice-Pick Lodge are the masters of using sadistic, player-unfriendly gameplay systems to capture an atmosphere or dread and hopelessness.

A lot of people have said that Blow is ignorant of the current indie gaming scene, and that, as a member of the indie dev Old Guard, his perception of today’s indie games is unfair and unlikely to change. But while I think there’s a grain of truth there, I think the real reason for Blow’s claims of stagnation in the face of countless innovative indie games is that he has a weird understanding of what ‘innovative’ means.

Blow comes from a scene that values game mechanics, and mechanical innovation so highly it basically sees them as the be-all and end-all of game design (and gives little more than disapproving glances towards the term ‘story’).

His statements in the past pretty definitively put him in this camp, but we can also see it throughout this interview. Take, for example, his lauding of Stephen’s Sausage Roll as a shining example of modern game design (I’m not saying it’s not, just that it fits with the ‘a great game is a platonically perfect set of systems and mechanics’ view of games).

Also, just look at some of these quotes:

“‘…to make a game about some idea’ where ‘some idea’ is like a fiction idea, and it’s an idea that would have been better if it was a book, or film, or a song, and not a game. I think that happens a lot. For some reason nobody notices this problem or works on it. “

“Games are good at making settings, they’re good at establishing mood. What they’re not good at is plot, so why are we copying these storytelling structures that have plot?”

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The Banner Saga 3 (Stoic Studio, 2018) – The final entry of Stoic’s epic, depressing ‘the world is ending but with Vikings’ saga. The way the series handles choice and consequence is worthy of study, and the combat system is really good I swear to god I will fight you all.

“For some reason nobody notices this problem or works on it.”

This is the point where I start to get genuinely frustrated with Blow, because it’s so tiring to hear people rehash this argument over and over again. I’m 100% done with people repeatedly claiming that games cannot tell stories well, and that anyone trying to crowbar stories into games is misguided – while every passing year sees the release of more and more games that tell stories really well.

The conflation of ‘games that are trying to tell stories’ with ‘games that are just trying to ape movies’ is also incredibly tedious. Games have made so much progress over the years at telling stories in non-filmic, ways – ways that are unique to games. Yes, we have David Cage and Naughty Dog trying to make interactive movies, but we also have The Void, 80 Days, Sunless Skies, Cultist Simulator, Ultra Business Tycoon III, Cart Life, Frostpunk, The Beginner’s Guide, etc. etc. etc.  – i.e. games telling stories of one kind or another through the medium of games, using the unique possibilities of interactivity to do so.

Blow seems so preoccupied with the concept of platonically pure and perfect gameplay mechanics – seeming to view innovation of purely mechanical gameplay systems as the only true innovation – that he ignores or dismisses the countless talented studios doing amazing, creative things in other areas.

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Subnautica (Unknown Worlds Entertainment, 2018) – Subnautica captures the feeling of pushing deeper and deeper into a terrifying, unknown world better than any other game I’ve played.

Inkle’s genuine, groundbreaking innovations in UI, dialogue flow, methods of displaying text, and the handling of information the player knows and doesn’t know – these all count as innovation.

Weather Factory’s work in making Cultist Simulator a game where figuring out how to play the game is 80% of the game is also unique and innovative, by any measure.

The way Mountains play with tiny fragments of interactivity Warrio Ware-style to tell the story of young love and heartbreak in Florence is a perfect example of mechanical innovation that I expect wouldn’t get a nod from Blow.

There are so many more examples of people doing genuinely innovative things in games that at this point it’s just boring and obviously wrong to claim that indie games are stagnating. Sure, a portion of the scene is focused on making slick, shiny things that aren’t particularly new or exciting, but there’s so much great stuff going on.

Hell, even if we take the overly narrow ‘mechanics and systems and innovation in that field only’ view, Blow is still wrong. Just look at recent mechanics-minded games like Baba is You, Return of the Obra Dinn, Engare, and the like.

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A House of Many Doors (Pixel Trickery, 2017) – a Sunless Sea-style explore-and-story game set in a parasite dimension that steals things, people, and places from all over the multiverse.  Full of imagination, wonderful writing, and the best damn ending in all of games.

So, moral of the story? Some people have ultra-specific views of what games should be that can lead them to make claims that seem obviously true to them, but obviously wrong to others. If you agree with Blow, take heart in the fact that there actually are lots of modern indie games doing innovative work with game mechanics. If, like me, you disagree with him, then hey – don’t ever let somebody tell you what games should be.

Enjoy the games you enjoy. Make the games you want to make. And always remember – not engaging, and not getting angry with someone who’s wrong on the internet is a superpower we’re all blessed with, and should make use of more often.


If you’ve read this far – thanks! As always,  you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here. And if you like what I do, why not be lovely by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon?Alternatively, if you hate what I do, why not spite me by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon? Find that Patreon here.

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