You are low on food and starving. Your sanity is wearing thinner and thinner, and there are movements in the dark you are sure are getting closer every night. The landscape is bleak, filled with devastation and danger instead of shelter or sustenance, and instead of hope, the next daylight just brings more worry and stress to survive. This is the feeling of Don’t Starve. A video game with a bit of fantasy and gaudy horror thrown in, but which mostly consists of pseudo-realistic survival as opposed to a plot or story. It forces you to search through a sometimes barren world to find food and build shelter to stave off the dark night and stay alive. However, this game is not just a bad dream that Minecraft had, directed by Tim Burton, but a battle brought to us on the new wave of old school difficulty Indie games.
These are not your typical high-profile video games of today. Created almost exclusively at home, without any budget to speak of, independent video games are often passion projects from only a few individual programmers without the support structure of corporation. Low funding necessitates a lower overall production value, creating games that look like they were produced for Nintendo 64 or Atari. These 16 or even 8-bit games that can look like Galaga or Dig Dug charm the pants off gamers old enough to remember fondly that era of gaming. And without the crutch of phenomenal graphics to carry the project, indie video games have to tell their story that much more powerfully, or create an atmosphere that you can feel that much more explicitly. The low amount of polygons available to create the visuals also forces developers to use them more artistically and surrealistically since realism can’t be reasonably achieved.
They are cheap to make, cheap to buy and great for those who don’t want to put three hundred hours into a triple-A RPG or first person shooter, but there is a catch. The development process, without the cushion of a studio to pay out workers and take a hit if the game doesn’t do well, can put all of the pressure on the few people working on the game. The stakes are high when you’ve not only invested your time, but your extra resources, your sanity and the patience of family members or significant others in a game that’s going to sell for five dollars on the Xbox or PlayStation store. In 2012’s “Indie Game” a few independent game developers are profiled, and it’s extremely obvious how much of a toll creating a game all by yourself, when in studios it can be done with hundreds of people, can take. Phil Fish, the creator of FEZ, another independent game based on exploration and acclaimed for its artwork and ambiance, recently ceased working on FEZ 2 because of the immense stress put on him from the development process.
One of the most impressive indie games, one that really exemplifies using amazing storytelling to bring a basic graphic interface to life, is Thomas Was Alone. In TWA, your character is a square that you move around the screen to get to a door through solving the puzzle of the level. Other characters come through with different abilities or shapes, but the basic gameplay remains the same. This may sound very basic, and more like a game one would find online for free to kill some time, but it is much more than that. The amazing part of TWA is the storytelling, by an omniscient narrator who takes small squares or rectangles and turns them into nuanced individuals, with motivations and personalities that are able to carry a surprisingly emotional story throughout the games many puzzles. It isn’t a long game, but at its end the player feels a definite loss from no longer being a party to the interactions of these characters, who have been brought to life so well from such a simple premise.
In the studio video game industry, the prices of games made by large studios are getting more exorbitant for a lower quality product. For the industry standard sixty dollars, games coming out recently have been less and less complete, relying on updates and patches to make them playable. Indie games, while not having top of the line graphics, are able to keep the prices low and the quality and replayability high. Hopefully with funding platforms like Kickstarter, the industry can continue making great quality games without putting as much personal and professional burden on independent game developers.
This article was written by Jake Perry, a writer for dusk magazine.