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GAMING
In search of the indie game.

BY HEATHER CHAPLIN

JONATHAN BLOW'S BRAID.

I‘ve been waiting, patiently. Since 2001 I‘ve been writing about video games and since Day 1, I‘ve been asking people: “Yo, where are the indie games at?”

And now it‘s happened. Two thousand and eight. Declared by game makers, press and fans alike the Year of the Indie Game. Coming to a Chinese restaurant place mat near you.

Seriously. It‘s weird. Two thousand and two was the first year video games earned more than movie box office receipts (which, between you and me, is like comparing apples to oranges, as Hwollywood makes much of its money from ancillary channels and games have yet to discover these channels, but who‘s counting?), and there was a lot of self-congratulatory noise in the industry. That year was also my first E3 — the now-defunct industry trade show where the big industry players spent millions to strut their stuff for the year to come.

I walked through the maze of little universes each company had constructed for the week. Okay, there was Sony. Microsoft had just bought its way into the game with a billion-dollar-plus ticket. Nintendo. Electronic Arts. Activision. Got it. Got it. But where was the Strand Releasing of the game world? Hell, where was the Miramax? Who was Steven Soderbergh, let alone Hal Hartley?

See, way back then, in the dark ages of 2002, the Blockbuster model was really all there was. Graphics and computational power were the names of the games, and graphics and computational power cost lots and lots of money. So once you‘d spent all those millions on your fancy, photo-realistic water and swaying-in-the-wind hair, you weren‘t going to take a risk with something artsy, weird or small-feeling. And frankly, even if you did, and even if you won every award in the industry and everyone patted you on the back and told you how daring and cool you were, you wouldn‘t have made any money because you wouldn‘t have sold as many copies as if you‘d just made a lowest-common-denominator, blow-everything-up and kill-everything-in-your-path game. But your initial investment would have been the same as if you had.

In other words there was no Lionsgate model of making smaller investments for smaller returns but still getting stinkin‘ rich. (And we all know that if there‘s anything industry bigwigs like, it‘s to get stinkin‘ rich.)

Sure there were puzzle games online and kids making little games at home with C++. There were even some really forward-thinking art-school-type kids who passed these little games around to one another on disks, but with no means of distribution, and bigger-is-better the common wisdom, that only went so far.

Okay, 2008. This being America, let‘s start with the money.

This generation of video game consoles — the Playstation 3, the Xbox 360 and the Wii — all have online distribution. They also have taken to competing with one another through providing original content (God forgive me for using that evil, evil, evil, mean-nothing word). And this means that games are in the midst of one of those rare and blessed moments in time where the needs of capital and the desires of the artist meet on some celestial plane — and the rest of us get to stand, mouths agape, our faces to the sky, and be blissfully showered with blazing stars of full-on indie brilliance.

Or if you want to be prosaic about it, the industry powers-that-be (the console makers and the publishers) are suddenly in desperate need of lots and lots of small content (oh that word again!) to fill their online distribution channels. Since these games sell for $9.99 and less, and because the consoles want to have lots and lots of them on their networks, and because there‘s no packaging or shipping or marketing, the whole risk-reward ratio has shifted drastically. Now those kids passing disks around between themselves are hot commodities, finding themselves with multigame deals and talking on panels and getting rewarded for being exactly who they are.

Sometimes life can be sweet.

And there is more to the story than just money. (No, really.) You have to remember the video game is a very new medium. We‘re just seeing the second generation, maybe third, of game makers emerging. These are kids who grew up on Nintendo and who have no internal conflict about games being a legitimate form of personal artistic expression.

And there‘s more to the story than just cool young people. (Really.) You have to remember that video games are a very new medium. Oh wait, I said that. Well, bear with me. It‘s new, but it‘s not as new as it was, say, 10 years ago. Hell, in video game years, it‘s not even as new as it was when I wrote the same sentence in the paragraph up above. The medium itself has matured. A vocabulary is developing for game designers to actually talk about what it is they‘re doing. A body of theoretical work is growing. Schools are teaching game design. Just as it took time for early filmmakers to realize they could do more with their medium than set a camera up in front of a stage, so too is it taking time for video game makers to figure out just what they can do that is unique to their medium alone.

And with this developing sophistication on the part of the game maker, so too is the audience getting more sophisticated. As more people take to the habit, they bring with them expectations bred not on other games, perhaps not even on Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons. They want something more than a mindless shoot-‘em-up with photo-realistic graphics. They maybe want to think while they‘re playing. Or feel. Or experience something beautiful. Or maybe just see something really fucking cool that they‘ve never seen before. (I listed a few in the sidebar on pg. 28.)

So here‘s to the mainstream for finally beginning to understand that it needs that which lies behind its borders; that it‘s the fringe that informs the center, and, in fact, usually becomes the center, which in turn pushes the medium deeper and deeper into what it can become.

And here‘s to you. Because what can I say, with gaming poised to be the dominant form of entertainment of the 21st century, this is good news for all of us.



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