The vast majority of video games share certain well-established tropes. Most have a sequence of levels with enemies and bosses to kill. They star big muscled men or thin sexy women, and they often have various puzzles to solve.
For the most part, traditional video games put entertainment and challenge ahead of theme, emotion and story.
Indie games are pushing boundaries and challenging expectations
But perhaps emboldened by the successes of thatgamecompany’s poetic, bittersweet games Journey and Flower — which respectively deliver a lonely exploration of an ancient world and a vividly windswept flight through urban and natural environments — indie game developers are increasingly challenging what we should expect from a video game.
This year in particular we’re seeing a wealth of boundary-pushing games from teams of just a few people that draw the universal elements out of personal experience to move beyond the medium’s established tropes. Games like…
Beyond Eyes tackles loss
Take Beyond Eyes, a game about loss viewed through the eyes of a 10-year-old blind girl called Rae.
Rae loses her cat and the player, walking in her virtual shoes, must head out of the familiar into the unknown of a blank canvas that fills in with shapes and colours with every sound.
With no guide and no sight, Rae searches for her cat and tries to figure out from sounds and touches and smells what things are, and in the process she learns to experience new things. To seek adventure in an unfamiliar world.
Sunset focuses on relationships
Or there’s Sunset, which casts you as a humble housekeeper who cleans a rich man’s penthouse apartment for an hour every day while a bloody revolution takes place outside the building.
This is a game that has no challenges or real goals — you can easily ignore your to-do list every day. It is content to let you use the confines of a housekeeping job to build a nuanced and complicated relationship with a man you never meet and who you soon learn has ties to the revolution.
And for all the gunfire and jets and ash you witness from afar through the apartment’s windows, your only way of understanding how relationships have changed both in and outside is to notice the differences in your mundane surroundings.
The Beginner’s Guide is an indie game about indie games
Another new game, just released, questions gaming tropes more directly. The Beginner’s Guide is a game about game development in introspective terms. It’s a semi-autobiographical take on a fictional amateur game developer’s portfolio of unfinished prototypes, maps, modifications, and experimental games, and on the very real Davey Wreden’s own journey from amateur to professional development.
It literally lectures the player while guiding her through this fictional developer’s portfolio, and in the process it offers very little in the way of traditional “game” play but it raises lots of questions about the relationship between game maker and audience and between Wreden himself, his games and their players.
No Man’s Sky hopes to inspire a sense of wonder
And while Han Solo simulator No Man’s Sky has elements of space combat, trading and survival, it is first and foremost a game about exploration. With 18 quintillion planets to discover, the thrill is not so much shooting, piloting a space ship or grinding money, but standing somewhere that nobody has ever been to, seeing something that nobody has ever seen, or perhaps ever will see.
In many other games, the scenery is typically a backdrop to the core game mechanics. No Man’s Sky flips this idea on its head. Your journey through the scenery — from lush jungle planets teeming with life to barren, cratered moons — is the game. Thanks to the game’s sheer size and its procedurally generated content, your experience playing it will be unique. There are no scripted set-pieces. No cutscenes. No missions.
Her Story casts you in an FMV detective story
Titles like The Beginner’s Guide, Sunset, Beyond Eyes, and other recent releases such as Her Story (solve a murder by watching archived tapes accessible via search terms but not chronology) and Rinse and Repeat (scrub other men in a shower block) — these all subvert and challenge ideas of what games are and how games work.
The availability of powerful dev tools makes it easier to create games
Independent game development has become relatively easy and cheap in recent years, thanks to the proliferation of tools such as Unity, Game Maker, and Twine, and now it is also reaching a level of maturity that sees this kind of personal, introspective, adventurous style come to the fore.
Games can now be about loss, relationships, revolution, murder, discovery, communal showering, and more, all without handing the player a virtual gun or a sequence of inventory-based puzzles or level bosses or high scores or anything else that we’ve come to expect from the medium.
These games haven’t all been successful. But without the financial pressures of big-budget development, indie game developers seem hellbent on proving that games can be both about and in the form of anything. And that can only be good for the future of gaming. — Richard Moss (@MossRC)