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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Explosion of Indie Games Kills 'Best of' Column

Clive Thompson 01.14.08 4:30 PM

Cyclops is one of the author's many favorite indie games.
Screenshot: Courtesy of Hikoza'n-CHI X

This is getting ridiculous. Two years ago, I wrote my first column celebrating the best indie games: small, offbeat titles, programmed usually by a single auteur and given away for free. I figured I'd make it an annual affair. For 12 months, I'd scour the net for independent games that had a spark -- some innovative bit of design or gameplay -- and gather a list of the top 10.

But I've decided it's impossible. This is not because I can't find any games to praise. It's because I can find too many. Two years ago, the number of people making genuinely polished indie games was pretty small, numbering in the dozens or scores. A single columnist could reasonably hope to sample the year's offerings and make some picks.

But in the last two years, things have blown up spectacularly. There are now hundreds and hundreds of superb indie games coming out every year, from creators in the United States, Japan, India, China and all points on the globe. I'm not counting the crap games, by the way. Throw them into the mix and you're well into the thousands.

No, I'm talking about the good ones. They're now so numerous that I feel like Darwin, scrambling around the Galapagos Islands, frantically trying to catalog the explosively diverse life-forms.

Unlike Darwin, however, I'm giving up. This is the last "year in indie games" column I'm going to write. I'm not even going to pretend to offer a list of "the best," because even though I've played hundreds of games throughout the year, I can't pretend to have played widely enough to determine the best.

I can tell you some of my favorites. For sheer arcade-style action with a twist, I've been enjoying the laser-zapping-with-mirrors fun of Cyclops and the unusual music game Synaesthete. I lost several workdays to solving Bloxorz, a videogame iteration of an old school of logic puzzles (with simply gorgeous sound editing), and Speck Oppression, a physics puzzle game that oscillates my frontal cortex into Zen mode. For sheer narrative artistry -- games that are less addictive thumb candy than tone poems you play once or twice, then meditate upon -- I loved Psychosomnium.

So the question is, why are there so many great indie games now?

I think it's because the videogame industry has hit precisely the same maturation point that movies and music once hit.

Back around 1900, movies began as tiny, indie affairs -- hallucinogenic experiments maybe five minutes long. In a few decades, though, moviemaking became industrialized, turning films into two-hour narratives that cost millions (in today's dollars) to make. The sheer expense of making a movie meant that producers had to stick to genres that were proven to work at the box office: westerns, romance, mysteries. Experimental film died out.

But eventually, genuine auteurs got so sick of seeing the same, dull genres over and over again that they decided to buck the big-money system. The first generation of inexpensive cameras let them make movies on the cheap; with no stakes, they could do weirder, genre-busting films. Thus were born the indie movies of the '60s and '70s -- and that revolution helped rejuvenate all filmmaking, even big-budget stuff.

Movies took seven decades to hit that inflection point. The music business hit it more quickly, with indie pop emerging in maybe five decades after the industry's birth. But games got there in only 25 years.

Just like movies and music, the movement is propelled by a new generation of kids who have easier technological access than ever before: Flash broke the barrier down low, and game-development tools like Game Maker are becoming almost point-and-click easy. Today's indie gamemakers possess the desire to tweak the old genres, and an intuitive sense of the language and mechanics of play.

What's more, there are now formal distribution avenues to encourage indie games -- ranging from the many blogs devoted to them (TIGSource, Indie Games, Jay is Games and many more) to awards events like the Independent Games Festival and Slamdance Games.

Which is where I'm going to leave you. Indie gaming is a field that's come of age, such that you can sample its enormous variety all year long. The best-of column is dead. Long live the best-of column!

Via: www.wired.com

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