On Indie Games as a Genre


play-indie-logoI’m having a conversation with my friend and she tells me about how she read an interesting article over at Game Informer (print) about how “indie games” are a genre, but they are an ambiguous genre that no one can really define. This seems to me like, at best, a misguided statement. Certainly, it is hard to identify what an “indie game” is, but the term “indie” isn’t a genre – at least not in the traditional sense of the word, which is to identify markers in a text itself – as much as it is a term that identifies the production and publication processes of a game. In the rest of this post I will discuss what is an actual genre, using various texts as example, explain why there is no such thing as an “indie game feel”, as my friend argued. Later, at a follow-up post, I will attempt to define what it does mean to be “indie”.

When it comes to any kind of text, whether it’s print, visual, film, or game, the term “genre” describes certain markers in the text itself. When people look at the “romance” section at their local book store, they expect to find a book where characters fall in love / lust, and when they look at the “fantasy” section, they expect swords and sorcery, an old wise man with a beard, and a mystic treasure of some kind. Detective novels have crimes to be solved, young adult novels have teenage characters and coming of age stories, and science fiction novels have futuristic technology. Those are genre markers. In film, action movies feature gunfights and chase scenes, romantic comedies feature people talking and “falling in love” in situations that can be described with obnoxious words such as “quirky” and there’s someone who looks like Katherine Heigil. Oh, and Michael Bay films (they seem to have etched a genre of their own) have no story and lots of explosions. Likewise, when it comes to games, there are genres and genre markers, as misguided as some of them may be. FPS games have a first person perspective where players shoot stuff. JRPG games have stories, a lot of characters, towns, dungeons, and some version of turn-based battles.  Puzzle games feature puzzles. Even mixed-genre games such as Fallout: New Vegas, an FPS RPG, has the features offered by its genre – it’s first person, players shoot stuff, there is a story, there is some sort of turn-based battle (the V.A.T.S. system), etcetera. The term “indie”, however, has no specific genre markers.

What makes a game an “indie” game? Originally, it meant that it was a game that was independently published. Similar to self-published books, indie games were created without the funding or support of a major publisher. What my friend argued, however, was that “indie games” can be considered as a genre because, as the article read according to her paraphrase, indie games feature:

“sometimes a combination, sometimes certain elements, such as an artsy kind of feel, leaning more towards traditional art rather than digital art, sometimes the pixelated feel, or just those games whose development is more experimental/experience-based than narrative-based.”

51cb4c8b118b9I’m not entirely sure what “an artsy kind of feel” means, as in whether it’s meant as visual artsy or mechanically artsy, but I’m fairly certain that Okami [Capcom] is both visually and mechanically “artsy”; It is a game that leans more towards traditional Japanese art than it does towards computer generated art.. In fact, I would go beyond that and say that Okami is an artistic game that offers players an experience, both visually and mechanically, that is quite unique. I’m also fairly certain that Okami is not an indie game. On the other hand, there are titles such as Amnesia: Dark Descent [Frictional Games] which are developed by small teams and published independently, but whose visual and mechanical aesthetics borrow heavily from AAA games (another marker that does not denote genre). Does that make Amnesia less of an indie game? In most situations the “pixelated art” (read: sprite-based) can be considered as a strong argument, but lacking pixel art does not mean that a game is not indie, nor does having pixel art make a game indie. This is specially true when one looks at video game technologies that still use pixel art. Is Soul Hackers [Atlus] for the 3DS an indie game? Hardly.

Depression-Quest-screen-16Certainly, a stronger argument can be made about games that offer players experimental mechanics or that focus on play experience rather than narrative. However, what does that make of all the narrative-driven indie RPGs like Exit Fate [SCFWorks], Recattear [Easy Game Station], or The Generica Chronicles [Quijano]? Where does that put text-based narratives such as the now controversial Depression Quest [Zoe Quinn]? Are they not indie because they rely on narrative? And what about games like Shadow of the Colossus [Sony] or L.A. Noire [Rockstar]? Do they suddenly become indie because they offer experimental mechanics of taking down the colossus and being a cop who interviews people? Is the excellent Child of Eden [Ubisoft] an indie game because it’s more about the experience of feeling music than it is about story? The truth is that no matter what arguments are made, the term “indie” is a marker, sure, but it is not a marker of genre. It is a marker of development process.

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About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on August 23, 2014, in Video Game Commentary and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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