A Taste for Pabulum
As I have indicated before, I am a simple man, and that is a philosophy I’m happy enough to embrace. In any real and fair analysis, I must admit that I prefer music that gets played on adult-contemporary stations. I tend to read books that tell a simple, well paced story. I usually avoid movies with complex agendas. And when it comes to video games, I like big-budget, blockbuster sequels from major publishers.
If statistics are to believed — and given how simple I am, I would suggest they are — then I’m actually part of a vast majority measured in multiple millions. If the video game elite and effete however are to be believed — and given how simple I am, I had to get the word “effete” from a thesaurus — then I am the cancer that is slowly eating video game creativity to death.
It has become something of a sin in many gamer enthusiast circles to hold a game in high regard that was mass-produced by a profit-focused publisher, or at least to esteem it as anything but moderately distracting pabulum that lacks the authenticity of most independently developed titles. And, since I’ve already waded neck-deep into heresy, let me walk a little bit further in.
While there are some indie titles that are genuinely entertaining and engaging, I think overall they have generally the same proportions of quality to shortcomings as the big names, and they are as likely to suffer from the same lack of polish, resources, depth and creativity as any other game. In short there is nothing special about independent games just because they happen to be indie.
There are plenty of games that seem to fall within the rubric of “indie” that I like, though most in a transitory, curious kind of way. I honestly don’t get the big deal with Minecraft — is that even an indie title any more? — much less Dwarf Fortress, but those games are like shellfish to me: I see that many connoisseurs I trust enjoy them, but please don’t serve them to me for my main course.
In most cases, I must admit that when I play an independent title I don’t feel like I’m getting anything more complex or deeply affecting out of the experience by virtue of being independent as I do out of any other game. I don’t find a higher proportion of exceptional experiences, nor any inner peace just because my money avoided the grubby hands of public traded companies. In many cases I find the games that claim to address a deep and complex moral issue or try to break the conceits of artistry in gaming to be too often fundamentally poor games masked ‘neath a mountain of pretentiousness.
Sure, there are games like Bastion or Mount & Blade that genuinely do something unique and interesting, and do it in a way that serves the gameplay, but that doesn’t have to do with that game being independent or otherwise. The truth is I’ve seen just as many, if not more, good ideas that I want to see fostered from major publishers as I have from indie games.
That’s not to say that I think there’s anything wrong with the independent gaming movement. It just means I don’t think independent gaming gets bonus points just for being what it is. If you want to sell me half a game that makes for a nice hour long distraction for $5 that’s great, but don’t try to sell me on the idea that it is inherently better than the stock on a Best Buy store just because of its pedigree.
To me, the real thing that independent gaming deserves to be praised for is the diversity they bring to the gaming spectrum. While I grant it no special credibility just for being outside the big studio system, I do recognize that the independent approach allows people to try things that might not be possible with the responsibility of tens of millions of dollars on the table.
This is not the day and age to step to the pulpit and say that big corporations ain’t always so bad, or that putting up with value propositions and asset protection is worth the price of admission to get to play big name games. There is and always has been the desire to see the little guy succeed where the big business fails, and I understand the psychology between proclaiming every inkling of success in indie gaming as a tide turning, David-vs-Goliath kind of moment.
I don’t really understand people who say that they are done with $60 games because such games are creatively bankrupt and there are enough indie games to play forever. I assume they are genuinely satisfied by the near-endless offerings of countless one-man bands and small development houses, but when I play the games propped up as exemplars of the best that indie gaming has to offer, I often find myself missing the polish, the spectacle and the bells and/or whistles that can only come with some serious funding.
I suppose the nice thing is that we happen to live in a universe of gaming where they can go their own way and I can go mine. They can fulfill that wish of never having to buy another full-priced game and satisfy whatever agendas prompt such desires, and I can sit in my easy-minded stupor and blow up highly detailed barrels with abandon. This, to me, is the best thing about a healthy indie movement. Both worlds can co-exist.
For me, though, the world of over-hyped, corporate produced, sequel driven, big-budget gaming is a comfortable and familiar place. C'est la vie.