For the past few years I've felt a bit guilty for having so little time to play even a fraction of the indie games that are released. I spend more time reading about titles like Gone Home, Limbo, Braid, or The Stanley Parable than I do playing them. I got into a debate with my roommate about whether the games on his OUYA were truly worthwhile, with games like Saturday Morning RPG and Ittle Dew providing interesting ideas but very little polish or substance. I've even been described by a friend as a "pretentious triple-A-snob", a confusing term, seeing as the triple-A industry is largely targeted towards the lowest common denominator in the mass market.
This struggle was perhaps at its strongest when I chose to write about Penny Arcade: On The Rain Slick Precipice Of Darkness Episode 3. I understood that Zeboyd was a small team and I wanted to give them some slack, but the truth was that the game's good ideas and combat system were outweighed by what became a monotonous, tedious slog across bland dungeons. Even after I wrote my final assessment of the game, I felt conflicted — as if I were some sort of jerk for treating this independent project to the same standards as other games.
It was a conflict I never stopped struggling with. For all of my pretensions, for every snobbish remark about good games writing and proper game design, was I actually quite shallow in my interests? Was I truly only drawn to the big budget games of the larger studios and publishers that I so frequently condemn? Was I a hypocrite?
It turns out that the answer to my question was not in video games, but in film.
Back in 1998, before he was known for the commercially and critically successful Dark Knight Trilogy, Christopher Nolan made a film called Following. It was filmed in black and white on a tight, mostly self-funded budget, and everyone involved was already employed full-time. They filmed exclusively on weekends, living up to the title of "passion project", and with little promise for reward.
What made Following a notable film was the method in which the story was told. Every scene was played out of sequence, jumping across the narrative's timeline like the Trix rabbit on a sugar high. The intent was to make sure the viewer was always thinking, always trying to interpret what was happening on screen and to continually reinterpret the events as a whole. Each scene provides new information, and the viewer's mind begins to sort, categorize, and connect the dots.
If anything, this film would make for an excellent psychological experiment in how the mind crafts a narrative out of seemingly nothing. Most films make it clear what's happening at points A and B, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks on their own. Sometimes this could be a simple fade into another scene, and other times it can be done flying a plane across a map to suggest our protagonist's method of travel. Yet in Following, everything is out of sequential order. From start to finish, the story makes no clear sense. That is, it makes no sense without the mind attaching meaning to certain objects in a scene, select traits of the protagonists such as clothing or facial hair, and then piecing together meaning and thus, a narrative.
Following is a fascinating movie, and you can tell that Christopher Nolan employed similar strategies when he moved on to film Memento and Batman Begins.
But if you were to ask me if it was a film worth watching, I would probably tell you, "No."
Following is about as indie as you get in the movie-making space. A small team working on weekends, with Christopher Nolan paying for the film reels out of pocket and employing an experimental storytelling method that most big-name studios wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. With the top-of-the-line materials way out of Nolan's price range, the team's equipment was well outdated.
Despite how fascinating the film is to someone interested in the film-making process, or perhaps in the history of Christopher Nolan's work, it otherwise has a very limited appeal. It is not at all a polished experience, and its out-of-sequence nature will likely frustrate more audiences than entertain.
Yet, for Christopher Nolan, it was still a success. It did well at film festivals where other filmmakers gathered, allowing his passion to shine through. Following was Christopher Nolan's film-making portfolio, and that allowed him to move on to larger budgets and better-polished projects such as Memento, The Prestige and Inception.
If I were to compare Following to a game, it would be Dishwasher: The Dead Samurai. A rather simple game, I find Dishwasher to be a perfectly polished and skill-based hack-and-slash whose mechanics keep drawing me back, despite rather bland and poorly designed levels. It's flawed, but the game's combat and enemy design feels just as satisfying as any triple-A experience.
Would I recommend it to everyone, though? No. I'd only recommend it to people that I know are interested in a combo-heavy, fast-paced combat game with plenty of arcade modes. It has a limited audience, but, as with Following, it serves its audience well.
Am I only drawn to the large, big-budget games developed by studios and publishers that I otherwise so frequently condemn? Not at all. I was absolutely in love with Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, Mark of the Ninja, and The Walking Dead: Season One when they all released. Am I a hypocrite for having little interest in narrative experiences such as Gone Home or The Stanley Parable? Honestly, no. While I enjoy a good story and writing in a game, I cannot deny that I am more greatly drawn to a game's mechanics.
Instead, what we have is a cross-over of interests. Christopher Cesarano, the game player who wants a game to provide an engaging method in which to interact with its world, and Christopher Cesarano, the games critic that wants to analyze and dissect games to help players and designers think more deeply about their games.
Two problems crop up here, both from simple misconceptions. By being a games critic I feel as if I should enjoy all forms of games, that I should be able to find satisfaction in anything as long as it is done well. Yet this is simply not true. It manifests as a negative pressure that I put upon myself. Everyone wants something different, and I happen to specialize in critiquing certain experiences.
The other problem is that the popular opinion seems to be that the indie scene is where all the interesting ideas are. The problem here is that "interesting" is always going to be subjective, and even an interesting idea on paper can still be horribly executed. On The Rain Slick Precipice Of Darkness: Episode Three had plenty of interesting ideas, but it completely failed to deliver an engaging experience. I found myself bored, frustrated, and displeased with the repetitive experience that simply dragged out for too long.
This does not mean I dislike indie games, nor that I snub them in favor of higher-budget titles. Zeboyd may only be two people, yet Dishwasher: Dead Samurai was developed almost entirely by James Silva, a single person. Budget and manpower are different from polish and focus, and Rain Slick failed to leverage that difference.
I am not a hypocrite. I may be a snob, but anyone whose interests are limited by a certain criteria may certainly be labeled as such. I know what I like and I know what I specialize in analyzing. It's about time I stop feeling guilty for having no interest in games that do not appeal to me simply because they are a smaller, independent effort. As with Following, I can recognize the value and even help explain what sort of crowd will appreciate that value, but I don't always have to be in that crowd.
If the game is mechanically sound and well-polished, then I will be interested, and I will likely find reason to enjoy it. If not, then I hope it can find its own following.