How Indie Games Make Us So Emotional
Indie games (short for independent games) are developed independently from big publishers and without their financial support. While this may prove to be a great disadvantage, there may be a silver lining.
AAA titles such as Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War rely heavily on their reputation, immense open worlds, blood pumping action and lengthy adventures. They all bring up emotions on some level. Ezio loses his family to a corrupt government conspiracy; Bayek of Siwa tries to cope with the grief of losing his son through a bloody vendetta; Kratos develops a deep and emotional father and son relationship with Atreus.
But somehow, none of them impact me on the same personal level as some indie titles. Gone Home is about feeling young and in love, scared to be yourself but infinitely brave to dare so against all odds. The Stanley Parable offers choice within the confines of no choice at all. It is philosophical, satirical and very thought-provoking. Oxenfree got me thinking about my friendships back in high school while feeling inherently trapped in the denial of loss. The list could go on and on…
The question is how and why do these small games do that? Here are some thoughts.
More With Less
Independent studios have less funding and a really tight budget so they must make do with less resources. This pushes them to find ingenious ways to engage with the player in compelling but short stories, interesting dialogues and relatable characters despite lacking time, programmers or high-end game engines.
Indie game companies have significantly less staff to work on games. While this may sound like a daunting task (and it probably is sometimes) smaller companies get a more direct control over the development and greater artistic freedom to create the experience they want without fear of being shot down by an overarching publisher.
“They must make us feel more with less.”
And perhaps it is that effort that goes a long way.
A problem suffered by several AAA titles is their constriction inside a narrative, lore or mythos established years ago. Let’s take for example the Assassin’s Creed franchise. The first game launched in 2007. (Click here to look back at 10 years of the franchise). Starting off as a prisoner of the Abstergo Templars searching for ancient relics through an Animus, the story was for a long time bound by this complex setting. At times, it was “forcing” the player to go through a series of Abstergo missions while leading the narrative on two fronts: modern day and the ancestor’s memories. Many fans complained and still do to this day.
Indie games are not chained in this way. Since they are often one of a kind, without prequel or sequel, they have far more narrative liberty to try new things and explore different gameplays or story types. They are allowed innovation to whichever extend they wish. Dear Esther and Gone Home both unravel in an epistolary format, providing us a third person point of view, as if we are intruding on a story that happened long before we arrived. Last Day of June plays out in a Groundhog’s Day approach. The developers have a lot of room for imagination.
No Expectations, No Disappointments
One sizeable problem with popular games is also fan expectations. We have seen how hurtful it can be for giants in the industry like Bioware and Ubisoft. Fans raise the bar and ask for impossible standards to achieve, leaving often bittersweet reviews, not for what the game really is, but rather what it could have been. (So many examples, so little time…)
Indie games avoid that problem. With no prequel nor big titles under the belt of the company to serve as comparison, expectations are low if not nonexistent. This is a godsend for these games that can surprise the players and leave them with a positive lasting impression. Rare are indie games that disappoint players to the point of bitterness, mistrust of the company name and angry pitchfork riots on social media. Cough cough.
In a Glass Case of Emotions
In light of all this, why do indie games resonate so strongly with us, often leaving us emotionally drained? The argument could be made that they tend to focus around one precise but strong topic, whether it is death, loss, grief, nostalgia, loneliness, regret… These basic emotions and primal fears speak to us on a deep intimate level that triple A titles might take for granted sometimes.
Now, I admit that several scenes in big games are heart wrenching. I did feel shivers run down my spine at the end of The Last of Us, reflecting on the notions of selflessness and innocence lost, and the blind trust that kids put in adults. The ending of Final Fantasy X still makes me tear up to this day, with its fantastic soundtrack and poignant tale of sacrifice. And yes, I was washed over with joy and relief when Geralt finally found Ciri on his extensive quest in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
But there is something about indie games that punch me in the guts stronger and faster. Perhaps it is due to the shortness of most titles and the fact they need to condense a fast-paced experience instead of offering a huge open world to explore to your leisure. Perhaps the adventure is more linear, closely guiding us to the desired direction in a less expansive environment. In the way of a movie, you are more of a spectator watching a story unravel before your eyes. The difference is that games produce player agency. We get to control a character, make choices and choose paths. A story may very well become your story. And this close contribution to the story gets you emotionally involved.
Many gaming moments that still haunt me to this day originate from indie games. The ending of Last Day of June did. I won’t spoil it for you but that ending made me stop and think about the fragility of life and the importance of caring for your loved ones. I wanted to call the people I loved and tell them before it was too late.
And that emotional response is something special and meaningful. When a game touches you so much that it elicits real life actions or thoughts in a positive light, you may call it an art piece. Art is powerful.
If AAA games are the Sun, indie games are stars. They don’t shine as bright, but they may leave you with a strong emotional impression nonetheless. They lack budget, staff, financial support and marketing campaigns under big players in the industry. But that does not stop them from delivering jewels from time to time. Ultimately, we are all human. And there is nothing more inherently human than emotions.