Indie games as short form fiction


There’s this idea that indie games are all 8bit graphics with chiptune soundtracks. This is of course false, as some of the most gorgeous experiences I’ve had in games recently have been Indie games. I think it should be a new genre: the heavily atmospheric game with just enough story added in. I suck at coming up with names.

Gone Home, The Light and Dear Ester are all games about broadly the same thing: creating an atmosphere but they are all very short compared to larger games. You can play through any of them in an hour or two, much less if you tried a speed run (well, except in Dear Ester where running is considered to be a gameplay issue.) This sounds like a problem but if you expanded them to a full sized game you would have big problems keeping that level of atmosphere going. The only AAA game that I can think of that actually manages that is Portal 2, which must mean that it’s a really hard thing to get right. Even then it throws puzzles into the mix to keep you occupied between the real game of finding out about Cave Johnson. OK, I might have taken the wrong thing away from that game.

One of the problems with these games is that they can cost more per hour of play than some people might be OK with. Gone Home costs about £5 an hour if you explore properly and although I feel that I more than got my money’s worth I can see why some might not. The payoff for me at the end of Gone Home was some sever anxiety about how it was going to end after an enjoyable rummage about in a strange house, and if you’re not into that kind of thing then it’s really not going to seem to be value for money.

I think that these are the gaming equivalents of short stories in the way that they have a single point to tell and are very focused about getting you into the right mood to make that point. They don’t even tell you what they’re trying to be, they just put you in the world and let you explore the very well created surroundings as the tension as to what’s going on builds up. Gone Home and The Light especially have a scary quality that comes from not knowing what’s going on, which is something I can’t elaborate on without spoiling the games.

I like the idea of being put in a world and being asked to figure out why. Actually that’s not true, you’re never asked and you just end up doing it anyway, which is fantastic.

Above all it’s a micro-genre based on environmental and sound design with storytelling being the key to move you onwards. I want to play more of these games, I think they’re an exciting direction for games to go in.

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