by Zoe Quinn
by Zoe Quinn
It's no secret independent game makers are feeling the ever-increasing pull these days between making art and making rent. What's more, being an "indie" — if that even means anything anymore — and publishing on community-driven digital platforms can put you directly in the crosshairs of an increasingly-hostile online audience. Believe me, I'd know.
And I'm hardly alone in this: strung up between social and economic tensions, many creators and critics have left the industry entirely over the last seven months' crucible of online abuse and hopelessness. Surely, we independent game makers have to have a choice between enduring these conditions and quitting altogether.
Games need a united punk movement, and we're finding one in altgames.
It's far from new, too. There have been people, often marginalized people, consistently breaking the mold for as long as there have been games. These dark months behind us underline how vital pushing our medium's boundary is to all of us who care about its future, and how now, more than ever, experimentation needs to be supported and sustainable. Everyone who has felt alienated by the games industry, both would-be players and creators, needs to rally together and support one another as we create a space for those of us who don't fit in traditional spaces. We need to bring in fresh creators from as many places as we can, and help them be able to make a living when they're here.
Let's call them "ludonarrative dissidents."
In 1976, an english fanzine called Sideburns published an illustration of three chords, captioned "This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band".
"For me its a desire to get out from under the mechanic-focussed design practice that I feel a lot of indie spaces treat as gospel"
There is an exact analog in games: programs like Twine can help a single beginner make a simple game in an afternoon, without needing a computer science degree. You, dear reader, can make games.
The DIY movement in tech is only growing with each new tool and each new community that springs up around it. It's been nearly a decade since I hung up my sticker-covered guitar, but now when I make a game on a friend's floor in a manner of hours, I feel like I've traded it in for a sticker-covered laptop.
John Holmstrom, the founding editor of Punk Magazine and the illustrator of 2 Ramones album covers, described punk as "It's rock and roll by people who didn't have very much skills as musicians but still felt the need to express themselves through music". While some might see that and think "oh great more crappy work", I feel that completely misses the point.
"Altgames do not hew to traditional aesthetics"
What people don't realize is that when you start making things outside of the convention of what is normal or good or "best practices", you're also shedding some of the baggage that comes with the concept of what a game "should" be. You won't be at the mercy of design conventions that haven't been challenged in 20 years just because they "seem game-y". You're starting with a truly blank canvas, and that has just as much potential to yield truly experimental work as it does to produce crap.
"Making the game you want to play, or tells the story you want to tell, without compromising for wide appeal"
"Crappy work" is also a concept that has been pretty narrowly defined despite being highly subjective — both with punk music and alternative video games. There's a pressure in the indie space to create products that use similar metrics of success to big budget games, to prove to no one in particular that we're just as good as the triple A blockbusters. However, the values we automatically embrace as "good" should be questioned.
For example: Although old retail models once prized 60-hour epics as the gold standard, tantalizing fans with copious "content," there's no reason to persist in this value system under modern distribution models. As the critic Brendan Keogh says:
"Videogames aren't just buckets filled up with a certain amount of content. You don't just walk into the Content Bucket shop and buy the bucket that is most filled up with content. But dramas like this imply that that is what videogames are. Next time you're playing a game and you're wondering why it has this arbitrary vehicle section or that terrible sewer level, remember that this is why. Because if they didn't put that boring crap in, the press and the community forums would rip them to shreds for not filling the Content Bucket all the way up."
Better isn't always more, and pretending it's the case is laughably limiting.
"to evoke an emotion or set of emotions in the audience(s). To make them feel something."
Under that value system, important work like Anna Anthropy's Queers In Love At The End Of the World would be worthless — take ten seconds to play it now and see what I mean. No, really. It lasts ten seconds. And it is perfect for it.
Punk music similarly eschewed the radio-single song format and did just fine — why not games?
"Intended to be interpreted and judged outside the usual capitalist channels and standards"
"Polish" is another sacred concept. I myself have given advice to beginning developers to invest in conventional notions of polish, but I am realizing more and more that it's not a requirement for every single game. Entire genres are aggressively rough around the edges, full of character and texture, and I can't get enough — with so many games out there that are smooth, why not encourage the direct inverse as well? Why not accept brash, punky games on their own terms instead of holding them to a standard they were never trying to meet in the first place?
So fucking what if it isn't fun?
Who gives a shit if the game is openly hostile to you, as a player? Maybe that's the entire point, and maybe we should stop expecting conformity to a suffocatingly narrow status quo. Deliberately confrontational work has just as much of a right to exist as games that make you feel good, and we need to make room for them.
The traditional value system around games as a product to be "consumed" has shifted our focus away from creators and their vision to what will test well with the people who will buy your product. When the dominant narrative is intrinsically tied to capitalism and being a good businesswoman, we become risk-averse.
"#indiedev is for people who want to make games to live, #altgames is for people who want to live to make games."
And risk-aversion is cool for people who want to make games in established genres and pre-existing audiences, and lord knows I have a weakness for roguelikes and shoot-'em-ups, but can't we also have and properly support games that are alienating by intention? Games about unsolvable problems or difficult situations? How independent can you really be when at the end of the day, you have to choose between caving to incredibly narrow avenues of financial sustainability and making something challenging?
So what do you do if you want to support your crippling "food and shelter" addiction but don't want to have to bend an oddball but interesting piece of work to pander to a pre-existing consumer base? Thankfully, developers now have alternate publishing and funding options — platforms like itch.io, which takes no cut of sales, or Patreon, which facilitates individual artists creating specific works.
"It's about making your own rules & being able to survive as an independent without the necessity of the mainstream industry"
We're also seeing exhibition and fan spaces liberated from traditional and expensive events like PAX or GDC [for example, we previously visited Lost Levels here at Offworld]. This encourages people alienated by traditional consumer culture or whose works would be lost at bigger expos.
Yet while tremendous efforts are underway to highlight important work, like Merritt Kopas' Forest Ambassador and Zolani Stewart's The Arcade Review, writing about games is often constrained by the same cultural perceptions of how things are "supposed" to be. Many game critics also turn to Patreon to find an audience for their works outside of traditional sites [ed's note: Offworld, too, aims to break conventions in this way].
"allowing myself the freedom to make a thing I want to make, even if 'gamers' don't like it, even if stores wouldn't want it"
Most mainstream audiences still have only partial information about what games are (Call of Duty, Angry Birds and Mario), and even the term "indie" comes with baggage within our culture, incorrectly presumed by many to be a genre in and of itself. But if alternative games and small to mid-size creators are to be sustainable, we must diversify the gaming audience and attract a wider variety of players. I believe the likely audience for altgames is going to be people who would never have thought they'd be interested in games, warded off by existing preconceptions. And more people need to know about the work being done in the margins, because the people who have always dismissed games might find something that's there for them. Punk isn't just for creators — punk is for our audience too.
"altgames is a subset of indie loosely about creating more directed experiences"
Here's an idea: Let's promote unusual games outside of the "games space." Get music bloggers talking about experimental music games, cult b-movie fans talking about campy horror games, and cross-pollinate like that, to break down the arbitrary borders that wall games off from other creative fields. Finding common ground with other media can get more people excited about games in general.
The open web can play a major role in disseminating offbeat work too — when all you have to do is maybe download a plugin to play a game in browser, people have less of a reason to say no. Making accessible games opens up the world of digital play to people living with disability, or even simply people who lack the literacy of an intimidating twin-stick controller. If you're a developer reading this, please playtest your work with people who don't play games at all — you may be surprised by the assumptions we make and how they limit our potential.
"Alt games tend to focus on an atmosphere aesthetic, using soft gameplay mechanics to achieve this."
Ultimately, I love everything about making games, but I've come to hate everything about conventional sustainability, and I know I'm not alone. Although I was once a huge cheerleader for independent game development, my faith has been shaken: Have I been asking people to join an industry where they might live in fear of their audience? Do I still want to work here, when we praise indie experimentation and openness while simultaneously ignoring the cost of actualizing those values? Can we keep walking the tightrope between making art and keeping the lights on when both ends have seemingly been set on fire?
The answer is "yes, but." While the problems with working in games are maybe more visible than ever, the need for alternative spaces is more urgent — and that means we have greater opportunities than ever before to create those spaces. If those of us who feel like round pegs in a square hole can come together and support each other in creating an alternative culture, maybe we can achieve a critical mass that gives us room to sustainably be weird game punks, and maybe even change our culture at large.
About the Author
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