Six months ago I had a plan. I felt confident, and I felt enraptured in the world of indie games, and after many unsuccessful attempts I felt just a little bit pissed off. But it was an idea. At the time, I was pretty well steeped in one conspiracy theory or another, wondering what kind of a place the world would transform into if all of these predictions were correct. Fires would roll down across the landscape, destruction would befall humanity, and there would probably be a hell of a lot of panic-sex going down. However, the thought evolved. The common man, whilst not particularly stupid, or foolish would not be aware of these convoluted plots that the internet takes within its grasp and twists out of conceivable proportion on a daily bases, and would be left utterly dumfounded and possibly unaware of their circumstances. So where does this put this person? How would this person react to the transpiring events, and what would be/ dictate their fate? It doesn't really matter. That's what indie games have at their disposal; knowledge that it is all about the player's reaction, and personal construct of reality that rules their emotional impact instead of developed plots. And although the notion of independence, and the field of art games has heartily embraced the player's (or reader, if that floats your literary boat) reaction to a set of circumstances, I'm starting to think that they're approaching it the wrong way.
This plan was Li'l Horror Game the Game - or The Stroll as I'm now referring to as, in fear that the tautology gods have already got me on their list - a game all about the player's experience - a combination of mounting tension and immediate fear. But it didn't have to be. The Stroll was a game about walking through the night and into the early morning through foreboding forests and desolate towns, concluding at dawn where the character looks out forlornly across the landscape from a tower, as the sun rises. It can be about anything. My original plan was to stage it solely in the shadow of some kind of alien invasion, but "knowing" the evil takes the fear away, so instead I delivered exposition in a way that builds its own tension, and lets the player decide what is going on. In case I ever actually release it , I'll avoid giving everything away, but I feel that the ideological premise was important (if I may toot my own over-tooted horn). The Stroll is a base experience. It plays on the human's sense of inquisition, and most rudimentary fears - darkness, loneliness, abandonment - all senses that the game implies without explicitly stating that "You should feel these things" and this is where I feel I have succeeded in allowing for an experience, instead of crafting one specifically something a lot of games I observe are doing differently.
Ever since there has been indie there has been the notion of the art game; the developer's need, or want to create an abstract, offbeat and challenging message for the player to approach and scratch their collective chins to, but the problem is that it's always going to be just another device for the designer to propagate their view of emotion with. The games, or experiences, usually deal with emotionally centred issues, usually of a darker or more impacting tone in order to create evocative commentaries on humanity, life etc but I'm not convinced it's actually working. Not long ago a read an interesting article on Electron Dance http://www.electrondance.com/?p=102 that discussed how the emotional impact in a game and the actual game activity interacts, and what kind of experiences this interaction creates for the player. Games have always faced this issue and have often drawn the compromise of either extreme, but I don't think this is necessarily the problem as a game can exist solely as story or gameplay. The problem, as I have deduced, comes out of the aforementioned designer attempting to contrive a particular experience for the player. Where it may be something that is truly meaningful to themselves, it is incidentally raising a barrier between emotion and action due to the player's natural resistance to the projected ideology.
Dealing with contrived versus naturally occurring emotional experiences is a somewhat frustrating topic to deal with, so I think I'll take a leaf out of Harbour Master's book and bring out the old Venn diagram. This diagram will be broken into three segments (duh); Intended impact, binary and broad impact. Intended impact deals covers scenarios where the designer has attempted to have the player show a particular emotion; binary is where a situation allows the player to form their own reaction within the context -identified by its apparent limitations; broad is where a situation, location, or visual intentionally or unintentionally causes a player to have a personal, or unexpected reaction. Also, there might be some spoilers. But come on, you should have played these games by now.
Completing the Venn diagram reveals some interesting results in regard to how well these impacting scenarios worked. The reason why these succeed on such a personal level is because they usually worked on either an emotional or cerebral level; blowing up Megaton: I feel is one massive exception to the overall impact of the examples within "Intended impact", because it is optional, and moralistically grounded; so why put it there? The Megaton sequence is almost a novelty in its operation meaning that people with the slightest intentions of blowing up Megaton, will blow up Megaton for the sheer thrill of it. Then something interesting happens; they lose all of their Karma points, becoming irrevocably "Evil". This is where the intended impact transforms into broad impact as players will act in unpredictable ways to this new reality, knowing that they will spend the duration of the game as an evil character. But there is something else I'd like to draw upon here; this situation is rooted in choice. The player only feels that they should be responsible for their actions, because they were actions that the player partook in. Contrasting this to something like Paul Jackson's death, an event that still has a profoundly nihilistic sense of horror to it, Fallout 3 succeeded in creating an enduring impact as the player was always responsible for causality, as opposed to being a "victim" of the story. Furthermore, comparing Paul Jackson's death to the loss of Hole Station in Metro 2033, it becomes apparent that choice isn't necessarily the operator in creating emotion, however Metro 2033 puts a lot of empirical power into the player's hand, whereas the death was very numeric and calculated in the Call of Duty 4 sequence (although, this carried its own personal weight, identifying soldiers as mere numbers). For me, Metro 2033 felt like a constant, hopeless, losing battle as those around me continued to die regardless of my efforts. Someone else might just see this as life.
So where does this leave indie games? Large scale games have the ability to orchestrate grand stories, impressive visuals and contentious sexual exploits to mask up any holes in their delivery, but indie games have got it all on show. Yesterday I played Passage. I thought I should feel sad, but honestly I felt a little bemused. What was this game trying to tell me? I had the underlying suspicion that there was a message buried within its stomach-churning sea of pixels, but I couldn't find it. Going against my previous assumption, I would class this game as having broad impact. Although it was a little bit sad, it didn't really ring the "futility of life" bells that I believe it was trying to get at. Herein lies a problem. Passage, although a game that will inevitable make everyone just a bit sad, relies too much on the individual to create an effectively broad impact, but it's getting there. Maybe the issue is that broadly impacting scenarios really aren't broad at all; I can't rely on everyone being afraid of the dark in The Stroll, and ultimately, I've created a particular experience for the player. However. The game isn't about a fear of the dark, but the experience I can help unfold as a result of some carefully implemented themes. My generalisation that a game has to be broadly impacting to be effective is fundamentally flawed because that's a poor reflection of life. Life is one big passive emotional experience, sharply punctuated with impacting scenarios. Although one scenario might not impact you, there is guaranteed to be someone out there whom it does, and indie games rely on this in order to create their particular, albeit, narrow experiences.
I may have been unnecessarily overbearing in my accusation that indie games are losing the plot because they're becoming increasingly more about some experience that the developer feels is important. Sure these games exist, don't even get me started on The Path, but there are still a lot of games out there that are worth the experience that the developer has created. I came into this discussion brandishing a torch and pitchfork; ready to storm the indie village and weed out all self importance, but as you can see, the problem isn't with the developer. The developer only wants to share what they feel is important, it's down to the player to interpret this experience in their own way, even if this means not getting it.
So, I shall forge ahead boldly with The Stroll with a refreshed vision. It's not about trying to scrutinise over an audience, or worrying whether or not someone will get it, it's about creating an experience. The Stroll is a simple game of atmosphere but the player's experience is really dictated by themselves. Do they find the dark to be a frightening place? Do they find loneliness uncomfortable? Will they wander into the abandoned hospital and find sadness, horror? Maybe nothing at all, it doesn't really matter. The emotional impact of indie games is reasonably objective, so I'd like to consider this more of a test, or an experiment. I don't really mind what I create, just as long as someone gets something out of it.