IndieCade: Night Journey, Braid, and the importance of indie games

The signs of growing independent game development are all around us: Everyday Shooter is but the latest in a long string of indie games to be published on a large scale, Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden is taking the gameosphere by storm, and festivals like IGF and Slamdance are bigger than ever.

However, indie games have, by and large, spread through word of mouth and the exposure granted by conscientious bloggers, writers, and enthusiasts. Unfortunately, “the game industry … has no comprehensive, public venue to introduce, explore, and celebrate groundbreaking independent work. Worthy independent games, prospective funders, and players hungry for new experiences rarely find one another.”

So say the team at IndieCade, a public indie games showcase dedicated to encouraging and engendering innovative game design in the face of inflated development costs. IndieCade made its debut at E3 last year and made appearances at E for All in October, and GameCity, UK later that month. Future plans include more showcases and festivals throughout the world — all open to the public.

Luckily, I had the chance to catch up with Sam Roberts, curator of IndieCade, and talk with him about his work in the indie scene. Hit the jump for his thoughts on the way indie development challenges traditional videogame tropes and contributes to the industry at large. 

 Roberts’ job, as he describes it, is to “pick stuff that represents a good spread of what is in the indie space.” The showcases are built on film festival models such as Slamdance and the Independent Games Festival, and are designed to raise awareness and “help indie game developers get over the hurdles,” says Roberts.

One of the games within this “good spread” is Bill Viola’s Night Journey, developed in collaboration with University of Southern California professor Tracy Fullerton (of fl0w and Cloud fame). Night Journey is, essentially, an extended metaphor for one’s spiritual journey, and focuses on exploration and travel as its central mechanics (as opposed to reaching a specific destination).

The game focuses on meditation and introspection, and the only mechanic is what Viola and Fullteron call “reflection”: reflecting on a particular image summons a collection of other associated imagery and allows you to move further in the black and white “dream world.” The floor at E for All perhaps wasn’t the best place to experience Night Journey — a giant Super Smash Brothers: Melee tournament right behind you tends to be distracting — but Roberts assures me that it’s “really relaxing” and “thought provoking.”

Roberts hopes that, after playing Night Journey, gamers will “start to understand that games don’t have to all do the same things.” Although it may not seem like it, Night Journey works off a few traditional game tropes: exploration and collecting. “It’s game mechanics, even if it doesn’t function as ‘goal’ and ‘reward,'” says Roberts.

Braid, developed by Jonathan Blow, with (incredible) art by David Hellman, is another of IndieCade’s gems. It’s a more traditional game, says Roberts, in which players manipulate the time mechanic in order to solve puzzles in a 2-D platforming world.

Braid does things that games as a whole should be doing,” says Roberts. It uses its central mechanic, the manipulation of the flow of time, to pose questions “of character intent and desire, and to question the basic assumptions of the traditional platform fairy tale.” This “mechanic as metaphor” approach to game development is lacking in the games industry at large, says Roberts. He feels that games should convey their message through the actual game mechanics — not just through the narrative or the visuals — “even if that message is ‘have fun.'”

Perhaps because Braid is so fun — so fun in fact, that I never got a chance to play it because of the lines — it’s being brought to Xbox Live Arcade sometime soon. Braid is hardly unique in this aspect: indie games are being bought up and published on a wide scale left and right. “We’re seeing more content than ever before,” says Roberts. He compares indie game design to independent film making — as the tools for making games become cheaper, there has been an outpouring of “content that needs an outlet.”

“I think that the major publishers are starting to explore what indie content does for the medium. When you make an indie game or film, you have a lower budget, you’ve invested less money on the front end, so you can use that space to experiment with the medium,” continues Roberts. If these indie games become successful and develop core audiences, their experimental mechanics can be incorporated into mainstream, big-budget games, thereby pushing the whole industry forward. XBLA and PSN ports of breakthrough indie games seem to be an indication that there is a demand for these new experiences and that major publishers are taking note of new and exciting game design. This evolution is due, in no small part, to the efforts of people like Sam Roberts and IndieCade, who are bringing public attention to the potential that the indie scene has to offer.

For more information about IndieCade and the indie games scene, make sure to check out AreYouIndide?, IndieCade’s informative and thorough website.

[Editor’s Note: A huge thanks to Sam Roberts for his time and conversation, and to Stephanie for all of her help.]

Joseph Leray