Opinion: Three Phenomenal Indie Pioneers Who Put Triple-A Gaming To Shame
Come on, let’s face it – though there may be the occasional glimmer of wonder amidst the procession of predictable same-old, same-old that forms the output of Triple-A gaming companies, for real innovation and excitement in today’s gaming landscape you generally need to look to the work of the independent sector, where hard-working young talents are unafraid to experiment with fresh ideas, and have priorities quite separate from the needs of shareholders and executives.
Without the glamorous offices, gigantic budgets and huge marketing pushes of their corporate counterparts, certain young developing hotshots have nevertheless managed to make their mark on modern gaming in the most explosive of fashion, with their efforts proving critical and commercial hits in equal measure.
Proving you really can make games that are both smart and successful, here are just a few of the fast-rising talents who deserve your respect…
In a world where former survival-horror kingpins Capcom pretty much flat-out admit they’ve abandoned the genre altogether, Swedish scare-masters Frictional Games are heading up the resistance – and doing so in spectacular fashion.
As the co-leader of Frictional, along with fellow horror maestro Jens Nilsson, Grip has spearheaded projects that make modern Triple-A horror experiences look about as frightening as Viva Pinata. Pioneering a fantastically immersive point-and-interact adventure mechanic, which sees the player use their mouse to physically turn cranks, slide open doors and shift furniture, his chilling Penumbra series became a cult phenomenon – and 2010′s Amnesia: The Dark Descent proved a monster hit.
Not content with bringing the world invisible water demons and that sadistic hide-and-seek insanity ploy, Grip and his team have done so at a tiny fraction of the cost of Dead Space 2 or Resident Evil 6, and in such a mindblowingly creative and thrifty fashion that, as of 11 months ago, the entire Amnesia team had met in person only once.
For making the wider gaming community poo their pants and scatter their bags of Milky Ways like never before, Grip is already well on his way to becoming a bona fide legend. And Amnesia’s impressive 600,000 sales, without a big-money marketing push or the backing of a major publisher, rather dispute Capcom’s assertions that the market size for genuine horror is ‘small’.
However, Grip’s place in this select list is further cemented by his wonderful response to one concerned Amnesia fan, who had heard that forthcoming sequel A Machine For Pigs would be less scary than its predecessor. Grip’s reply is a thing of beauty; showing-off copious enthusiasm, a wicked streak of humour, and a striking awareness of Frictional’s own captive audience.
“If it would have been a less scary Amnesia it would have been called ‘Amnesia: A trip to rainbowland’, or perhaps ‘Amnesia: A machine for cookie baking’,” he wrote.
“But please do continue with the conviction that A Machine for Pigs will be a nice and mellow experience.
“You will then be unprepared for what will hit you, and will perhaps never dare to start your computer ever again. Your dreams will be filled with creaking machinery, the desperate cries of pigs, the rattle of chains and the dreadful feeling of something unspeakable is watching you from beyond.
“Have a nice day!”
Now that’s how you deal with a concerned fan letter.
Owing to a somewhat unconventional upbringing among alcoholics and drug addicts who became fanatical fire-and-brimstone Christians, former comic book illustrator McMillen has always found himself fascinated with violence, death and bodily-fluids. And it is the way in which these dark and weird inspirations have fed through into his highly striking and offbeat work that has defined him as an unconventional force of nature.
After cutting his teeth on well-received off-the-wall projects such as Cish, and even working on the hugely successful indie title Braid, McMillen ultimately got his major breakthrough with the phenomenal success of action-platform title Super Meat Boy, which won him universal critical acclaim and has so far notched up more than 1 million sales on PC, Mac and Xbox Live Arcade.
But this success really didn’t come easily. While all developers are put through the wringer at times, the grueling efforts undertaken by McMillen and his talented Team Meat partner Tommy Refenes just to get the game finished, earn him a special kind of respect.
For the last two months of development the two men toiled virtually non-stop: working seven days a week, sleeping only five hours each night and frequently forgetting to eat. McMillen even had to have emergency gallbladder surgery at one point – and because he was too cash-strapped to afford health insurance at the time, he ended up $50,000 in debt.
But beyond the insane hard work he has undertaken to become a major indie name, the real reason McMillen makes this list is because he dares to be different, and really doesn’t care what the consequences of his outlandish approach may be.
So committed is he to shirking the norm, McMillen actually felt that Super Meat Boy – his own unique spin on Super Mario Bros. and the tough retro platformers of old – came close to “selling out”. So what did he do for his next game? He cast players as the abused child of a crazy Christian mother, forced to battle monsters in the basement of their home. Fully expecting it to be a spectacular flop, the developer was instead amazed when The Binding Of Isaac became another unlikely critical and commercial smash.
The actual genius of McMillen lies not in the format of his games or their gameplay, but in their highly unusual style, conception, presentation and thematic values. Super Meat Boy is a retro-inspired platformer, but its innovative visuals and bizarre touches stand it out from the crowd. The Binding Of Isaac is a Zelda-style old-school dungeon-crawler, but it makes the jaw drop with its dark subtext, fascinating creatures and weirdly original take on a classic gaming concept.
McMillen makes games with the kind of narrative undertones and visual aspect that mainstream giants wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. That he does so to both great acclaim and colossal sales, suggests that more Triple-A companies would do well to take a leaf out of his deliciously unconventional book.
The word ‘visionary’ may be somewhat over-used, but in Jenova Chen’s case the term seems to fit like a glove. Chen is a man so dissatisfied by the current preoccupations of mainstream gaming, and the self-imposed limits being enforced, that he strives to push the experiences and boundaries of the medium into breathtaking, previously-uncharted territory – working to create not only new ways of presenting familiar genres, but entirely new genres besides.
As the creative force behind thatgamecompany, Chen has been integral to some of this generation’s most memorable and extraordinary titles. So impressed were Sony with his and Kellee Santiago’s fledgling outfit back in 2006, that they promptly commissioned three exclusive games from their team for the PlayStation network. And what games they turned out to be.
The astonishing Flow and Flower both won awards, topped the PSN charts and became a cause celebre for those arguing that games can be considered art, while the release of Journey this year has cemented Chen and his team as one of the most groundbreaking developers working in the business.
At a time when gaming is a by-word for grey-brown military shooters and endless bloodthirsty action, Chen envisaged a captivating, colourful world, and one person’s awe-inspiring odyssey across a desert landscape to a distant peak. Would there be challenges to overcome? Of course. But this beautiful experience shunned the traditional and embraced the other-worldly.
In place of an assault rifle or blade we had a magic scarf. In place of conflict and competition we had co-operation and the sheer marvel of wordless communication: with strangers finding themselves collaborating through the game’s ethereal ‘singing’ – allowing players to form, develop and learn their own methods of speaking to one another, to help solve puzzles, defeat obstacles and progress. When these partnerships went well, the result was an unheard of level of elation. When they did not, the result was often a sense of immense sadness or even guilt.
Chen’s philosophy revolves almost entirely around the desire to evoke emotions in the player – and emotions drawn from the entire range of human feeling at that. While most modern Triple A titles deal purely in the language of excitement and tension, Chen and his team wish to imbue their experiences with everything from wonder and joy to sorrow and regret.
Speaking to Eurogamer back in April, following the deserved success of Journey, Chen articulated some fantastic thoughts that spoke to the deficit of imagination and innovation in mainstream gaming, and his desire to provide something genuinely different:
“For games you have thrillers, horrors, action and sports,” he said. “But there is no romance, no drama, no documentary, and no thoughtful examination on life. These are basic feelings humans want to have in life, but they are just not available in games.
“All console games are about killing each other, or killing one another together. The game industry doesn’t need another shooter; it needs something to inspire them.”
With an estimated $5.5 million of funding now behind thatgamecompany, leaving them free to work uninhibited by publishing demands or constraints, we can expect more inspirational experiences from Chen and co. in future. And with the mainstream landscape still so dominated by the familiar and the mundane, that is certainly something to be genuinely excited about.