So freeindiegam.es shut its doors earlier this month. I went there last night looking for a quick distraction and was greeted with:
A lot of people already knew about this – the post went up 2 weeks ago, and has 128 comments. Trust me to be late to the party.
Those comments list a number of sites in the same spirit. Guys – thank you! I’m not alone in appreciating the site and that really makes me glad. But I’d like to take a moment to talk about why freeindiegam.es meant so much to me, because this is much bigger than a single site.
For those who don’t know, the site listed indie games. And these were so indie. Tiny oddities with zero polish. Throwaway weekend experiments. Distractions from larger projects. The games are so small that some are barely games, more ideas crystallised in the most basic interactive form.
A lot of these games were hard to play, or looked hideous, or were just plain terrible. But once in a while, in between the awkward, the terrible, and the unpolished, there was one absolute gem.
But ah, that makes it sound like I trawled through these flawed creations looking for those gems. Trawling through a pile of garbage to find buried treasure. But all of these games had value. They may not have been perfect – I don’t think any were perfect – but that wasn’t the point. They all had something to teach us about ourselves or about games, or something to think about, or just one single striking feature that more than compensated you for clicking “[Play Online]”.
These games were not about pushing out a finished product ready to sell, which preoccupies a lot of indie dev culture at present. They were about playfulness, exploration, a breathless desire to just throw some assets together and make something real. These games were working on the frontier, going to strange, unexplored places and unlocking our ideas about games and our potential to make them in unexpected ways.
This site is the opposite of Jonathan Blow and Chris Hecker’s development philosophy. In reaction to game jams and other short-form events Blow had a depth jam, and Hecker’s rant at GDC 2010 was entitled “Please Finish your Game”, a reaction to the way that game jams, and a culture in which speed of development is glorified over quality, might be ruining the complexity and meaning of games. I do sympathise with both Blow and Hecker. Sometimes ideas need space to breathe; sometimes the right thing to do is buckle down and really make something, rather than rushing it out the door.
But their arguments overlook a lot. Michael Brough wrote a rebuttal that resonates with me: he points out that spending 3-5 years on a single project may not be a great idea, that you shouldn’t plunge into a big project for the sake of making a big project, that learning incrementally (doing one painting and then doing another painting and so on and so on) is better than throwing everything you’ve got into a single mega-painting, since you’ll be forever tweaking those first mistakes and having to re-do work anyway. That Cactus, for example, made dozens of quick and dirty little games for years, and then took that experience and made Hotline Miami. He couldn’t have made Hotline Miami without those first raw, quirky steps.
(I think this idea of learning bit by bit, of the value of small works, was circulating in the game blogosphere recently. (Blogosphere? Can I use that word? Is that still even a word?) Chris DeLeon wrote last month that you shouldn’t make Call of Duty as your first project – incremental learning is key, and a rough but steadily improving body of work is probably better than one magnum opus. Earlier in March, Inicus Qvist wrote about the value of exploration as a risk that’s worth taking even if the rewards aren’t known – that art may seem valueless at times but that you never know when it will give us a new perspective or a new mental tool or way of seeing. I see Brough’s piece as part of the same argument – that it’s worth exploring even if results aren’t guaranteed, that these tiny games are little forays into unknown territory, and that something bigger and more labour-intensive might actually be the wrong tool to go exploring with.)
It’s important to explore, to get dirty, to throw something together in a weekend and see what monstrosity you’ve created by Monday morning. If everything is a Great Work then there’s no flexibility – things get stuck, confined by rigid expectations or year-old design documents. I’m fascinated by the incremental tweaks made in every Assassin’s Creed game; I can’t help wondering if Ubisoft’s need to put one out every year, right before Christmas, is crippling the evolution of a series that desperately needs some fundamental design changes. The AC of today is still living with decisions made back in 2006, because they need to stick to the schedule – they need to “finish [their] game”.
I remember that when Judith came out (Terry Cavanagh and Stephen Lavelle), somebody made an offhand remark that’s stayed with me, although its author’s identity is long-gone from my wispy memory. (I mean come on, it was five years ago.) They said that the game’s premise, while neat, wasn’t The Future of Videogames – but that bits and pieces of that game would undoubtedly be part of that future. freeindiegam.es encapsulated that whole way of thinking – that these rough games, game sketches, are worth making and playing because sometimes they provide us with just a single, half-broken thing that shows us a new way of thinking and opens up pathways we didn’t even know were there.