Opinion: New ways to find freedom in constraint

Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander looks at the gathering trend in the indie community that sees tech as instrument, touchstone, welcome constraint and act of expression -- no longer as just a horse to be ridden onward.
It seems like only yesterday that so much of the work of game development was about making the most of limitations -- tricking tech into doing more, handling more, showing more. One of the most interesting side effects of this uncommonly long console cycle is that developers have the leisure to think about experimentation and advancement in ways other than just "more." Nowhere is this more evident than in the indie space, the fertile crescent of idea genesis that's lucky enough to exist outside of the AAA onward march. Many independent developers, as well as industry veterans who've long been motivated by the desire to experiment and create personal things within their medium, seem increasingly drawn away from the traditional goal of maximization, compelled instead by a return to constraint. Elected constraint in design has been more and more frequently discussed over the years. For one example, experimental game jammers fell in love with the idea of the one-button gaming experience, whether coincidentally or otherwise, alongside the rise of mobile gaming. One-touch games found success on the platform in an early period that saw many traditional studios stumble by trying to reproduce more traditional control schemes on the iPhone. Countless indie game success stories have sprung from developers that were curious about what they could create if they deprived themselves of obvious or well-trod communication methods, as in Journey's limbless silence, or if they subverted one traditional expectation, as in Braid's now-famous addition of a time-reverse mechanic to a familiar platformer environment. But even more recently, ideas of constraint, subversion and experimentation aren't limited to the design environment: They're increasingly being transferred to the hardware and tech itself, and in this movement to embrace more primitive creation platforms and a more timeless, handmade folk aesthetic, we can see game design as a form of creative art more than ever. One of the biggest examples making waves is the 'folk game' work of Die Gute Fabrik, most notably popular party title J.S. Joust. Using PlayStation Move controllers in ways Sony never could have predicted, the speed-based physical game doesn't even have a screen or a digital interface, and users are encouraged to become the custodians of their own rulesets. A game like Joust uses tech items and principles of game design simply as a subset of larger, universal and timeless ideas about play. The game design community is full of folks who've always seen video games this way, as an entry on a spectrum that contains outdoor sports, card and board games alike. But increasing embrace of this idea from a creative standpoint seems to be creating this concept of hardware-as-instrument, where tools aren't just conveyances to creation, but integral parts of it. This means the most expressive design work isn't taking place in the realm of tech horsepower and advances in visual fidelity. In a game like IGF entry Proteus, its thick pixels and rough edges feel alive and intentional. New York City's indie game community has united around maker culture, weird art and handmade arcade cabinets. Meanwhile in Oakland, Anna Anthropy and Alex Kerfoot's hyper-simple Keep Me Occupied on the OAK-U-TRON arcade cabinet became a tangible icon of the Occupy movement. And amid all of these creators examining just how many other things they can do with their art than advance tech, there's been a delightful return to game forms where graphics don't matter at all. One of the most fascinating IGF entrants, Prom Week, was considered for its social simulation engine, an interaction system written in nearly-unprecedented complexity. At GDC earlier this month, its creator joined longtime interactive fiction creator and community leader Emily Short on stage, where both shared their extremely detailed work on lifelike conversation and storytelling systems. Where once text work seemed like an interesting niche, it's begun to develop the unique aura of an art form at last in an age that truly needs it. In an environment where simple mobile platforms like phones and tablets are thriving, game designers have the opportunity to use classic ideas, like text-based games, to engage audience attentions in new ways. Look no further than the hearty wallet-vote in favor of Double Fine's Kickstarter adventure game to see evidence that audiences want meaningful work from skilled creators -- and that that concept might take primacy over ideas about what's "advanced" and "modern." Tech muscle used to be the most important value driving the game industry, but we're now in an age where the creator can thrive.

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