"You’re probably wondering why I am standing in front of you all as I’ve never actually made a game before,” Independent Games Festival Chairman Brandon Boyer began, kicking off Freeplay's independent game festival in Melbourne.
"Standing" is too gracious a term. He almost hid behind the lectern, his voice soft and hesitant, not in any way hinting at the impassioned plea he was about to make. His thinned, blond breakfast bowl haircut looked like that of a five-year-old. His beard could easily sneak him backstage at a Fleet Foxes concert.
"But I have certainly lived the life of an indie," Boyer, who has previously written for influential game weblog Offworld, Edge, and Gamasutra, and still writes on games for geek culture blog Boing Boing, reassured hastily.
Boyer’s keynote lecture was titled: "All Play Is Personal" and begins with his own personal confession: "Giving up games is the best decision I ever made."
The PowerPoint presentation shifted into a slideshow of old school photos (indeed he did have the same haircut at five years old). Boyer grew up on games. "All my early memories are about computers, arcades, and video games. Video games were the primary way I related to my peers."
However, Boyer’s relationship with games grew strained as he entered his teens, and his interests diversified across underground art movements in a variety of mediums. Among these interests was a "life changing discovery" of a small music zine, Chemical Imbalance, and the record stuck to the front cover that included a song from then still-unknown Californian band Pavement.
"It was massive for me to discover that there was something happening out there under the shiny veneer of the major magazines and MTV, this underground network of tiny record labels operating out of their living rooms. So I gave up on games."
At eighteen, Boyer began a record company and started putting out his friends’ records. Staying with one of these bands, his friend had just imported a new PlayStation console from Japan. "He had a few games, but only one he thought we would truly dig."
This game was PaRappa the Rapper
and was the motivation Boyer needed to come back to video games. "If this was what I could now expect from video games, I knew I desperately wanted to be part of it again," he said.
According to Boyer, the indie movement has significant contributions to make to the video game business. Indeed the foundations of the industry were laid by garage and bedroom indie programmers who shipped out their creations one sealed Ziploc bag at a time. "Our history books are littered with these people who by themselves essentially built video games into the massive industry they are today."
The key difference the early game designers have with the modern indie movement, Boyer believes, is the opening up of means of distribution and production. While "our indie ancestors" were constrained to the networks and publishers with access to the retail channel, it has never been easier for anyone to create a game and deliver it to an audience than it is today.
"If you have never even thought of creating a game before, now is the time to try your hands at giving us something new."
Boyer’s ultimate message to the indie developers present was "Be yourself... It’s a schmaltzy, retro cliche but it is so hard to find this in modern gaming culture."
To drive home the point, the screen fills with mug shots of Caucasian, male, unshaven game protagonists. From Niko Bellic to Nathan Drake to Marcus Fenix. "The absolutely amazing capacity of this medium is that it can express anything we can possibly imagine, but too often we are reducing it to this," he said.
Rather than seeing the medium "endlessly stuck recycling its own tropes", Boyer sees indie developers as positioned to put the personal expression in games that the monolithic companies are incapable of. For Boyer, this is how the indie movement is crucial to bringing the entire medium forward and why all play must be personal.
"Existing and creating under your own auspices means the player needs to feel the 'you' in your game. It’s what people respond to. They feel when your game was something you were burning to create. People say, 'I didn’t know video games could do this.' That is exactly what we want."
Boyer urged the audience to explore the true artistic potential of the medium by looking at broader influences such as those he discovered in his own self-imposed gaming exile. Exemplifying his message with a short film of crayon-neon foxes and hawks stalking across a black landscape to a distinctively indie soundtrack, Boyer shook his head sadly. "This is a world I desperately want to play in."
Indie games are situated to show the broader public that games can do more than they ever thought possible. "What we should want is for people to remember that time in their life when they played. and so deeply identified with your game that it became part of them in the same way their favorite albums have in the past. Everyone in this audience can change it by being the cultural force that helps a new generation of people shed their video game shame.”
Boyer closed by clarifying his earlier message: We should not only strive to be ourselves, but to be wonderful. "So please let me know when you have done something wonderful."