Opinion: What Indie Games Can Learn From Little Miss Sunshine

In this opinion piece, journalist Chris Dahlen examines how independent games are surprisingly close to mainstream tastes already, and suggests how independent games have a chance to 'break out' in the manner of indie film hit Little Miss Sunshine.
Last week on Gamasutra editor blog GameSetWatch, Simon Carless - expanding on an "indie games rule" column by Clive Thompson - speculated whether indie games are "exploding." In quantity and quality, he and Thompson are surely dead-on that more games are out there, and they're more exciting than ever. But I want to raise the bar for "explode": I want to see indie games break into the mainstream, the way films like Sex Lies and Videotape or bands like Nirvana broke out in the '90s. And we're not there - yet. Aquaria is a hit among very indie-centric kinds of people, yet as of now, Metacritic only lists two reviews for it (one of them is mine, from The AV Club). Titles like Eets, DEFCON, Samorost 2, Knytt, and many others have potentially widespread appeal, but without a Steam or an XBox Live Arcade, they can't get attention from the mainstream press or casual consumers. By contrast, consider an indie darling that started at Sundance and broke through to the Oscars: Little Miss Sunshine. When I decided to review Aquaria for my mainstream, largely non-hardcore audience, I figured it would be roughly as accessible as Little Miss Sunshine. Its gameplay is familiar, its story is positive and even sweet, and there's nothing particularly troubling or weird about it - yet at the same time, it's original, inspired, and surprising. Aquaria is a much better game than Little Miss Sunshine was a movie. But they make the same case: they may have come from left field, but they represent everything people wish they could get from the mainstream. Let's break down some reasons that indie games aren't that far from the commercial norm. "Indie" sounds noble, but it works because it's practical. The punk music revolution of the '70s is often painted as an artistic revolt against the bloated, decadent, and nauseating excesses of '70s art and arena rock. But it's also easier to pull off a three-chord song than a two-album rock opera. And virtuousity, album-length concepts and failed experiments are usually a poor substitute for what people actually want: hooks and beats. Now, apply all these lessons to an overambitious AAA-title like Assassin's Creed and you start to see where fun, addictive indie games can make enormous in-roads. It's not a revolution: it's a throwback to what people have wanted all along. Nobody expects indie games to be "edgy." You often hear the argument that indie games can take more risks and push more boundaries, because they have less to risk. And it's true that a few politically-charged or offensively satirical titles have grabbed headlines. But radical, transgressive content rarely works in games. Gamers don't want it, and non-gamers find it appalling. The mildly controversial content in games like Mass Effect or Bully can still blow people's minds - which puts a game like Super Columbine Massacre RPG! so far beyond the pale that almost nobody knows what to do with it. Radicalism won't turn you into the Bob Dylan of gaming; you're more likely to come off like GG Allin. Indies have free reign to be retro. Just as The Ramones could revive '50s and '60s garage rock but put their own spin on it, indie games are free to use their low budgets and production values as a reason to exploit and revive the past. Side-scrolling shmups, cutesy platformers, sinister puzzlers wrapped in old-fashioned graphics - indie games can dwell in the past while cherry-picking the ideas that bring them into the future, capitalizing on gamer nostalgia all the way. Cute works, and costs nothing. While Xbox 360 games include hours of rubbish anime setting up bland romances, all the people who played Ico back in the day reminisce about the simple gesture of the two protagonists holding their hands during the adventure. Xbox 360 game developers apparently never got the message - but Aquaria did. While it's a dramatic and often dark game, Aquaria is also endearingly cute. I can't tell you what makes it so cute, for fear of spoilers, but it works - in a low-cost way. In fact, throw too much money at this kind of thing and you get treacle; keep it simple, and it's irresistable. There are many more lessons in there, but the point is this: we often assume that indies have some kind of a barrier to entry - poor distribution, unusual controls, less-than-high-def graphics, or esoteric story elements - that would keep any but the dedicated few from appreciating them. And in fact, many indies do take some patience and massaging before the fun starts. But then you have the Little Miss Sunshine's, that appeal immediately to almost anybody who finds them. They don't lose anything by choosing the cute, accessible path to market, and someday the market will reward them for it. The mainstream press - hell, just the mainstream gaming press - will catch onto this, and realize what an undervalued resource they've been sitting on this whole time. And that's when the indie scene will explode. [Chris Dahlen reviews games for The Onion AV Club, writes about music and technology for, and blogs at Contact him at chris at savetherobot dot com.]

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