On a makeshift shelf rest four buttons, each an individual controller made for the singular purpose of being pressed rapidly. The monitor suggests taking seven steps back, and we three curious-minded gamers, newly introduced, obey.
“Group hug!” it reads, and we all embrace in a gentle, albeit awkward, hug. Had this been a social experiment in conformity, we would have passed with flying colors, but rather it was B.U.T.T.O.N. (Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now), an independent game set up as an installation at IndieCon, a small convention dedicated to independent gaming that took place this past weekend in Culver City.
B.U.T.T.O.N. was just one of the many games on display, each with its own unique traits setting it apart from the mainstream releases of the major production companies. For as long as there has been gaming, gamers have known that a subgenre of distribution exists in which the truly imaginative are allowed to play creatively without the burden of a marketing department; and in present times, we call it “downloadable content.” (Twenty years ago, it was called a “floppy disk,” whatever that is.) Many games that aren’t available in brick-and-mortar stores are free or minimally priced in places like the Xbox 360’s Marketplace or on the Playstation Network.
Various words such as “educational” or “abstract,” which are toxic in most PR campaigns for a majority of titles widely released, are embraced by indie developers. Take The Cat and the Coup, a collaboration between Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad of USC’s Game Innovation Lab. You take the role of a cat owned by the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, as you follow him through memories and events leading up to the U.S.-backed coup of 1953. Headlines and facts are presented as framework in this game, which is just as much about history as it is physics.
I used the cat to knock over an inkwell, which in turn caused the doctor to shuffle across the room and through an open door, where we were both greeted by a battalion of tanks. Brinson made it clear that he wanted “the player to feel as though he was a part of history.” In this game, he succeeded.
In Limbo, the classic elements of a platformer (think Pitfall and Super Mario Bros.) are combined with beautiful art direction and epic storytelling. More trial and error than skill, we are given control of a small silhouette of a boy in search of his sister. As part of the learning process, the cute pint-sized character will be maimed in several creative ways before a solution presents itself, all in a grayscale environment reminiscent of an apocalyptic afterthought. Think Lord of the Flies meets What Dreams May Come.
Much like the ground-breaking punk rockers of the 1970s, independent developers are where the lost congregate to vent their frustrations at the electronic “man.” Fans of modern, hyperactive gaming experiences often fill the void left by a diet consisting of pure sucrose with thought-provoking puzzles and adventures. Modern studios such as Team ICO, one of the more prominent developers with indie credibility (Shadow of the Colossus, ICO), are still risking art over mediocrity and are being rewarded for it. But often, major releases are few and far between. In the meantime, launch the Marketplace and take a dive. Punk rock wasn’t invented in a studio; it was born in the garage.
Chris O’Neal is a writer living in and around the vicinity of a couch in Ventura, thumbing through pre-owned games daily at the local Gamestop until asked to leave.