Crispy Gamer

The Organic in Indie Games


Summer has come to the east coast and with it millions have joined together, united in the sentiment of 'oh, !?@$% this I'm not working!' - I mean, when it's this gorgeous out, when the sun is shinning and the cities are absolutely a-hum with the monotone vibrations of billions of air conditioners, who can possibly sit down and do the requisite and boring office work, studying, and filing necessary to the maintenance of everyday life. What better to do then during these brilliant days when the sun is bright and the wind is warm and breezy than to sit in-doors in a clammy room and play video games for hours on end?

Okay, cynicism aside, I've been very guilty of this very behavior quite recently while trying to brush up on my indie game vocabulary. I've been letting absolutely stunning days go to waste playing titles like eufloria, osmos, knytt stories, auditorium and more – and let me tell you, for the most part it was all totally worth it. There are some great online and download-able titles out there that will really change the way you think about and play games.

Anyway, in this expedition of enlightenment and discovery I recently came upon the game Cave Story, an older indie title which has just been re-released as a virtual console title on wii-ware. The game is free for download online or if you really wanna give your classic controller a workout you can buy it on the Wii shopping channel for some exorbitant amount of Nintendo dollars. Cave Story is arguably one of the most complete and finely tuned games ever produced independently, and by one person working over three years nonetheless. It is a solid play-experience harking back to the olden golden days of Game Boy and SNES rpgs and platformers. The story is solid, the level designs intuitive and the weapons downright fun. My biggest caveat with it is probably only that the enemies you fight in the early levels look a bit too much like Totoro for comfort.

Well, actually while that is a problem for me- it's not my biggest problem with the game. My biggest problem with the game is that as the golden child of the indie game movement, it holds that position for being so much like an industry game. It's a great game but its a game just like other games made by hundreds of programmers and artists for millions of dollars. The designer seems to do nothing with his outsider status but fawn at the heels of an industry he emulates. Let me back up a sec and hit you with an analogy to try and express myself better.

You watch American idol anytime recently? No? Well I don't really either but when I do, the one thing that always strikes me is the manner in which the youngest of the contestants sing – high pitched from the back of the vocal chords in a ridiculously even tone - just like the stars. Our next generation is being brought up to sing in an impossible manner – to sing like an already auto-tuned voice because that's all they hear. Of course there are exceptions to this (thank god) but it strikes me as a kind of unhealthy copy-cating. There is something wonderful about the unadulterated human voice at its best and that's what I most enjoy hearing. Auto-tune is a program designed to compensate for error and it is used to overcompensate most of the time such that we loose a certain organic-ism which made the source, the singer, unique and special in the first place. Cave story strikes me as the game equivalent to these youngsters – an artistic parasite – inherently organic – trying to organically copy an ineffective mechanical process.

Our industry, the game and entertainment industry is plagued with problems that keep even the most brilliant game designers down. Factory production schedules, outsourced labor, and over-focused-grouped market research has made the game industry what it is today, which frankly, is kinda broken. The biggest thing any indie designer has going for them is exactly what they have going against them – their solitude.

Well - that's my biggest problem with Cave Story - besides the Totoro thing.... I guess that means my biggest problem with it is that it had the chance to be art and it threw that opportunity away... it's still a good game though, play it and find a way to disagree with me.


I don't know, I thought that by not going out of it's way to be "different" is what makes Cave Story "different", at least by indie game standards. It seems that most indie games conform to a non-conformist norm. They try to be weird, edgy, unmarketable, and "deep" via heavy-handed metaphors and intentionally illogical design decisions.

Cave Story doesn't do any of that. Instead, it tries it's hardest to be a fun game. It's still an "art" game, but unlike most indie titles, it focuses just as much on the "art" of great game design as it does delivering a secret message and/or being different. And Cave Story most definitely is different, more than the writer of this post likely knows (yet).

As for the American Idol metaphor, it was great for communicating how the writer feels about the game, but it's not all that accurate in relating Cave Story to gaming's current mainstream scene. If Cave Story were a singer, I'd say it was like She and Him, Zooey Dechanel's (sp?) band. They work hard to craft songs in a style that is far from popular today, while subtly infusing their work with dark undertones and quiet messages.

American Idol, on the other hand, is like a lot of the stuff on XBLA and PSN; games made by small teams who clearly want to someday make the next Gears of War or Halo.

OK, I know, tl;dr. Peace out!

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