The Indie Ego

The Wrong Image

Since starting Indie Gamer Chick on July 1, 2011, I’ve met literally thousands of people involved in indie game development. Typically, they are the coolest men and women on the planet. The type of people I would want to be friends with. Humble and grateful, eager to please and excited by the prospect of improvement. They strive to be better. They relish the thought of being the underdog. They wow me with their intelligence and awe me with their creativity. They inspire me to be better at what I do. And I’m not talking about two or three standouts. I’m talking the overwhelming majority of the community.

So, why does a perception that indies are aloof, pompous, self-indulgent, out-of-touch, thin-skinned, egotistical fart-sniffers exist?

Well, because a small handful of indie game developers are aloof, pompous, self-indulgent, out-of-touch, thin-skinned, egotistical fart sniffers. From my experience, they’re not at all representative of your typical indie dev. They represent a stereotype that I find damaging to the community I love, so I figure I should try to eliminate this mindset.

The first developer who contacted me was the developer of this, A Hard Game Without Zombies. My review was not a positive one. Developer MasterGroke took it with grace and humility. It was a sign of things to come. After 500 reviews, only five developers ever showed a lack of grace in handling it. Read the types of reviews I write and then ask yourself if the indie perception is accurate.

The first developer who contacted me was the creator of this, A Hard Game Without Zombies. My review was not a positive one. Developer MasterGroke took it with grace and humility. It was a sign of things to come. After 500 reviews, only five developers ever showed a lack of grace in handling it. Read the types of reviews I write and then ask yourself if the indie perception is accurate.

You Don’t Get Me

Any creative medium will attract personalities that have no concept of humility. It’s the nature of artistic expression. You see it in movies, television, stage, music, and modern art. Indies have been around since the dawn of games, but it’s only recently that mainstream attention and ease of distribution have become prevalent. So now, you see a lot more people with that artsy, pretentious, “nobody gets me” personality. Thanks to Indie Game: The Movie, many people believe the scene is dominated by this type of character.  It’s not. Most indie game developers are humble and friendly. I wish more people watching that had come away saying “man, those Super Meat Boy guys were awesome!” instead of focusing on the developers who were, for a lack of a better term, unlikable.

The indie scene has grown a few prominent stars. Some of them are, by most accounts, really cool guys. I’ve heard a lot of people tell me Minecraft creator Notch is a good dude. I’m pretty good friends with Thomas Was Alone developer Mike Bithell. He’s one of the nicest guys I know. As for Notch, while he might have eccentricities, he certainly doesn’t carry himself like he’s better than anyone or that people don’t fundamentally “get him” or his artistic vision.

There was some scuttlebutt over Braid when it was released. It was a hugely critically acclaimed game. It was probably my favorite indie that I had played before I was Indie Gamer Chick. But developer Jonathan Blow wasn’t happy with the feedback, because he felt reviewers and critics didn’t get what he was aiming for, either reading too much into it or not enough. Jonathan Blow does a lot of great things for indie developers and is a wonderful advocate for the community. Unfortunately, the way he handled the reception of Braid made him come across as incredibly pretentious. Because of his visibility, that’s done a lot of damage to the image of indie game developers.

People are going to have different interpretations of your work, reading into it all kinds of things you never imagined while you were developing it. Lord of the Rings creator J. R. R. Tolkien spent most of his twilight years shooting down any and all theories on what Lord of the Rings might be a social commentary on. Nuclear weapons? Class warfare? Race relations? He had none of that in mind. “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence” he often said.

Sooooooo...... you're telling me Braid isn't an allegory for the East-Asian industrial revolution?

Sooooooo…… you’re telling me Braid isn’t an allegory for the East-Asian industrial revolution?

So when you put your work out there, be ready for people to not experience it exactly how you envisioned. When this happens, have a laugh over it. If their misinterpretation has had a positive effect on their life or outlook, why would you want to shoot that down? Most developers understand this. The few that don’t, that get very possessive of their vision, they’re the ones that bring the whole community down. I roll my eyes at a lot of attempts at gaming as art, but I’m just one person. I know people who were genuinely moved by Datura, which I hated. Many of my fans read a lot more into Limbo than I did, to the point that I went back to play it, actively searching for a way to see it the way they did. The thing is, they’re not wrong, and neither am I. Art interpretation is always in the eye of the beholder. As a developer, once your game is out on the market, you’re not the beholder anymore, and you have to accept that.

The Indie Bubble

Many of the more image-damaging indie developers live in what I call the “Indie Bubble.” It’s a bubble almost completely removed from the world you and I live in.  Where developers can image a world where their insecurities can be addressed without having to incorporate things like “reality” or “facts” into it. Unfortunately, the Indie Bubble still has access to Twitter or blogs, meaning their delusions get exposed to a group of people who live in what is known as the “real world.” And the people living in the real world are so not ready to play along with their fantasies.

Earlier this week, while discussing the economic problems of the Wii U (as I did two weeks ago in this editorial), a developer from within the Indie Bubble told me that indies could, no, WOULD, save the Wii U. I responded by saying that indies can’t move consoles. Indie Bubble developer responded by saying he knew people who had bought a Vita just for the indies on it. I responded by pointing out that the Vita isn’t exactly the most successful game machine out there. In fact, it’s doing quite poorly. More over, if indies could significantly move consoles, the Ouya would be a runaway success right now, instead of being, well, the Ouya.

Remind me: how is indie-centric console Ouya doing?

Remind me: how is indie-centric console Ouya doing?

The developer responded by saying I was coming across as anti-indie. Not because I said I hate indies, or that indies are crap, or that most indie games suck. No, I had committed the sin of being realistic. Also, it’s hard to convey exactly what I meant in 140 characters. Yes, there are people out there who will buy game machines just to play the indies. Most of these people stick to PCs, where the majority of high-quality indie games are at. On the console side of things, those who are primarily looking for indies will simply not be statistically significant. Anecdotal evidence of “I know people who bought a Vita just to play indies” doesn’t mean that’s how most of the world works. Especially when you and the people you hang out with are in the bubble.

Journey was probably the most critically acclaimed game of 2012. It’s my all-time favorite PlayStation 3 game. The most common response to my review of it was “man, I wish I had a PS3!” Not “I’m going to run out and buy a PS3.” Journey simply didn’t move consoles. It didn’t when it was bundled with Flower and Flow and released on disc. Indies just plain aren’t good at that. Blockbusters move consoles. Indies are a wonderful side dish. They serve to provide content that is not on-trend, so that gamers of all stripes have something for them on a gaming device. The indies that get promotional effort from the manufactures often tend to be released outside of peak-seasons, assuring top-quality content year-round. So indies serve a function. I would dare say, indies are essential to the modern console business model. There’s no need to boost your egos and placate your insecurities by making absurd claims like “indies move consoles.” That makes you sound like a lunatic.

Absurd claims are a running theme with the fringe Indie Bubble crowd. Another one I got this week was “all games come from indies.” I responded simply with “Madden?” The developer’s response: “Never heard of it.” That’s the Indie Bubble. And the Indie Bubble is the most dangerous thing the community’s image faces. “Never heard of it.” Oh please. See, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of being in the indie community. But when you’re not grounded in reality, it makes you tough to root for.

Just to quickly clear up the “all games come from indies thing”, the first video game console was developed and funded by a defense contractor. Video games evolved from people within the military industrial complex. The man behind it, Ralph Baer, was meticulous in his methods, making sure every little detail was profitable and patentable. When Atari came out with Pong, his company successfully sued Atari, who ended up a licensee. By signing the license, Atari assured that the military contractor would stomp their competition with great zeal, protecting their patent. Does this sound indie to you? Because it doesn’t to me. I bring this all up because, when I called out the theory that all games are inspired or come from indies for the bullshit that it is, they typically reach back to the origins of gaming, when a model railroad club designed the first PC game during recreational lab hours. If you have to reach that far back to make your point, you have a weak argument.

"I thought Braid was talkin' about me!"

“I thought Braid was talkin’ about me!”

The ultimate asinine statement is “Indies are the only REAL artists in gaming.” It’s a shitty attitude to have, and it completely undermines your own contributions to gaming, because it makes you guys look like beret-wearing. art-house assholes. The kind of people nobody likes, that nobody wants to see succeed. Chances are, if you work in the game industry, you’re a creative person. Even the most design-by-committee titles like Call of Duty or Gears of War are built by people who do their best to put their personal touch on their work. Indies have built an “us versus them” mentality that shouldn’t exist. You’re all artists. Don’t allow the freedom you have as an indie developer turn you into an elitist.

With Fans Like You..

Criticism is subjective, and not all my reviews are popular. A recent trend I’ve had to deal with is, when someone disagrees with one of my reviews, I’m called a “Call of Duty player.” For fans that have entered the Indie Bubble, this has become the ultimate insult. It’s like “Yo Momma” for people who love the scent of their own flatulence. This idea that people who play indies shouldn’t play mainstream games is so damaging to the community. Gaming is a big tent. Indie games should tackle issues that mainstream games can’t possibly do, but the community at large should be welcoming to gamers of all stripes. When the hardcore, indies-only crowd starts using games like Call of Duty or Gear of War or Halo as pejorative insults, they’re telling people “you’re not welcome at our party.” That’s bad for developers, because the hardcore fans are making their work less accessible. Would you want to be part of a community populated by people who regard the games that inspired you to buy your console with contempt? Of course, like developers, the majority of hardcore indie game fans are not assholes. They don’t consider the act of playing a game like Madden to be an affront to the scene. But for those in the bubble, they would rather see games sell less than have people like me, who enjoy all aspects of gaming, from being part of their community. When I reviewed NES Remix, someone outright called me an enemy of indie gaming. When I said that review brought all kinds of attention to my blog from non-indie fans, who then were exposed to an entire different crop of games as a result, the person responded with “I don’t care.”

Back in 2012, when Halo 4 was released, I spent a few weeks inviting my fans to play with me and my friends online. Those living in the Indie Bubble, especially non-developer indie fans, were hugely insulted that someone called “Indie Gamer Chick” would play such a game while actively promoting the scene. I have done similar events with indie games, and a big problem with those is getting participants. Indie games typically fill specific niches. When myself, my fellow XBLIG critics, and the developers at Milkstone Games had a little impromptu Little Racers STREET event, we had trouble filling all the spots. Even though we were actively giving away free copies of the game to get enough players in. When Brian and I were looking for fans of Terraria to trade items with, finding interested parties was shockingly difficult. For Halo, the moment I said “anyone want to play?” I had a queue that lasted for days. I was able to expose more people to indies just from the ease of access Halo offered than I would have literally handing out free copies of an indie game.

Little Racers STREET supports up to twelve players online. Even bribing people to play, we only had seven or eight at most at any given time.

Little Racers STREET supports up to twelve players online. Even bribing people to play, we only had seven or eight at most at any given time.

But, because I was preaching the gospel of indies from a Halo pulpit, I was the enemy. People were calling me things like “fraud” or “poser” simply because I was playing Halo. If there’s one thing I hope people take away from this piece, it’s that those inside the Indie Bubble don’t speak for the community. The majority of indie fans and developers are amazing people who welcome newcomers to the scene with open arms. It’s one of the few online communities where newcomers are so readily accepted. Those fans who want us filthy mainstream game players to stand clear? They’re not part of the indie community. They’re in their own world. The difference between their side and the side I’m on? My side wants them, and everyone, to be a part of our community. The more, the merrier. Indie fans who say things like “go play Call of Duty” are essentially telling the millions of Call of Duty players that them and their money are something indie developers can do without. On behalf of the indie developers who you did not consult when saying that, kindly shut the fuck up, please.

In Conclusion

There is no such thing as the “Indie Ego.” The majority of indie developers are down to Earth and humble, while indie fans are normal gamers just looking for ideas off the beaten path. I wish the perception of the scene was more in line with reality. Yes, some developers are egotists who insult fans, throw tantrums, and sniff their own farts. Yes, some indie fans are obnoxious, elitist, uptight dorks. But they are not the standard bearers for indies, and gamers need to know that.

Indie gaming doesn’t breed these kind of personalities. Some people are just born to be douchebags. While I was catching shit from those in the Indie Bubble, an indie music critic fan of mine told me “welcome to my world.” An independent film-maker friend of mine said “you could change “console” to “studio” and publish this as critique on the indie movie scene.”

A friend of mine took a look at an early draft of this editorial and hypothesized that success is a factor in “the Indie Ego” perception. It’s been known to change people. You’ll notice that a lot of the guys I would label as being type-A personality developers, IE the kind that are most in need of a good slap across the face, are the ones that are typically the most successful. It’s been suggested to me that my positive experience with the community is in large part because most of my developer friends haven’t had a large level of fame or recognition.

I don’t think its true. When you see a developer meltdown over a bad review or people talking shit on his game in the Steam forums, success has nothing to do with that. I’ve had developers who have never caught a whiff of success threaten me with lawsuits or try to organize a Reddit mob to “get me.” Some people are just not capable of handling the type of feedback you receive when you’re a creative person. That’s why some developers laugh and tell disarming jokes when they’re accused of being a hipster, while others declare that they’re cancelling their next game, like a bratty eight-year-old taking their ball and going home. It’s very unfortunate that, in such situations, the response from those outside the community is “well, that’s indies for you.”

No. The correct term is “that’s assholes for you.”

I heard someone say this week "I wish more developers were like (Thomas Was Alone creator) Mike Bithell." Um, dude. Most developers are. He's an amazing human being, like most indie devs. If most indies were more like Phil Fish, I wouldn't be doing this.

I heard someone say this week “I wish more developers were like (Thomas Was Alone creator) Mike Bithell.” Um, dude. Most developers are. He’s an amazing human being, like most indie devs. If most indies were more like Phil Fish, I wouldn’t be doing this. Hell, there wouldn’t be an indie scene.

So, if you’re a true fan of indies, make sure you set the record straight whenever you get the chance. Indies are not about elitism or self-glorification. They’re about freedom of creative expression. They’re about childhood dreams realized. Indies are community-oriented, helpful to a fault, and anxious to excite fans of all shapes and sizes. That is the real indie community, where you’ll find most fans and developers. Those other guys? They’re in the Indie Bubble. They might tell you they speak for the community, but they don’t. They claim to love indies, but their behavior does not show that. They insult those they perceive as “not indie enough.” They have no tolerance for anyone who doesn’t interpret their world view. And they willfully drive away new people from the scene. Guys, you’re not helping. I know you’re not capable of realizing that, but I figure I should try. Indies need a thriving, growing community to succeed. You guys are essentially advocating indie obsolesce. If you’re in the bubble, you need to quietly reflect on if that’s the community you want to be a part of. And while you reflect, crack a window or something, because the lack of oxygen in the bubble seems to be affecting your brains.

Thomas Was Alone (and Benjamin’s Flight DLC)

Early on in Thomas Was Alone, I really didn’t get the hype for it.  “THIS is the game all the cool kids are talking about?” I tweeted, somewhat baffled.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  The game was alright.  But my fans had been trumpeting this one since it launched on PC last summer, promising me that it was a platformer unlike anything I’ve played before.  To a degree, they were right.  You just can’t tell right away.  Thomas Was Alone is one of those slow-starters that wakes up at seven but doesn’t get out of bed until eight.

At heart, Thomas Was Alone is a minimalistic platform-puzzler with the hook being an eccentric storyline that gives personality to the squares and rectangles you control.  Again, it’s something that didn’t grab me at first.  It came across as artsy-fartsy, bordering on pretentious.  But, about a third of the way through, it started to grow on me.  Who would have guessed that it was possible to give such distinct traits to fundamental shapes, with no animation sprites or anything resembling humanity?  It does it so well that I would think one could consider Thomas a candidate for strongest writing of the year.  But I have to disqualify it for that, on account of a couple groan-inducing references to the Cake is a Lie and the Arrow to the Knee.  God damn it so much.  Is there some kind of code on the indie development scene that I’m not aware of?  Like a secret handshake or something?  Two guys go up to each other at a developer conference, lock pinkys, touch ring-fingers with the other hand, say “The Cake is a Lie!” and then fall down laughing until it hurts because that will NEVER EVER grow old or stop being funny ever no matter what?  Well it’s not funny and it hasn’t been for years.  No matter how many ways you guys try to make it work, it never does.  You’ve beaten this dead horse into dust, and now you’re just beating your fist on the blood-soaked ground underneath it.  STOP IT!!

I think everyone's favorite character is Claire, the big blue block with delusions of grandeur.  I would love to get more of her story.

I think everyone’s favorite character is Claire, the big blue block with delusions of grandeur. I would love to get more of her story.

Anyway, mostly strong writing.  However, it ended without giving me a sense of closure for the characters that I had grown fond of, or anything resembling a satisfactory conclusion for the overall story.  It just sort of ends.  And don’t look for the DLC to provide the comfort of an ending either, because it doesn’t.  I guess Thomas Was Alone’s finale is supposed to be open to interpretation or something, but I was left disappointed.

You know what?  I don’t play platformers for their stories.  If they’re decent or better, that’s just a bonus.  For this genre, gameplay is king.  In which case, Thomas Was Alone is at best a knight, bordering on a rook.  After a mind-numbingly dull start, the level design picks up momentum about one-third of the way in.  By time you’ve reached the finish line, you’ll have played some of the most inspired levels seen in platforming in a long while.  But, the ratio of slog-to-awesome is not so great.  A good portion of levels revolve around stacking your characters in a way to make a staircase for the less jumpy in your squad.  A handful of these would have been just fine.  But sometimes you’ll have to build the exact same staircase five or more times in a single level.  It’s tedious busy-work that needlessly cramps the game’s whimsical style.

When Thomas Was Alone’s level design is good, it’s really good.  So good that my ear-to-ear grin was in place because of just how clever a world was designed and not because of the narration.  Quite frankly, after a way-too-long tutorial sequence with levels and platforming so basic that it makes Atari-era stuff like Pitfall! look advanced, I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it was.  Then I would be hit with some pretty ingenious stages that involve timing, precision platforming, and thinking outside-the-box.  I loved these moments.  I’ve always said I’ll take those “ta-da!” moments in puzzlers over the best headshots in shooters or game-winning shots in sports games.  Thomas doesn’t provide a lot of those moments, but when it does, it’s special.

My only possible complaint about the controls (outside of the DLC pack) is switching between the characters always felt a bit cumbersome. I'm not sure if the Vita handles this with touch-controls, but if it doesn't, that would be quite a good idea.

My only possible complaint about the controls (outside of the DLC pack) is switching between the characters always felt a bit cumbersome. I’m not sure if the Vita handles this with touch-controls, but if it doesn’t, that would be a good idea.

Don’t worry, puzzle haters.  There is nothing here that will bend your brain or make you have to consult GameFAQs.  At most, Thomas will ask of you to apply some forward thinking and course plotting.  Most of the puzzles revolve around what order you guide the blocks to the goal of each stages.  Victory is achieved through having all blocks in their unique exit doors at the same time.  Once you have a feel for the abilities and limitations of each block, figuring how to get them to the doors comes naturally.  Actually, it almost becomes instinctual.  It’s so rare that a puzzle-platformer does that to me that I can’t help but be impressed.  It also helps that the controls are smooth and the main game never asks more of a player than can be reasonably expected.  I don’t consider myself especially skilled at platformers, but I must be getting better.  I figure I died probably around a dozen times over the course of the game’s one-hundred levels.  Thomas Was Alone gives a trophy out for dying 100 times, but by time I had finished the game, I still hadn’t earned it.  I’m pretty proud of that.

I’m not here to give the game an undeserved blowjob though.  There’s plenty of problems with it.  I’ve described some above, but the one that gets me the most is the difficulty curve.  Or lack thereof.  Other critics have noted how perfect the curve is.  It makes me wonder if they played the same game as me.  Even late in Thomas Was Alone, I encountered stages that offered no challenge at all to finish.  The sixth world (really the seventh world, since the world numbering starts in the zeros) especially stands out.  I wasn’t timing it, but it probably took between ten to fifteen minutes to complete while possessing the most basic and dull stages since the opening tutorial.  Just weird that this would pop-up over half-way through.  But stages like this are all over the place.  I guess the excuse for these (and the overly long fish-in-barrel stages that start this thing) is they’re there as place-holders to drive the story.  Well that’s a shitty excuse.  A platformer should never let proper storytelling get in the way of proper pacing.  People probably should buy the game for the game.  I mean, it’s a pretty good game.  So while I enjoyed the story, I almost resent the fact that the vastly superior gameplay was in part sacrificed for it.  The result is a curve that appeared to be drawn by someone laying in a hammock during an earthquake.

After finishing the final stage, you’re treated to an extremely brief ending, and then the credits roll.  I was disappointed not just by the ending but by the last level.  Thomas Was Alone goes out with a whimper instead of a bang, which left me wanting more.  After stewing on it overnight, I decided to grab the overpriced DLC pack.  My intent was to get my craving for more Thomas out of my system.  Mission accomplished, but not in the way I intended.

The DLC levels are so horrible and mismatched with the main body of the game that I actively questioned whether developer Mike Bithell had entered his emo phase in life when he designed them.  Thomas Was Alone was a quirky logic-puzzle-platformer.  The DLC levels alternate between back-to-basics platforming (that you have to pay extra to suffer through) and punisher-stages designed with nothing else in mind than a huge body count.  What a stupid decision on developer’s part.  These levels do not remotely have the almost childish innocence the main game does.  It’s also the first time the controls didn’t feel right.  Benjamin, the star of the DLC, possess a jet pack, but the only use they could come up with for it was navigating narrow corridors of spikes.  The controls here are so touchy and the margin for error so low that any possible fun that could be had gives way to frustration and boredom.  Benjamin’s Flight has twenty stages, and while the cutesy story is present, I can honestly say that I didn’t find one single stage of this pack to be worth paying any amount of money for.  It might be the worst level pack I’ve ever purchased.  I just don’t get why the tone changed so much.  It would be like announcing that they’re going to make a new Dark Knight movie, only this one will be a buddy comedy and Batman is being recast as Adam Sandler.

Submitted for your consideration: level 11.6 of the DLC.  I nominate this for "worst stage in a good game" ever created.  It's repetitive and insanely long for what it offers.  Like the rest of the pack, it adds no value to the overall game.

Submitted for your consideration: level 11.6 of the DLC. I nominate this for “worst stage in a good game.”  It’s repetitive and insanely long for what it offers. Like the rest of the pack, it adds no value to the overall game.

So here’s where I stand: Thomas Was Alone is pretty decent, but it takes a while to get that way.  I wish the developer had focused more on ingenuity.  When the levels in Thomas are clever, it’s one of the best of its breed to come out in a while.  There’s just enough meat here to call it a must-buy.  At the same time, the story ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied, and the game only has enough “this is amazing!” moments that it ultimately feels under-realized.  You can’t count on the DLC to drown-out those thoughts, because it feels rushed and sort of half-assed.  So different from the feel of the main quest that I was a little surprised to learn they came from the same guy who had awed me just yesterday.  If I had my way, Thomas Was Alone would be alone, because I would bury that DLC in the desert next to unsold Atari carts.

Thomas LogoThomas Was Alone was developed by Mike Bithell

IGC_Approved$7.99 with PlayStation Plus discount (normally priced $9.99) plus $3.49 (Benjamin’s Flight DLC) said “hey now, Red Kryptonite has caused all sorts of problems, so don’t go there” in the making of this review.

Thomas Was Alone is Chick Approved, but for God’s sake, skip the DLC unless it’s free.  And even then, you’re not missing anything by ignoring it. 

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