I like a beautiful game as much as anyone. Well, okay, maybe not quite as much. In fact, I think it's safe to say that I've become a little disillusioned by the indie games community's habit of judging a game by its screenshots.
There is a great deal of talk in the indie community about how our focus should always be on game mechanics first and foremost. We oftentimes gnash our teeth over AAA development studios who waste their precious resources on upping production values rather than honing gameplay. When push comes to shove, however, we in the indie game scene are every bit as superficial as the mainstream game developers we criticize: we just have different aesthetic criteria. Rather than focusing on 3D photo-realism, we worship retro / stylized graphics, especially those with fluid animation.
Let's start with one example. Bad Rats is a puzzle game that features 3D animated characters and particle effects. Tanaka's Friendly Adventure is a game that features blocky 5-color pixel graphics. Which game do you suppose merited not one, not two, but three derogatory remarks about its graphics from a reviewer over on the Indie Games Blog?
Don't think too hard about it: you can probably guess. In his Bad Rats review, site editor Michael Rose goes out of his way to point out "the ugliness" of Bad Rats repeatedly. By comparison, all editor Tim W. had to say about Tanaka's Friendly Adventure was that it was "charming."
Visiting the Village, a British gaming podcast, commented in their last episode (starting about 15 minutes in) on the seeming obsession that the indie gaming scene has developed with games that sport a certain aesthetic. As one of the two podcasters reticently put it, "we need to come slightly back towards innovation, mechanics, etc...The indie games getting attention are games that look great, which are obviously by artists."
The other was more blunt: "I'm really f*cking bored of this, because every exciting, visually exciting new indie game that comes out seems to be one of these action-platformers. It just seems to be like the thing to do....Indie games should be about innovation and change, and not just about repeating the same aesthetic."
The example they picked on was Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, a side-scrolling shooter with lovingly animated graphics by Canadian animator Michel Gagné. Yes, the animations look gorgeous. But so what? It's just a side-scrolling shooter, say the VTV boys.
Maybe it is; maybe it isn't. We can't really know that, since no one has actually played the thing in spite of its multiple years in development. But that certainly hasn't stopped ITSP from being featured again and again in the gaming press with language of glowing praise! You would almost think that it was not an example of an interactive medium, the way people have fallen all over themselves to exalt the game without having, you know, interacted with it.
While the treatment given to ITSP is a vivid example of this obsession with aesthetics in the indie gaming scene, it surely isn't the only one. Dust is another example. Canabalt is an unusual example, in that it didn't get special treatment until after its release (most likely, I suspect, because creator Adam Saltsman didn't bother promoting it much beforehand). Saltsman, the artist and designer of the game, did a beautiful job on the visuals. He managed to accomplish gorgeous animations while adhering to a retro, pixelated style in a way I personally haven't seen in many years. That having been said, it's a one-button game where you jump between rooftops as your character runs. That's it. Sometimes you scare pigeons or bust through a window. It is beautiful and well-designed, but it's not Blade Runner, in spite of what some might think.
The indie obsession with visual style is readily observable even for games not yet beyond the concept stage. On the TIG Source forums, such games garner enthusiastic support based entirely upon the appearance of basic mock-ups or character art. Consider Futurology, Codex, or Battle in the Drum of Every Heart, all of which attracted heavy interest based on their visual appearance (in this last example, the author continually edited the initial post as he progressed, but his original post featured little else beyond some pixel character art and a tentative game name).
I don't mention all of these examples to suggest that they are bad games: I haven't played most of them, and for all I know, they turned out brilliantly. What concerns me, however, is that this overweening focus on aesthetics will ultimately prove damaging to the indie scene in much the same way that focus on production values has hurt the mainstream games industry.
"But how is that possible?" you ask. "Production values have caused mainstream games to skyrocket in terms of development costs, causing increased pressure to produce hits, which in turn causes publishers to push for the lowest common denominator. Surely that isn't happening to the indie games scene as well?"
Not yet, from what I can tell. But it does reward game developers who put more of their limited resources into visual presentation, when they should perhaps be investing those resources in experimenting with and fine-tuning gameplay. Mix that with the kind of hype that visually beautiful games seem to generate, and it can spell disaster.
Remember Eternity's Child? A side-scrolling platformer with gorgeous art design, Eternity's Child was fawned over in the gaming press for months prior to its release (by Destructoid in particular: in this embarassing piece, they compared designer Luc Bernard to Shigeru Miyamoto based on "seeing Luc's work"). Once reviewers were given a copy of the actual game to play, they quickly realized that it was terrible--as John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun put it, "a pretty awful platform game." Destructoid scored it a 1 out of 10.
The developer, apparently unaware that a game with lovely visuals could nonetheless be a horrible game, reacted poorly in the comments below the Destructoid review. The ensuing uproar focused on the developer's poor response to journalistic criticism. Perhaps it would have been better focused on the stupidity of the games journalists who spent so much time promoting a game that they had never played in the first place. This sort of Emperor-has-no-clothes moment certainly doesn't help the credibility of the games writers who blindly fawned over the project.
But much worse, it harms the indie gaming scene in general. How are consumers to trust indie developers when games are hyped by uninformed bloggers and games writers on the basis of screenshots and videos, and then turn out to be awful games? Indie game developers already have enough to deal with from plummeting prices and gamers who think like this without engendering skepticism about the quality of indie games in general.
This process may be repeating again, this time with Love. Love is a multiplayer game with beautiful procedurally generated graphics, created by a single person: Eskil Steenberg. Gushing early looks at the game described it as a communal adventure game.
Recently, it was rather graphically revealed that Love is not ultimately going to be about exploring a beautiful world with other people so much as it is going to be about gobs of creepy-looking bald people blasting one another into arcing splatters of blood. The reaction in some quarters has been less than entirely positive, fed in large part by those early looks at the game, which gave a decidedly different impression than "FPS ŕ la Renoir." I can't really say, of course, whether the game will ultimately turn out that way. Maybe it will live up to all the hype about being a wonderful communal adventure game--but I'd feel a lot more confident if that hype were based on something besides screenshots and promises.