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Screenshots and Promises: The Obessession With Aesthetics in the Indie Scene
by Craig Stern on 09/29/09 02:05:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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? 

Tanaka's Friendly AdventureBad Rats

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.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet

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.

Eternity's Child

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.

A Vampyre Story is another, if somewhat less dramatic, example: highly anticipated, but ultimately disappointing.

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 à 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.

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Giuseppe Navarria
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Interesting article, but I think that yes, graphics are important, as sound is, as gameplay is. A good game needs to play, look and sound good. Graphics helps the gameplay a lot too, both in immersion both in visual feedback while playing (subtle particle effects, smooth animations, good looking environments all helps gameplay!)

sukru tikves
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It is the "complete package" that may be important. I haven't seen a highly successful game (indie or big publisher) that does not deliver on all fronts.

Looking at the Steam top sellers in Indies category (except for the ones that are released in the last month), the games that actually sell have great visuals, and also provide fun and stable gameplay.

Garry's Mod, Audio Surf, Braid, Trine, World of Goo... All are both beautiful, and well executed.

Randy OConnor
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I overall agree with you on this article; when I saw Love running at GDC earlier this year and Eskil was showing his character running around with a railgun, I wasn't really impressed at all with the game. I hold out hope that his early time was spent on the engine and now he can really work on the gameplay within that beautiful engine.

It is unfortunate that so many games are focused so heavily on art and I have noticed a preponderance of platformers without necessarily original gameplay. An argument that I have heard (and accept) is that, firstly, platformers are so well defined that they are a jumping point for creativity. They allow someone to say: I know how I would make a platformer, and then with all of the tools so readily available, a designer can create his own variation of the form.

And perhaps we're not seeing early poor versions of games before an artist comes along and sees the potential. Wasn't Braid pretty complete before the new visuals? Can I assume that the best games aren't snatched up by an artist eager to prove his chops as well?

You show us examples of games that look pretty but don't play pretty. What are your examples of games that play pretty but don't look so good? Do you have some?

Craig Stern
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Dwarf Fortress, from what I hear, could be an example of that. I haven't played it, so I can't verify that from personal knowledge, but from what I hear its gameplay is incredibly deep and emergent. At the same time, its graphics are dreadful. Really, one of the most aggressively ugly and visually inaccessible games I've ever seen. But it still fits within the indie aesthetic, since it's retro, so arguably it's not even a divergence from the rule above.

Honestly, it's hard for me to think of all that many examples, since by and large, games that fit the indie aesthetic get pre-release exposure in the community, without regard to the quality of their gameplay, and games that don't have a hard time getting exposure at any point, pre-release or post.

David Hottal
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Doesn't this apply to non-indie games as well? Many studios put graphics first. I think it's easier to have a cool art style, but it's harder to have a cohesive game that is satisfying to the player.

I would take this as people wanting something fresh. Indie developers want to make something that is different than the big studios. We don't want just a typical FPS, 3rd person shooter, etc. We want to be creative. We just can't lose site of making a complete game.

Alexander Bruce
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The indie scene is going to be prone to the same flaws as the commercial scene. It's all being driven by people at the end of the day, and people will always share the same behaviors. Something will be released that is successful, and you're going to see games that try to mimic the process, but ultimately miss parts of the formula. Games need everything, whether they're independent or commercial, people are just expecting different things from the different fields of development.

Michael Rivera
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As others above have mentioned, the same is true of mainstream game previews. How many times have we seen shots of a AAA title that looks like it's going to be revolutionary in previews only to find the same journalists later citing severe game play issues in their final review. ALL game previews should be taken with a grain of salt, not just the indie ones.

Craig Stern: The problem with Dwarf Fortress is not just the graphics, it has a pretty bad UI as well. There are addons you can download that make the game look a lot prettier, but they still don't fix the crippling flaws at root of the game's interface.

Adam Bishop
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I don't see what's wrong with putting at least some of the focus on good looking graphics. They are, after all, *video* games. Yes, the game part is very important, but the video part is important too. Maybe the author feels differently, but I enjoy any aspect of a game which is artistically interesting, whether that's the art style, the music, the gameplay, or the story. The gameplay in Chrono Cross is pretty good, for example, but it's the music that keeps me coming back to it year after year.

Think about animated movies; the best ones are mostly about story-telling, right? But the best ones also usually look really good. And of course they do, because visuals are the main way that you experience the film. And the same is true of games.

Also, one other reason for this, particularly in terms of indie games, is that screenshots and videos are often the only experience most people will have of a game before it's released. So yeah, of course people talk about screenshots because indie devs usually don't release demos until the game is finished. That's why a game like Dust gets attention for its look. For those of us who have had a chance to play it (it's gone through numerous playtests in the XBLIG community, which I have taken part in), it's also a really fun game to play. But it shouldn't be a surprise that people who haven't had the chance to play it talk about the visuals, because that's the only experience of it that they've had.

Mark Venturelli
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Being indie is not an excuse to not excell in gameplay, aesthetics and technology. It's all bound together. A masterfully designed game can become a mediocre experience thanks to bad presentation and technical issues.

Eric Carr
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Good point Adam. There are very few demos available for indie games, because honestly, we don't have time. I could spend a month putting a demo together, or I could use that same month of team time and do more levels, balance gameplay and polish.

I think that some games are art focused to a fault. The games named fall into that category. They exist to show off artistic prowess, and not design ability. They're a vehicle for the artists and a game second. The other side of that are design oriented games, which may be made by Programmers or Designers and focus on the design first, and often have placeholder art or simplistic aesthetics. Braid was like that until it had that beautiful art poured on top.

Bart Stewart
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While my first reaction was to cheer, on reflection I think this article incorrectly conflates two related but different phenomena: indie games, and indie journalism about games.

People who write about games on web sites that aren't part of a larger journalistic tradition of factual and objective reporting (debased though that tradition is today) tend either to gush embarrassingly or to spit venom. In neither case are gamers being well served, and both styles of writing publicly about games have earned the kind of criticism this opinion piece delivers.

Indie games, however, may not deserve to be hit with a stick simply for being predominantly art-driven. It could be said that the art-driven approach of many indie games is not a trend that came out of nowhere and which must be opposed. The "game as artistic expression" design model may have come into being as a reaction to the monolithically Achiever-oriented "games as rules-based play" model that characterizes virtually every single big-budget game from the high-production-value world.

If that's true, then hammering indie games for being driven in many cases by an aesthetic perspective would be exactly the wrong thing to do, because that model of design serves as a useful antidote to the relentlessly utilitarian approach of the big games. Each approach should be able to take what's popular about the other style and use those elements to improve their own kind of games. In the meantime, gamers are better served by having both kinds of games to choose from.

But they're not being well served by the game writers who invest too personally in their previews.

Enrique Dryere
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While I agree with what you're statement about independent journalism (after all, most fan-sites are run by fans), I think there's an important message for indie devs to take away from this article.

However, I think that it's not just a focus on aesthetics that plagues the indie scene, but rather a need for gimmicks. Extreme or divergent art styles are often employed as a gimmick rather than any form of significant, artistic expression.

Now I know why indie devs resort to gimmicks. With less than limited budgets, and running marketing campaigns as an afterthought, a hook can be your only chance at publicity.

Take the following, hypothetical game news headline for example: New Game to Convert Braille Books into Maps. Now perhaps this is a stretch, but news such as this tends to spread quite easily. It's a bit of sensationalism, but it's also very easy journalism. The journalist doesn't even need to play the game to write the article. So while the Adventures in Braille game gets a ton of publicity and ultimately fails because it was in fact terrible, a great, yet traditional game is overlooked and fails due to lack of attention.

Having a gimmick and creating a good game is no easy task, but a screen shot can be as much of a hook as a novel mechanic. Either way, both can belie the reality of the game and often do.

If you asked me if this was a problem, I would say yes. But I wouldn't blame the devs -- at least not exclusively. The fault also lies with journalists that want an easy story and readers that like to click on things because "they look purty."

Robert Fearon
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"However, I think that it's not just a focus on aesthetics that plagues the indie scene, but rather a need for gimmicks. Extreme or divergent art styles are often employed as a gimmick rather than any form of significant, artistic expression."

I think that's more than a little unfair. The indie scene is incredibly divergent running the gamut from simple no brainer games all the way to complex strategy and simulation. There's a certain insular inward looking self reverential nature to certain quarters but it's vastly unfair to say that it's somehow representative of a problem with indie developers or the indie scene as a whole.

It's essentially taking a very small sample set and extrapolating it to an extreme. A problem, I might add, exacerbated by the segments of the indie scene who see little outside of their own groupings and believe that they're at the centre of some sort of gaming revolution.

I have no doubt that there's far more games out there that don't rely on gimmicks (be that with art and/or game design in mind) than there is. Whether you choose to pay attention to them or class them as indie/not indie in whatever your personal definition may be is entirely up to the reader here, however, it's a fallacy to imply that either this supposed "indie aesthetic" (oh purleease) or gimmick laden design is an issue for anything more than a small handful of developers.

To toddle back to the article for a moment, were I reviewing Bad Rats myself, yes, I would point out that it's pretty darn ugly. It is. Tanaka may be lo-fi but at least its choice of colours is easy on the eye, there's no rough edges, screaming pixels or the likes.

And y'know, people like pretty things. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I'd sooner play something that doesn't look like a sick up in the B&Q paint aisle. Shallow? Perhaps. Graphics may not be everything, but given they're there to enhance the experience and be as one with the design then I see no issue here.

I found Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet captivating to watch, and y'know, if it turns out to be utter rubbish then fair do's - why be bothered about folks fawning over what they see now? It's not actively harming anybody. Nobody gets ignored to make space for its coverage, they simply wouldn't have been covered in the first place. There's no journalistic finite slot system for coverage y'know?

It doesn't harm the indie scene. Honestly, it doesn't. Looking inwards constantly and mechanically defining what indie should be is far more likely to do harm than a few people popping their eyes at some pretty pictures. Aside from immense paranoid ramblings, is there any proof to that claim? I don't see it happening around me - in fact, more than ever in 2009 we're seeing easier routes to coverage, increased coverage, increased ability to sell indie games and a vastly increased want for variety in games to revel in.

Mike Rose
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Hey Craig,

I thought it was necessary to just point out a little flaw in the opening paragraphs. In para 3 when you compare the two game reviews on IndieGames, you explain that Tim W wrote about both Bad Rats and Tanaka. This is actually incorrect - there is more than one editor at Indie Games, me being one of them, and it was I that wrote about Bad Rats while Tim wrote about Tanaka.

Obviously this throws your argument - you can't really compare the writing of 2 different editors and note that while I slate a game's graphics, Tim says that he adores the graphics of another. The two of us have very different approaches to what we like in games, including graphics, so unless you, say, find a different game so that the two games you are comparing were written about by the same editor, your point breaks down.

Also, both myself and Tim have gathered from your comments that you most likely haven't played either game. There is quite a difference between viewing screenshots and actually watching the game in motion. If you try giving Bad Rats a go, you may just see why I wasn't exactly partial to the graphical style. You see, with Tanaka, at least the artist was going for that style of visuals . You use the word 'blocky', but this was a short game made by a developer in a short time which he gave away for free.

Bad Rats, on the other hand, was clearly meant to be full of smooth, nice-looking 3D animations - however, if you give the game a play, you will spot numerous horrible edges (or at least this is what I noticed, hence my write-up). The game is, of course, not free. This may or may not be a deal-breaker in your eyes, but I felt it was an important factor.

Anyway, either way, it would be nice if you changed the article to reflect the fact that it was not Tim W who wrote about Bad Rats. Thanks :)

Craig Stern
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Adam: please note that I never said visuals in games were unimportant. I do believe that they are important, but that their importance has been overemphasized in practice, if not in theory, by games journalists and the indie gaming community in general.

Michael: my apologies! I thought I checked to ensure that both reviews were authored by the same editor, but it appears I overlooked your name. I've corrected the article.

I viewed a gameplay video of Bad Rats, incidentally, and I didn't notice any graphical oddities, but I'm sure you can spot graphical snafus much more easily in the game itself.

Mike Rose
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I appreciate that you've altered the article but as I pointed out, the point you are making is now invalid. You can't really make the argument 'one guy says this game looks good, another guy says this game looks bad, this doesn't make sense'. As it is, I haven't made comment on Tanaka, and Tim hasn't said what he thinks of Bad Rats. It could be that Tim thinks Bad Rats also looks charming, therefore your argument would be destroyed.

I understand that you are trying to expose inconsistencies in game journalism with your arguments, but unfortunately this specific argument is now, ironically, inconsistent and doesn't make sense.

Enrique Dryere
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While I agree with most of what you said, I question whether or not there really is no "finite slot system for coverage."

Certainly there are a lot of indie games out there that neither rely on nor contain gimmicks, but the point I was trying to make was that these sort of games may find it harder to achieve the coverage they deserve.

Meanwhile, simply due to the sensationalistic nature of news, if you were to get yourself a waterproof lap top and develop a game underwater, you would likely make headlines. Headlines such as these would drown out (pardon the pun) more legitimate game news because there is only a set amount of screen space and man hours to be devoted to games around the net.

If coverage were given equally to all games developed, either we'd hear very little about every game, or we'd need dozens of times the current amount of journalists to constantly flood their publications with news. You'd click to visit a website and in the time it takes you to read the first article, it's gone from the front page.

Coverage needs a bit of exposure time to really be worthwhile, particularly when its introducing a new game. I may look up information on SWTOR by my own accord, but there's no way I can look up info on a game that I don't even know exists.

This is why I believe that gimmicks or stand-out (but not necessarily outstanding) art is often used as developers vie for a this limited, free advertisement.

Craig Stern
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Michael, I understand your position, but respectfully, I think my point still stands. I'm not intending to pick on individual game reviewers here so much as to point out institutional behaviors. Insofar as the Indie Games Blog is a single entity, an institution that works as a mouthpiece and publicity-generator for indie games, I think it's fair to speak of what it does and doesn't do. (To draw a parallel: we speak of what EA and other corporations--all of them entities with a fictional, singular identity--do, overlooking the fact that they are actually composed of individuals with different viewpoints.)

Robert Fearon
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Tim and Michael are two separate people posting their own individual views under no such corporate mouthpiece. Simon doesn't have a company line passed down to them by corporate diktat (as EA would) or enforce a Murdoch-esque agenda on what can and cannot be said/posted so you're way off base to treat them as some sort of gestalt. As such, it *is* an unfair comparison.

There isn't some sort of global agenda across game sites or reviewers, there isn't even a pattern if you study it. Well, there sorta is - but it's not the one you'd want to see.

Currently it appears that you're pointing the finger at gamers for daring to be interested in pretty things, which I fail to see how that's somehow detrimental or hurting the indie scene in any way, journalists for daring to cover things that interest them (how very dare they!) for whatever reason and developers for daring to make pretty things. It's certainly different, I'll give you that.

Respectfully, I suggest you try speaking to some journalists on this to garner their side of the story, it'll be quite an eye opener given your stance.

Robert Fearon
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What is a major factor is there's a finite ability to consume information. Most journalists I'm aware of keep RSS feed lists as long as their arm, your arm and somebody else's arm to keep tabs on things that interest them and/or things that might interest them but they're still human at the end of the day and things will get overlooked.

There's a quote from the good Mr Gillen when a similar discussion came up on the referenced Indie Games blog (that time being that Stalin Vs Martians did not deserve any coverage because it didn't meet the commentators standards of what should/should not be classed as news, bless):

"...they[journalists] don't have a "duty" to some kind of theoretical community. Generally, the press write about what interests them or they think will interest their readers. The idea that anyone else gets to decide what a writer finds interesting is like me telling you that your next game has to be a side-scrolling shooter because that's what I think is lacking in the world. Writers decide what their sites are for. If they want to make a site reviewing hentai games or walkthroughs or serious discussions of indie games or anything, it's their call."

The key is to be interesting. Some people do, granted, mistake that for "throwing in a gimmick" but that really will only carry them so far. See Rumble Massage for example. It's notorious, yes. It's got coverage, yes. It's not the sort of coverage *I'd* want for my game though, unless I'm desperate to go down in history as the man who pooped on the Xbox Indie Game service. It didn't, however, get coverage at the expense of another game. That other game, providing it had been noted, noticed, played and its contents absorbed in some way and deemed of interest to the writer will still get posted.

There's a very simple solution if you believe a game is being overlooked. Tell people about it. Write a piece yourself on why you think it's worth a look, contact journalists and tell them why you think it's worth a look - most sites have contact addresses, use them. They're (mostly) friendly folk who if they find it equally as interesting or think their readers will be interested in it will post about it. Tell folks over Twitter, Facebook, in forums. Spread the word on it.

If I find a game that I think might not have been spotted, I do just that. Sometimes it'll be something that sparks someone off to write something, sometimes they won't be interested. That's cool, I'll just go off and write something about it myself and get the word out that way (generally, I do both).

Over the past ten years, I've rarely encountered any games that I believe deserve coverage not getting the coverage they deserve, very much more so in the past couple of years where it's become easier than ever to get the word out. If you spot a perceived injustice, it's not difficult to do something proactive about it.

Jimmy Andrews
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Wait, so you're worried that indies will spend more time on graphics because timw et al prefer (lofi 2d) graphics like Tanaka's over (90's-era 3D) Bad Rats? Even ignoring Michael's point about the authors, this concern is ... confusing.

And then you're also worried about hype in general not being reliable. Which is kind of true -- obviously any hype leaves room for disappointment, and sometimes people go overboard with hyperbole, but (a) that's true if you're hyped about any aspect of the game, not just visuals, and (b) hype is also very valuable (eg see greg's articles on releasing figure 8) for developers, and giving promising developers extra PR and motivation seems totally worth some occasional disappointments. I don't see any real harm from occasional disappointments.

Finally, when you talk about Canabalt, it sounds like you're just annoyed because some gamers have different tastes than you. I don't see any harm to the 'indie gaming scene in general' just because some guy enjoyed Canabalt "too much" for your tastes.

Sorry, but I think you're being a bit silly here, Craig.

Craig Stern
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Rob: you're a pretty smart guy--do you really think I'm arguing that the Indie Games Blog is a corporation, that Tim W. and Michael Rose are required to have the same views, and that people should not like pretty things? Get real. You're attacking a straw man. If you want to address the arguments I actually made, feel free to do so, and we can have a genuine discussion.

As for you, Jimmy, you're either not reading very carefully, or you're deliberately misstating my arguments. The Tanaka/Bad Rats example is intended to set up the beginning premise of the article, that indies tend to favor a certain style of graphics. My concern about indies having an incentive to spend more time on graphics than gameplay is supported by the later examples.

As for Canabalt, did you click the link? The author compared it to Blade Runner because of the game's aesthetic style. That supports my central premise, and has nothing to do with whether I liked Canabalt or not (though I did like it, for the record).

Jimmy Andrews
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But what Tanaka/Bad Rats set up directly contradicts that point which follows, and Tanaka is actually much more representative of common indie game art strategy than the later examples. Tanaka shows an art style that's relatively not as time consuming to pull off but which still stands out as interesting, allowing it to stand out and compete against the work of larger teams. This is a very common strategy in indie games, and really your few 'time consuming' examples (of high res 2d art) seem much more like the exception than the rule. This is especially relevant when you bring up Love, which is a prime example of a game where the creator made stylistic choices which massively reduced the time needed for art assets.

Also, the Eternity's Child hype is all from more 'mainstream' sources -- all the coverage tigsource had of it was just one article about the aftermath of the destructoid review. In fact this hints at exactly why the focus on less time-consuming aesthetics is so valuable: like it or not, the mainstream attention is going to be attracted by striking visuals, so the solution is absolutely not to say, 'care about them less' -- the world at large won't do that, surely -- but instead to find a way to make something that stands out with less effort.

As to Canabalt, I did click the link, and skimmed it, and mainly just saw a guy who really liked the Canabalt. But, okay, what's wrong with comparing it to Blade Runner based on the aesthetic style?

Robert Fearon
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"Rob: you're a pretty smart guy--do you really think I'm arguing that the Indie Games Blog is a corporation, that Tim W. and Michael Rose are required to have the same views..."

I'm saying that you can't hold them up as anything but two people with two different opinions and any attempt to link the two opinions is incredibly tenuous. It reads like you're fitting the evidence to support your argument, not finding evidence to support your argument. That's pretty crucial, man.

Craig Stern
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I consider sites that regularly cover indie games (Kotaku, Rock Paper Shotgun, and Destructoid, for example) as part of the indie community, although you could certainly argue with me about that.

"what's wrong with comparing it to Blade Runner based on the aesthetic style?"

It's not "wrong," exactly, but it fits the pattern of people drawing substantive conclusions based on aesthetics. (He didn't say that the games had a similar look--he said that Canabalt was simply the Blade Runner of Flash games, a blanket comparison.)

I do appreciate your remark about certain kinds of retro graphics being less time-intensive to create than visuals with higher production values. That's a good point. However, it doesn't do much to address the "hype based on visuals" problem.

Jimmy Andrews
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Right, the hype based on visuals thing -- basically, I just don't think it's that big of a problem; the cost of "incorrect" excitement seems low, while the benefit of correct excitement is high. Sure, in theory enough 'incorrect' hype for one game could discourage people from playing other indie games, so that could be a problem, but I haven't been aware of that happening in practice.

Re indie media, okay, fair enough!

Robert Fearon
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Well, you can consider them however you choose - it's not going to escape the fact that from your examples one site is pay per eyeball, one is most definitely more preoccupied with making snide remarks and one genuinely cares about games* but one of the founders of the site has actively said that they post -only- what interests each member of the site, has no responsibility to any "theoretical community" and wouldn't care to either.

They're sites with wildly differing agendas, wildly differing reportage depending on their agenda and none are likely to give a stuff whether you view them as part of the community or hold them in some way responsible for any perceived problems you may have. So yeah, you can certainly consider them a part of the community if you choose but I feel pretty comfortable in stating that none of the editors of the sites do. Which is a good thing because having journalists beholden to any community or scene would be a rather worrying situation.

This is, of course, an entirely separate issue from having some responsibility to your readers and to yourself as a reporter, natch.

"However, it doesn't do much to address the "hype based on visuals" problem. "

What problem? You keep saying this as if it's a bad thing and you've cherry picked a minute amount of examples from vast swathes of games to hammer your point home which seems to ignore the daily run of many a game being featured, newsed and reported upon for anything but their visuals.

I asked earlier and received no reply so I'll try again. Do you have -any- evidence that this is actually a problem or that it's in any way "damaging" this theoretical scene of yours?

*I'm sure the other two do too they just have a funny way of showing it at times.

Craig Stern
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Rob, the term "cherry picking" implies that I've deliberately selected from a wide variety of examples so as to provide the illusion of support for my argument. In fact, there are so many examples of indie games with the indie aesthetic being featured that it would make the article unreadable to list them all. Mind you, this is different from games which are featured *solely* because of their aesthetics--of those, I've provided all the examples of which I am personally aware.

If by "evidence" you are asking for hard data or double-blind studies of gamers' changed attitudes after encountering disappointing-but-hyped indie games, I regret to inform you that I am not privy to such information. I am merely offering my concerns based on events that I've perceived. You are, of course, free to disagree with my conclusions.

Robert Fearon
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There's also many, many more games released on a daily/weekly basis that don't sport that aesthetic and still manage to get news.

If you've managed to pull out 3 or 4 games plugged on visuals alone from the past 12 months and we say that RPS (for example) post between 3 and 5 indie games a week, could you honestly hand on heart say that there's a problem here?

Tim and Michael post 2 or 3 (sometimes more) games a day. Again, same question.

Looking at the front page of TIGS right now, it doesn't seem to hold true. So, same question again.

Honestly, outside of the TIGS forums it's -not- the be all and end all of indie visuals (and even within TIGS there's such a massive variety of styles it seems churlish to rag on one style). You don't see many games on Reflexive, Big Fish sporting this supposed look for example. They're indie games. Most of what I run through on XBLIG doesn't sport this aesthetic. They're indie. I rarely see anything of the sort crop up on Indiegamer with the look you're alluding too. They're indie. My own online home sees folks wear the look incredibly rarely indeed.

So, you're either casting the aesthetic net far and wide to make it encompass anything you feel shouldn't be done or the numbers are against you here. Which is it?

The podcast you cite, well, that's a problem with their own FOV more than anything because from where I'm sitting and as someone who goes through many indie games and has done for a number of years, it's not the case. It's akin to someone saying all FPS games look the same and do the same thing or all RTS are all the same - obviously, they don't and they're not y'know? They're welcome to express their dissatisfaction with those that do follow this supposed look (as are you) but to cite it as a problem for a supposed indie scene and to call it damaging is disingenuous in the extreme.

In the past couple of months we've had stuff that ranges from the eye searing visuals of Gridrunner to Cactus' weird-out of Tuning to the MSPaint of Runman to the bonkers art of Time Gentlemen, Please to Machinarium, Osmos, And Yet It Moves and so much more. So yes, respectfully, I still hold with the claim that you're cherry picking in the same way you picked -one- comment you took a dislike to on RPS and used it as an example of the terrible things we have to put up with ignoring all the nice words people say elsewhere.

Jordan Magnuson
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Craig, I appreciate your article, and your passion for the mechanics of gameplay. Whether or not people agree with you, articles like this are important for the thought and discussion they spawn, the balance they help provide. Writing is always tricky, as one cannot write everything one intends, nor respond to every potential criticism or counter-argument that may arise. While blogs like this one allow a back-and-forth debate to some extent, they are also very clumsy, slow, and prone to the same pitfalls that the original written pieces are prone to. This is all to say that I believe a lot of misunderstanding gets passed around, and a lot of unfortunate things get said, between people who probably agree more than they realize. I'm saying this to support the existence of your piece, and because I would like to clarify a couple of things that were misunderstood in my own writing.

First, I'd like to admit that I am mostly to blame for any misunderstandings that my Canabalt review spawned: one cannot make a claim like the one I did and expect to get away with it--it was foolish, and lazy. At the very least I should have gone into more detail as to why I made the comparison. All this being said, a few clarifications (and these are not necessarily clear from my original article):

1. I compare Canabalt to Blade Runner with a blanket statement, as you point out in a comment, rather than making a direct aesthetic comparison: it turns out that it was not simply the aesthetic that inspired me to compare the two works, but also the setting, and certain themes and gameplay elements. I should have made this clear in the review. The aesthetic did, of course, play a large part.

2. Comparison to Blade Runner aside, my praise for Canabalt was not based solely, or even primarily on the aesthetic: I spend roughly two paragraphs of my review praising aesthetic, and roughly seven paragraphs discussing the game's minimalistic one-button control scheme, and the difference between Canabalt as a GAME and hypothetical Canabalt as non-interactive artpiece (in other words, most of my review was dedicated to the interactive component of games that you so care about).

3. I appreciate how you note in your comments that I called Canabalt the "Blade Runner of FLASH GAMES," but in your initial piece you state in more blanket terms that the game is "no Blade Runner, in spite of what some might think." Certainly an excusable generalization of what I said, but I think the distinction between Canabalt being "the Blade Runner of Flash games" and Canabalt simply "BEEING Blade Runner" is an important one to make. (This comes back to why I shouldn't have made the statement in the first place, because people will naturally tend to take it as you do.) Flash games have a very particular (and limited) history, variety in scope, length, aesthetic, and gameplay. I would not in a million years compare Canabalt to Blade Runner point blank, whether for aesthetic, meaning, scope, or overall significance. Rather, I was saying something akin to "so-and-so is the Beethoven of chip-tunes composers." I think there is potentially some validity in making such a comparison (I think Canabalt achieves for Flash games some of what Blade Runner achieved for film, which is exciting to me), but it tends to be misunderstood more than not, and so should probably be avoided.

For these reasons, I think that your use of my Canabalt review in your article is a bit unfair, but I see the point your were making, and as I say, the fault of misunderstanding lies mainly with me.

As for general reaction to your article, I agree with much of what others have said: that a game is a holistic creation, and I don't think that graphics, sound, or mechanics of play can readily be separated from the whole. I would even go so far as to say that a game's mechanics are PART of its aesthetic. But I think you understand the value of these multiple components, and are simply trying to correct what you see as an imbalance in the indie scene... I myself am not sure if the imbalance exists or not (though I see where one could draw the conclusion), but I think your cautionary words are helpful in any case.

Cordially yours,