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Life after  Dyad : Are indie games all grown up now?
Life after Dyad: Are indie games all grown up now? Exclusive
July 18, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

July 18, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Indie, Programming, Art, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Critics say that hallucinogenic racer Dyad defies experimental expectations by offering a "pure arcade" experience. What does this mean for the future of independent video games?

After weeks of positive preview buzz, Right Square Bracket Left Square Bracket's hallucinogenic racer Dyad has just released on the PlayStation Network to a widely warm critical reception in the consumer press. There's something funny about the reviews, though.

I've read the reaction from several prominent sites, and most of them have something in common: The writer hastening to inform readers that Dyad, which uses bright colors and abstract imagery, is not, in fact, the kind of liquidy visual experiment players might expect from an indie game.

Joystiq notes that the "outside observer" might look at the game and see "little more than a rhythmic, psychedelic mishmash," Game Informer is also concerned about "onlookers," and explains that the game is still "mesmerizing" to play, though it might look like some weird audio visualizer.

In a thorough review, Polygon's Arthur Gies gives the most elaborate prescription against presupposition, writing that players would be forgiven for assuming Dyad was "the latest sort of, well, let's say, experiential experiment" launched on PSN, and that it'd be "wrong" to assume this finely-honed arcade-style racer has anything in common with Thatgamecompany's Flower or Flow, which Gies characterizes as games that succeed as conceptual experiments, less so when it comes to "mechanics and design."

'Twitch' enough?

Some writers on games believe that a review should be a pure account of one's own impressions and experiences, devoid of context or comparison. Others feel that points of reference -- like whether a title resembles others in its genre, or whether the experience of playing it resembles what first impressions would suggest -- are essential to gamers wondering whether or not they'll like something.

What's interesting about the Dyad reviews isn't the fact that the writers went into it with preconceptions. At least, that's not interesting to me, since all consumers and critics alike have preconceptions, and examining them can be an interesting, even necessary part of the review process.

It's that the critical reception is peppered with words like "hardcore," references to leaderboards, scoring and mechanics, as if to assuage the worry that a game with such pretty pictures couldn't be "twitch" enough. Critics and audiences now have defined ideas of what they expect from the artistic indie community, and this has interesting implications for the tiny teams of today.

One of the primary gains in being independent is the freedom to innovate, but approaches to innovation lately seem to squarely divide into recognizable camps more often than not.

Some revisit older design forms in the hopes of evolving or honing them: The appeal of recent popular games like Spelunky and Super Meat Boy is that they're whip-smart evolutions on aesthetics and experiences people remember from when they were younger. That means cute sprites, unforgiving difficulty and familiar mechanics, like platforming and treasure-hunting.

Games like this often implement the scaffolding of older games -- things like lives, coins and other conventions abandoned by newer and more intuitive designs -- both as nostalgic touchstones and because they are effective constraints under the right circumstances. Braid uses iconic constructs, like whimsical creatures and green pipes, to subvert expectations. It's kind of like Mario, except for the part where you can control time.

Then there are those hoping to use the language of games to try something mostly never seen before: Thatgamecompany's Flow and Flower Gies points to, or titles like Tale of Tales' The Path, Dan Pinchbeck's Dear Esther, or any number of others that prize emotion or storytelling over ensuring the player feels "hooked" or mechanically challenged.

Although these titles and others like it have provoked much discussion on what is and isn't a "video game," they also have incredible cultural staying power: While the consumer press and the traditional core audience may still be trying to find the vocabulary to contextualize games like these in the broader landscape, they're the ones designers reference often as experiences that changed the way they work with more traditional ideas. And that's not to say these games are not commercially viable or relevant to the everyday player: All of them find their fanbases.

What happens next?

These are obviously highly-simplified polarities in a spectrum that includes all kinds of games that fall somewhere in between: Dyad isn't the first game to combine arcade-style mechanics with modern abstract visuals. In fact, that's a popular approach games like Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, Everyday Shooter or the Pixeljunk game family have found great success with.

The treatment of Dyad has one interesting takeaway for indies: Reviewers don't view experimental games or artsy-looking stuff the same way they do "pure arcade" titles -- or, at least, they believe their readership doesn't.

It's always been possible to loosely group together the work of indie designers with similar values, but are genres emerging more strongly now?

One positive in the indie scene is cultural closeness: Young developers help raise one another up and network; one's work inspires another, and cross-collaborations are frequent. Now indies have had the entire back half of a very long console generation to establish major audiences on traditional platforms and to develop an implicit sort of vocabulary and set of rules for itself.

Just a handful of years ago, colleagues and I wondered if XBLA and PSN games could "count" on year-end top lists -- often, we'd end up relegating them to their own lists. This year, the most talked-about and beloved releases are games like Journey, Fez, Spelunky and Quantum Conundrum and Dyad looks enough-loved to join them, too. In 2012, many sites will surely have game of the year lists dominated by indies.

The fact the consumer audience now has established ideas of what to expect from indie games might suggest a sort of cultural maturation in progress for the indie community, and it'll be interesting to see what happens next.

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Christian Nutt
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This makes me think about a few things.

Recently I was curious about how The Secret World turned out, and at that time, the only review on Metacritic by a site I'd even heard of was by Ten Ton Hammer. I opened it and was confronted with a review that was more or less precisely the opposite of what I'd want to read: it actually physically broke down the game experience into walled components and wrote about them individually (I tend to look at games more holistically), it scored each and every aspect (e.g. graphics) on a 100-point scale (I really dislike scales that are that granular; 5 stars, no halves or even R/Y/G as my favorites) and it talked a lot about hardware performance with specific graphic cards/drivers (something I don't think is interesting at all as a topic).

How do you even talk about an overarching aesthetic in a game if graphics and story can't even touch, thanks to your format?

That said, I talked to Frank Cifaldi about it a bit and we discussed how we respect how well the site serves its audience (well, presumably, anyway) of hardcore MMO fans. They're providing a service to people who look at games in a certain way.

All the same, I'd never want to either read or write a review like that. In the end I closed the tab without any sort of understanding of The Secret World that related to the questions I had about it going in: was it thematically interesting? Creative? Different than other MMOs in a meaningful way? I got a lot of information about its skill tree, though.

All the same, I'm not just an "experience" gamer. I crave mechanics that are satisfying. I liked the experiences of playing Fez and Flower but they're somewhat boring games from a mechanics perspective, frankly, at least to me, though in different ways. On the other hand I love Rez, and for its holistic experience, not the core gameplay of shooting.

For that matter, I love NiGHTS, and I never even got very good at it or explored its mechanics; it was just an aesthetic experience to me. And part of the reason I don't really think Flower is all that innovative is because it's a lot like NiGHTS.

But even though NiGHTS is from 1996, I remember first running into this in my career, explicitly, with Ico, back in 2001. At that point (God, 11 years ago) I was a neophyte game reviewer, still in the process of forming the way I looked at games critically.

Of course, I remember people flipping out about it. I had a lot of conversations at the time about how it "wasn't THAT good", because it's not that good, frankly, as a game. The combat is clunky and repetitive. It's kind of boring.

Of course, it has other strengths, some of which are groundbreaking and essential to the medium, though, which is why people still frequently talk about it 11 years later (and I don't think they talk about a lot of the games I was playing at the same time much at all anymore, even if I thought they were better games.)

In fact, I find it interesting that I say "as a game" two paragraphs above. I was going to edit it when I reread the comment before posting, but that's the crux of your editorial, isn't it?

Mattie Brice
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When it came to Dyad reviews, I went in looking for what others thought since I got to play it a bit. And I noticed what Leigh mentioned, that there was a predominate focus on how Dyad would be received by audiences, trying to parse what the experience was similar to without getting too far into "what should we call this?" I was disappointed of the reviews I read relegating the music to "rhythm" gaming as a point of reference, but there was something way more emotional going on there. I was hoping the reviews would have words for what I felt to communicate something really abstract to audiences. Even though it's true, comparisons to arcade shooters weren't on my mind while playing the game.

I kinda felt Dyad turned a part of you into a game, your want for the sensations it has in excess being a part of what was played. But maybe that sort of analysis doesn't factor into whether or not people should buy it? I can understand that people wouldn't want to buy Ico because it did something awesome but doesn't fit the conventional reasons of why you'd buy a game. But, then, it seems like you either need a particular site/review style that caters to those who want experimental, emotional stuff.

Or maybe it's too hard to score emotional/abstract experiences? I remember a commenter asking once how much was taken off from the score because of tasteless sexism. Doesn't that kinda discourage putting philosophy into a review, though maybe it belongs there? Especially when it comes to the non-AAA space which is trying experiments and becoming more queer, it seems like the nature of the development and play force the abstract over the familiar.

Liked both the article and your comment :)

E McNeill
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It's odd to me that there would be such established ideas about indie games, considering their variety. The only stereotypes I can think of are conflicting: the hardcore retro throwback game and the no-difficulty pretentious experimental game. And those hardly cover the whole space; how would you account for Minecraft, or World of Goo, or DEFCON, or Atom Zombie Smasher, or Overgrowth?

I've started to see the beginnings of a backlash against indie games, and I just don't understand it. What do they have in common except cultural independence?

E McNeill
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Anthony: I don't understand. Indie games aren't going mainstream in general, and the backlash I'm seeing is not coming from an "indier-than-thou" crowd. What are you referring to?

Keith Nemitz
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There is so much I want to say, because this article taps into a problem I've wrestled with for years. There isn't a fine line between art and games, but many journalists seem bent to curate the difference.

We've had mature, emotionally charged games from very early days. In 1967, a 15,000 line FORTRAN program let kids experience economics as an emergent narrative. Emotionally, it was electrifying. Kids gleefully deprived their subjects of food, and then pouted when the city's population hit zero. To win or just survive, they had to play responsibly, the most important trait of adulthood! Battles. Trading with neighbors. Disasters. All sorts of narrative events peppered the experience.

If 'The Sumerian Game' was published today, it would not be considered art by many journalists. Only a few still explore parser based IF. How many game critics have actually played multiple games of Dwarf Fortress? Most literature or paintings or music would gain their standing if created today.

What's killing mature games is 'the hook'. In literature, the hook can be, "Call me Ishmael". In a game with the depth of Moby Dick, if the hook isn't as fun as Tetris nobody plays further. That's a huge hurdle for developers with grand aspirations. Another hurdle is the tutorial. Make a game that's different from platformers or other well known mechanics, and you have to teach the game. AND learning it has to be as fun as Tetris! An expansive experience is thereby beheaded by uniqueness. I guarantee, there are incredible experiences to be developed that won't work with popular mechanics. How will they be recognized?

Indie developers have it ten times worse, as they can't afford to gamify or even animate experiences of great scope. Art, Music, Coding... costs are staggering, unless your indie team can, a) stick together long enough, and b) provide enough skills to prevent outsourcing! 'Dear Esther' is a short-story just larger than flash-fiction. Tale of Tales, and That Game Company's games are poems. Full teams spent years to make them. I think only Ice Pick has been able to produce art-game epics.

I can't suggest a solution, because the flood of games is insane. Journalists are buried. In other mediums, critics can often, safely dismiss works quickly. I think this is less true for games. I hope more journalists will push themselves outside their comfort zones to assess novelty.

Thanks, Leigh, for the inspiration and framework to express myself.

Justin Speer
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I don't think most people are saying "you might find it hard to believe that this indie game is legiit" as much as they're saying "you might find it hard to believe that this visually confusing game has solid rhyme and reason".

I haven't actually played Dyad myself, but I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that it's difficult to understand the mechanics and what exactly is going on without playing the game. I'm speaking from the experience of watching someone play the game for fifteen minutes, asking questions about what was going on, and not being 100% sure I really understood what was happening onscreen.

I think that "onlookers" and "outside observers" refer to anyone who has an internet connection and wants to take a look at the game before buying it.

Anyway, while I'm not 100% sold on the basic premise here the article overall has some good points in it.

Amir Sharar
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Justin Speer said: "I don't think most people are saying "you might find it hard to believe that this indie game is legiit" as much as they're saying "you might find it hard to believe that this visually confusing game has solid rhyme and reason"."

This was exactly my interpretation. There seems to be a wide array of titles like this, and I couldn't tell whether the gameplay would have been a passive experience (Audiosurf on easy) or a hardcore one (Space Giraffe). For games that are hard to read and interpret from videos, this sort of clarification helps. These games don't necessarily fall into a genre. I suppose Space Giraffe could be called a shooter, but I wouldn't know how to classify Audiosurf.

So I didn't think that game reviewers or the readerbase view indie games any differently, the reviewers simply sought to explain what end of the spectrum this game sat on, and did address the fact that some of the pre-released footage wasn't clear on what sort of game it was.

James Hofmann
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We can definitely see the start of a healthy "back and forth" in the games being made today.

But that means that journalism and criticism has a much bigger task now, because it's not just one conversation, and it's not driven at the pace of publishers. It's a whole set of them, with a lot of variation - there's very little uniformity in gaming now. So a lot of burden is falling on the writers, and they have to pick and choose which conversation to work from. With a challenging title like Dyad, writers are bound to disagree on the starting point.

Thomas Happ
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I think one day we'll look back on these Dyad reviews and laugh that people used to feel self-conscious about their enjoyment of such games.

Phil Huffstatler
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I'm just blown away that the modern game "reviewers" can form more than two syllables at a time, and plop together more than four words into a palatable sentence. Says more than 90% of your generation.



Alex Boccia
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I don't see what the big deal is...DYAD looks fun, the Metacritic looks solid. I don't think Indie games are going to change at all from what they are...small, concentrated efforts that excel in one goal or specialization to make a short but enjoyable game experience. Some indie games are longer and some are shorter, and they are fun games don't get me wrong, however they are not as completely fulfilling as an actual budget title is - they're often novelty. If I had a PS3 I would grab DYAD right away, it looks super neat.

John Mawhorter
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This game looks cool, but is it actually fun? What a depressing question to have to ask of indie games. There are "games" that are worth experiencing merely for their audiovisual splendor (Rez, for example), but I can see why reviewers are asking the question. A tough question for those in a certain segment of the indie scene. It also, however, says something pathetic about the hardcore gamers (myself included) that anything with pretty/abstract as opposed to gritty/realistic visuals is instantly dismissed as probably of the same type as Flow/Flower.

Wait, it's almost like people's preconceived notions of a game based on screenshots/video are hilariously inaccurate and easy to manipulate. If a metal band put out a CD cover with flowers and people dancing in a field they would be similarly dismissed, but that's not an excuse to engage in the same behavior with respect to new and interesting games...

Leonardo Ferreira
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Does this food tastes good should be the most important question asked of any food?

Ole Berg Leren
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Let's run with the food analogy. Since it's a great way to frame an issue in a new context, and give everyone a fresh perspective.

When you're trying to describe to someone why you like the food you like, to give them an impression to go off of, do you merely say "it tastes good"?

I might describe food I like as spicy, largely meat-based, and low on grain-type foods(bread and the like bloat me). When describing specific dishes, I might break it down into base ingredients but also give them a description of the end-product. One might see cuisines as genres, in this regard.

I, at least, prefer a bit more information to vague statements like "good" or "fun". The terms are highly subjective, and does not grant any useful information about what actually made the dish/game good/fun.

The food analogy is the one I'm gonna be using from now on. Even if you disagree, thanks for instigating this conversation.

nicholas ralabate
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My favorite GDC moment was the Experimental Game session where Jon Blow tried to explain Space Giraffe while playing... the room was pitch black and the projector was gigantic... it was hard not to hear the left brain and right brain float apart as the play-by-play commentary drifted into pure mescaline (née Jeff Minter)-fueled nonsense.

Dyad seems cut of similar cloth, I can't wait to try it. Games like this are the closest I will ever come to playing something designed by Ryan Geiss.

That its temporal context is amongst -- more indie games, I suppose? -- seems crushingly irrelevant. This aesthetic has been kicking for almost ten years now, and reading reviews there doesn't seem to be much difference between:

"It's complete madness, and initially, it's impossible to believe that there's actually a sensible game happening on top of all the psychedelic color cycling, animal bleats, and what sounds like an old Defender machine having an argument with a Commodore 64. But once you take the time to figure out what, exactly, is going on, Space Giraffe begins to make perfect sense..."

in 2007 and

" To the outside observer, Dyad appears to be little more than a rhythmic, psychedelic mishmash of shapes, colors and sounds, a whirling mass of indecipherable technology. To the player – to the one who comprehends what's happening on the screen – Dyad is magic."

in 2012.

That it is labeled as indie... gives some cultural critical cachet to the term, but to me the bigger story is how much Toronto is killing it this year. Who knows what the so-called scene is like there, but its great to watch the rise of stellar game designers clustered into one place, even from thousands of miles away.

Leonardo Ferreira
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What I take away from this article is that the games are in constant evolution, whereas the reviewer and the gameplaying public is static, craving graphics and spectacle. Essentially the AAA development deformed the concept of what is to be a game with superfluous detail (entire games could be created with the people who create Assassins Creed crowds, or Commander Shepard moustache). But there is an event horizon for spectacle, which shows in the constant ennui generated by the most recent Uncharteds and Modern Warfares. A lie that the talking boards of the industry (IGNs, Gamespots) all seems to believe in.

The need for characterization of genres, which makes 'indie" as one, is just sad; i remembered being interested in indie games circa 2006,2007, back when Indie Games Weblog was filled with news of crazy free games and not just a bulletin board for Kickstarters. The fun thing in indie back then was that anything goes; from manipulative experimentalia like Passage to pure gameplay like Cho Ren Sha. That spirit is a bit lost today, when anything small (i.e. bouncy happy faces collecting coins in iPhones) is considered indie. It's not gone, far from it, as the article points out (as the industry needs subversion to fuel its innovations); its just that needs of the market are stronger.

Honestly, I don't think there is anything wrong with games now; there are incredibly fun, smart, though-provoking fare both big and small, and it looks like it only is going to get better in the future. The problem is that most of the critics (if we can call them so), are still very immature, craving primal thrills and not seeing through graphics-sound-gameplay, the paradigms of a bygone era of gaming - and those same ideals are passed into the expectations of masses of "gamers".

(there is good game criticism in the internet, though - Kill Screen, Rock,Paper,Shotgun, Instant Credit, the myriad of blogs gathered in Critical Distance, and of course Gamasutra)

Cordero W
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To me, you get what you pay for. And there's a lot of indie games, even the top ones such as Minecraft and World of Goo, that feels lackluster compared to a game with a solid budget. It just lacks that substance of coherent parts coming together in harmony. The music may not be as great, the graphics (most of the time) are sacrificed for good gameplay, or the controls may suck, or there may be a lack of level design. It's all relatively boring. And yet people continue to say "Come on, give this game a try." I've tried enough indie games at this point, and concluded that I rather take a chance with a funded project with some good funds behind it rather than another indie game at this point. You will find a jewel sometimes, but most of the time, you won't find anything good. So why waste my time on low funded projects when I can find something that was largely better from earlier eras, such as Playstation, N64, and hell, even SNES. There's still a number of games out there to be played.

I suppose the best argument is that there isn't a lot of exposure to the classics other than through Virtual console and the like. And even then, I can understand the indie POV in that they want people to see that there use to be experimentation in the game industry. But most of these indie games end up being sort of like half finished prototypes. There are different types of games out there. The trouble is trying to get the limelight in favor of the top AAA games nowadays. Indie games are a shine in that direction, but they aren't the future. All they will do is tell the industry that there is a trend for a certain genre, and that they should invest in a game of that genre. Remember the RPG era? One hit and everyone was all over it. The same will happen when the next mainstream genre hits the scene.

Ole Berg Leren
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Through showing the AAA-part of the industry where it's "safe" to venture, in terms of market, indie-games will inadvertantly create the future of games. That is also why the indie-scene is important, for experimentation.

I read a blog or something once, that hoped that EA would go the way of large Hollywood publishers, and create indie-branches. His proposition was that they give them a budget, maybe some supervisors, and milestones to reach. If they didn't hit the milestones in a satisfactory way, their funding would get cut off.

This would incentivize experimentation, be a nice entry-gate into the industry for small-time developers and fresh-from-education developers and minimize risk. That's the gist of it, as I can't remember where I read it. This would be as an aside to the in-house "game-jams" that they might host, where developers on off-periods of production experiment, as its goal is to bring in new talent and ideas.