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Life after Dyad: Are indie games all grown up now?
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."
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.