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IF and Indie Aesthetics in Games at WRT: Writer Response Theory



IF and Indie Aesthetics in Games


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The Ludologist recently hosted an approving discussion of Greg Costikyan’s complaint on the lack on an indie aesthetic in gaming. My reaction to Costikyan’s Escapist article was a little different, although it focused on the same quote:

in gaming, we have no indie aesthetic, no group of people (of any size at least) who prize independent vision and creativity over production values.

This is funny to me, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the widespread indie aesthetics in interactive fiction, a huge authoring community that definitely prizes independent vision and creativity over production values.

But before I start waving my hand frantically in the air, waiting for some ludologist to call on me for the answer, I’d like to consider some of the reasons why interactive fiction forums like Baf’s Guide and ifMUD might not be a good answer to to Greg Costikyan or Jesper Juul’s question.

As an example of an indie aesthetic of significant size,
IF might not count…

  • …if “gaming” meant “graphical gaming.” We want to know where all the work is that doesn’t emphasize production values - so long as it emphasizes production values.
  • …if “gaming” meant “distribution channel gaming,” i.e. console or PC titles. Just as small web-distributed graphical games are ignored in many discussions of game economics, IF wouldn’t count because most of it circulates online for free. We want to know where all the indie distributions are - so long as they don’t use indie methods of distribution.
  • …if “group of people (of any size)” meant “group of consumers (of any sizable marketshare).” Indie scenes tend to have a high artist-to-audience ratio. A very significantly sized group of artists can still make for an insignificant broadcast marketshare. We want to find indie artists - so long as they are attached to a mass demographic.

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I’m not trying to attack game critics or ludology as being unsophisticated here - Costikyan has made it clear that his analysis/crusade is about the mass-market. There is nothing wrong with wishing that the blockbuster console game market was permeated by indie aesthetics, just as there is nothing wrong with wishing that Hollywood blockbusters films were permeated with indie aesthetics (in fact, some might argue that they are).

Money aside, I am also not claiming that IF should self-evidently be assimilated under the umbrella of “games,” but instead is being cruelly excluded. There is plenty of ambivalence about whether or not IF belongs in games on all sides, both from within the IF community and from without. As “fiction” that is experience by playing a “game file,” IF has ridden the “ludology v. narratology” line for decades. But still, IF might count as an indie game culture. It might. You could take that point of view on a vibrant and productive community of interactive artists toiling in relative obscurity. Or not.

Whether or not you do, my suggestion is that we begin our search for an indie gaming aesthetic by considering our definition of “gaming”… and expanding it.

Oh, and drop the requirement that a legitimate indie aesthetic already be a marketplace commodity. I mean, look at the history of art. That’s just silly.



9 Responses to “IF and Indie Aesthetics in Games”

  1. 1 Mark Marino

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    Jeremy, I like this idea that “indie” might be hidden in plain sight, that the “indie” side of games might have been eliminated by the definition of “games.” It reminds me of arguments about the constitutive outside, that which defines because it is excluded. Innovation must come from what is beyond the current concept of game, what has been excluded. IF, whether excluded or included, develops its innovations with an “indie” spirit, according to everything we’ve discussed and Nick Montfort has written about. The independent game artist probably maintains more control by seeking channels of production and distribution that she/he can control. Maybe part of this control comes from not being thought of as central to the game world. In other world, maybe the chains of genre, especially mass market media, are also antithetical to the IF project at this point (It’s consitutive outside). But would the Indie Gamers might have a different answer to this debate? But most of those folks are so massively casual that they have to raise similar arguments.

  2. 2 Jeremy Douglass

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    I completely forgot to mention a much earlier piece that takes as a given IF as part of indie gaming - it is called Writing Interactive Fiction (a.k.a. “Text Adventure Games”) with the Inform Programming Language, by Joey deVilla of IndieGameDev. Note the name. The section titled “What Advantages and Opportunities Does IF Offer the Indie Game Developer?” says it all…

  3. 3 Andrew Stern

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    Good points, Jeremy. Text-based IF is of course an indie game culture, with an indie aesthetic; I’m guessing Costikyan feels justified in skipping over it in his analysis, not strictly because it’s text-based, but because it’s a form that has been around for so long now and has dwindled down from some degree of popularity 20 years ago, to a very small “marketshare” these days, with little sign of gaining any back, in its current form at least.

    He probably considers IF “old school” in its current form (e.g. Inform), even though IF addresses so many more artistic themes than any other form of interactive entertainment.

    In other words, Costikyan (and other gamers) have probably sampled bits of the more recent IF here and there, hopefully including some of the better artistic ones of the past 10 years, and decided, “eh”… it doesn’t do it for them. The experience is just not compelling enough in its current form, compared to the pleasures of other forms of interactive entertainment (which, while simpler in many ways, are more satisfying).

    Interestingly, Chris Crawford treats IF as a bastard cousin of interactive storytelling as well, considering it outside inclusion in future-direction-oriented “related work” in his recent book! Again, I think it stems from the fact that IF is just considered “old school” by so many.

    I do think IF could shake off that perception, if some new techniques / technology were brought to bear on its creation. Inform has been around for quite a while, perhaps it’s time for some new engines…

    fwiw, Costikyan has not once yet mentioned or reacted to Facade; although the fact that he hasn’t railed against it should be considered a good thing I suppose :-)

  4. 4 Jeremy Douglass

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    Thanks Andrew - It would be interesting to see new engines, or updated technological uses. For example, IF components could easily be woven into ARGs - as chatbots and other “old-school” interactive technologies have been - and it would be interesting to see some sort of non-legacy language generate a lot of excitement, particularly if it was accessible (for example, the way Processing has generated excitement in the art community).

    However, in some ways I think IF is invisible, and this has everything to do with the fall of Infocom and IF’s lack of marketplace legitimacy. For example, the HHGTTG remake by the BBC last year won a BAFTA for design, and then held an innovate skinning project that I thought had really interesting potential if more generally applied - a kind of Worth1000 for interactive storytelling. But, as you say, the fact that IF is in fact “old school” makes people think of these events not as part of the present, but rather as a return to the past.

    Facade of course isn’t tarred with the same brush, although a lack of integral crosshairs or jumping puzzles will automatically put it off some people’s radar no matter what you do. I’ll bet if Costikyan reviewed it he would like it. On the other hand, he is looking for a culture of sustainable innovation for industry developers, so without a business model or a time to market of less than 3 years, Facade might not be what he is looking for….

  5. 5 Benjamin M. Barden

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    thoughts…
    - It may be that he isn’t taking IF into account because it simply doesn’t occur to him. I didn’t realize it was out there at all until you pointed it out to me, and I try to stay at least a little abreast of gaming news. The roguelike games qualify as pretty indie as well, and they’re definately games. I also noticed an occasion when Costikayan seemed to (and perhaps did) totally ignore the existence of small shareware production houses like Ambrosia and Spiderweb. I cannot say for certain, but I think he is talking not so much about Games as about Gamers. The subculture that he loves and is a part of has no strong indie aesthetic, and that is what troubles him. It is the way of the world that the health of those subcultures that you are not associated with cause you no concern.

    The internet is like an enormous castle composed entirely of secret passages. You can live cheek-to-jowl with someone and never realize that they exist.

    Of course, this lends itself less to literary geeking, and more to psych, but….

    Ben Barden

  6. 6 Jeremy Douglass

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    Good to see you here Ben!

    I think you are right in pointing out that his manifestos are directed at a specific subculture. Maybe I’m in a mode where I’m wondering if we could do a bit more coalition building.

    But really, it might be good to ask what the goal for his subculture is. There seem to be two goals - one is more creative excitement and less living like drones, for the developers. The other is more choice and better product, for the gamers. Chasing the first might successfully drive the second. However it is an open question whether a revolution in game design will change gamer taste - that is, sell well. Many, many media content industries have attempted design revolutions and discovered that people will respect them, but not actually buy anything if it doesn’t match the drapes.

  7. 7 Benjamin M. Barden

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    Coalition-building is always an interesting exercise, but I’d suggest you first ask yourself if a coalition is in your interests, and then ask yourself if a coalition interests you. IL, culturally, is a lot more like fanfic/amateur fiction than gaming. (those two are essentially one culture, with many individual fanfic authors who strive to write or actually write original fic, and have next to no change in readership) It has a high artist-to-user ratio (in fic, it gets to the point that there are probably more artist-users than pure users, at least of people who are in the subculture for any length of time.) The technologies are fairly static. The high-quality innovations tend to be literary or psychological, and are not trivial to build on or even to duplicate.

    Honestly, from an outsider’s perspective, the shape that IL has is the shape that it wants to have. The only improvement that I could see would be in getting the word out - it is still very small, and there are many people who would fit right in and enjoy themselves immensely, but who have no idea that IL is even out there.

    My thought is, though, that these people are not gamers. They would tend to be literary, problem-solving types. Anyone who played Myst would be a decent candidate, even though Myst was at least half about the eye candy. Tycho (but not Gabe) of Penny Arcade might be interested (if he was, that would be a partial solution to the “get the word out” thing all by itself.) Your best bet for eyeballs might actually be through livejournal.

    As for design revolutions, they’re Nintendo’s stock in trade, and they seem to be doing pretty well for themselves. The trick isn’t whether design revolutions will sell (they will, if you get the right ones) but whether *your* design revolution will sell.

    hokay. out of juice.

    Ben Barden

  8. 8 Benjamin M. Barden

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    Correction: In fic, there are definate sections where the authors outnumber the non-authors, but in retrospect, those sections aren’t anything like the whole thing.

  9. 9 Jeremy Douglass

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    (By IL do you mean Interactive Literature?)

    Interesting comparison to fan fic - there is acuatlly a fair amount of fan fic and slash that I’ve seen written using the ADRIFT: Adventure Development & Runner - Interactive Fiction Toolkit, which provides a graphical IDE for rapid prototyping. There are a lot of art cultures out there that have a “high artist-to-consumer ratio” - perhaps the one thing that they all have in common is that they tend to be difficult to capitalize based on the broadcast model, and in some ways work more like craft - if you want to make money off of scrapbooking, you don’t publish scrapbooks, you sell materials….

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