Besides being caught up in Just Cause 2 for the past month, I've lately been getting more and more of a different side of the gaming industry: Indie games. We all know about Assassin's Creed 2 and Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, but what about the real hidden gems under the radar?
The term 'indie' is used simply to describe independence, and in the case of game development, this means independence from a game publisher. It's (most often) a Game developer coming out and creating a game without restrictions or gimmicks based on profits. It's not something that's advertised very much, if at all, another reason why indie games are so unknown. Choosing to develop without a publisher means less financial support, a smaller development team, and of course, publishing is no longer free. But these aren't necessarily problems, and in fact, they all help the initiative to break away from the norm and create something completely new.
You may have heard of a few well-known indie games: World of Goo is one of WiiWare's best-selling titles, Braid was one of Xbox Live Arcade's best, and games like flOw or flOwer have made quite an impression on the Playstation Store. The reason why indie games don't often receive attention is that they are rarely sold outside of digital distribution stores, like the Playstation Network or Xbox Live Indie Games; The games' meagre budgets won't allow for expensive advertising or mass-produced CDs or DVDs of the game, so the developers rely on word of mouth and media attention for their game to gain popularity.
You're probably thinking, "If indie games have no budget and virtually no development team, aren't they bad games?" Not at all. In fact, having limited resources lets the devs create something even more along the lines of art than game. Of course, it's not really art, but indie games aren't afraid to test out never-before-seen gameplay elements and try out new art styles, if you've ever played an indie game, you know that there's nothing else quite like it.
Independent game developers rarely borrow from other games' success, but major developers generally like to play it safe with tried-and-true gameplay elements, they don't usually fund anything that breaks the mould. This is normal, since a system consumers know and trust will almost always make more money than anything unfamiliar. Risk is something big publishers like Electronic Arts or Nintendo will take cautiously over many years. Small developers without ties to a publisher can take all the risks they want, and with a smaller group of people, risks aren't so dangerous. If all members of the team are aware of the vision behind a game, innovations can work wonderfully. Money, or the absence thereof, is an obstacle, but it also means the team is held together by more than greed, and the members are usually working to develop a great game, not just to collect another paycheck.
With only a little money, how do you manifest beautiful 3D graphics and record and pay for professional voice actors? Somehow, indie developers find their way around expensive obstacles like these, and it works out nicely in the end. Indie games express themselves more artistically than traditional games, characters communicate through body language and thought cartoons in Amanita Design's Machinarium, and the story is told in panels of witty writing by "The Sign Painter" in 2D Boy's World of Goo. The graphics, though not always, are usually done in a cartoonish, uniquely artistic style. Machinarium is done with completely hand-drawn backgrounds and characters, World of Goo follows a cartoon physics-based graphical style, and flOw is a simple two-dimensional plane of water, with soothing blue and greens. Every indie game has a unique visual style of it's own, usually without using a flashy 3D engine(flOwer is an exception), yet still, indie games' graphics bring back beauty through simplicity.
Sound design is something almost all indie games manage to perfectly execute, without orchestras or voice acting. It's an excellent soundtrack, usually made by just one individual, that conveys the game's atmosphere flawlessly in so many indie games. World of Goo has a moody score that fits with the game's slightly dark story, and Machinarium has an industrial ambient soundtrack. Some games go the extra mile and incorporate the gameplay into the soundtrack, so the music changes depending on the situation. flOw is a good example of a game with a dynamic score, as you go deeper into the ocean, the music changes, and different notes resonate when you eat an enemy or swim deeper into the water.
But what really matters in the end is the fun factor, and the gameplay will not let you down in an indie game. Again, it all starts with simplicity. Many indie games take a simple idea and turn it into something brilliant. World of Goo, for example, takes the idea of stretching balls of goo into towers and bridges, but the game's unique and challenging situations turn the simple concept on it's head. Flow, you could say, is just another Feeding Frenzy, but adding some soft, dark colours and a calm, beautiful ambient soundtrack makes the microorganism food chain feel as relaxing as dream. Braid adds a special time-control mechanic to basic 2D platforming. Other games are slightly more derivative in their gameplay, Machinarium is a simple point-and-click puzzle/adventure game, but finding the right items in a post-apocalyptic hand-drawn world with some of the cutest robots ever seen in a video game makes for a nice twist of originality.