Indie games are developing a lot of traction in the current gaming climate, with a burgeoning popularity and increased visibility meaning they are reaching wider audiences looking for alternatives to the AAA rat race. Compared to the juggernauts of the AAA sphere, indie games have much smaller teams (for whom game developing may not even be their primary source of income), smaller audiences and vastly smaller budgets, so is it fair that they be judged by the same metrics? Should a game’s smaller scope and budget be grounds for us to temper our judgement?
Sometimes good things come in little packages
Before proceeding it’s probably best to identify a key notion within games journalism, and one that quite often gets forgotten or lost in the noise: reviews are highly subjective and as such are representations of opinion through reasoning, not cold scientific fact. While we may give games a hard number that attempts to sum up our overall impressions of a title, without context that number is near meaningless, and even amongst games that have been scored by the same reviewer, comparing the numbers is misleading at best. Personally, when I review a game I do not look at all the other games I have reviewed and try to decide where it fits in and which games it is ‘better’ than. A game ought to be judged on its own merits and what it is specifically trying to achieve and how well it executes its vision, but that being said it does not exist in a vacuum. Genre is a lens through which games are often viewed and compared, but this is true of any critical analysis regardless of the medium, and is generally useful in anchoring a discussion.
So where do indie games fit in then? I will say that in general I much prefer AAA games. Major AAA releases always have an air of excitement around them, an excitement that I simply fail to muster when thinking about indie releases. This could be a result of the sheer volume, as the amount of indie games out there (particularly on Steam, but Microsoft and Sony are also increasingly bolstering their indie game rosters) is mind-boggling. That being said, the only games to have ever received a perfect score from me are indies, and there are three: What Remains of Edith Finch, Inside and The Witness (the first title on that list was actually my GOTY pick for 2017). I stand staunchly by those scores too, as I believe that in every aspect that they set out to create they nailed the execution flawlessly. I had this to say in review of the Witness:
In deciding a score for this game I decided to not question what was right with it, but rather ask what was wrong with it. The answer to that is nothing, and for this reason I am giving it my first perfect score.
Witness the fitness
So herein lies the key to this discussion – a game’s scope, budget or development team’s size is not an excuse for perceived shortcomings, but it is a necessary restriction that a good title is aware of and lives within. Some of the worst AAA games are titles that squander their squillion-dollar budgets and provide shallow experiences. Worse still there are the full-priced AAA games that nickel-and-dime their user bases. We’re looking at you here Destiny, which despite reportedly costing half a billion dollars to make and market, was criticised mercilessly on release for a lack of content – content which was later sold piece meal over time at exorbitant prices. Contrast this directly with CD Projekt Red’s universally praised The Witcher 3, which cost 81 million USD to develop but was extremely expansive title in term of content, narrative depth and scope. It was also quite a pretty game to look at, really hitting all the high notes of what people wanted from a AAA action-RPG of that type (I gave it an 8.8 in my review). Big-budget PS4 exclusive The Order: 1886 also comes to mind, which was crucified on release (unless you’re WellPlayed’s Managing Editor Zach Jackson who scored it 8 and has a framed picture of Galahad next to his computer) for being only a paltry five-six hours long, despite the fact that it was a visual masterpiece and featured some solid world-building.
So to use the same metric, just as bad big-ticket AAA games arise from the misuse of substantial resources, bad indie games (and by extension bad AA games) arise when a developer’s ambitions outstrip their actual means of delivering it. This can be in terms of an overly ambitious scope, or poor design choices. This former aspect is overwhelmingly apparent in The Technomancer, which isn’t really an indie game but certainly fits in this discussion of whether leeway should be given for games with smaller teams/budgets. Developer Spiders reached for the stars with The Technomancer, using a miniscule budget to attempt to execute an epic action-RPG with a massive scope a la Mass Effect which fell short in almost every regard (review here), an outcome that was more or less a foregone conclusion. Visually, technically and narrative-wise it was a pale imitation of much better games. It is not the fault of the gamer for not enjoying the game for what it was (the game-breaking glitch I encountered which made me unable to complete it 30 hours in for instance certainly muted my enjoyment), it is folly on the part of the developer in thinking they could operate within that space with the resources they had.
Technomancer: I’ve made a tiny huge mistake
I’d level a similar argument against Past Cure, which is a psychological thriller/third-person shooter from Phantom 8. In WellPlayed’s review, Zach Jackson described its visuals as mostly adequate, but claimed the game boiled down to being a generic third-person shooter with a vague narrative and comically terrible voice acting. While I’m sure Phantom 8’s hearts were in the right place, there simply wasn’t the level of experience and budget required to pull off a credible game of this ilk.
Some publishers and developers don’t realise that their game will fall short of their lofty ambitions until it’s too late. However, at least some have the courage to publicly admit that, despite their best intentions and efforts, the scope of their game was too great for the company’s resources. Such is the case with CI Games and the recent Sniper Ghost Warrior 3, you can check out our candid interview with Senior Level Designer Daniel Slawinski in which he acknowledges the disparity between the things they wanted to deliver and what their resources realistically allowed them to.
Sniper Ghost Warrior 3: Judged and found wanting
Budget and other development restrictions (or lack thereof) play a part in the type of game that it is feasible for a team to produce. For this reason, big ticket full-price AAA titles will always be scrutinised in terms of visuals, performance, quality of gameplay and overall amount of content. In order to achieve true success they must hit these benchmarks convincingly, and when they do the market responds. Indie games with far greater restrictions must create within their own space, and get creative with what resources they have and try not to imitate existing experiences within the AAA space. This might be through a choice of art-style which is less technologically demanding to create, but it need not be any less impactful. Ori and The Blind Forest for instance used a hand-drawn 2D style which was absolutely breathtaking. Similarly, Campo Santo’s Firewatch used bold but relatively simple visuals to bring its stunning environments to life and Limbo/Inside’s mostly monochromatic visuals were utterly perfect for the tone. Concession might also be made in the narrowing of a game’s focus to tell shorter but more engaging stories, such as What Remains of Edith Finch and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Innovating through gameplay is also a sure-fire way of having your indie voice heard. Papers, Please, Undertale and Orwell and The Red Strings Club are all prime examples of this.
The review score continuum, in all its murky subjectivity, is a harsh but ultimately fair judge. As long as it is taken in the context of the reviewer’s thoughts and reasonings it can be applied more or less equally to any game regardless of budget or development constraints. The true metric in measuring the quality of a game is the strength of its vision and its ability to execute that vision. Importantly, the strength of a vision for a game is independent of the size of the team that develops it, but the ability to execute it can be constrained, meaning that smart choices must be made by indie developers in how to best utilise their assets. If a smaller developer attempts to create within the same genre as a AAA heavyweight or try and mimic their style, their work will always be judged in the same context, and no quarter is likely to be given.