About That Indie Feel is an article series investigating the design decisions that give indie games or games of less experienced developers a distinct feel compared to master works. So far we've covered hitbox design, mechanics design, game speed, sound design (or the lack thereof), the trend of linear gameplay challenges, and level design difficulty mainly created through nuanced challenges. The current topic on this blog is abstraction of abstractions, or the dangers of working off of the works of others for one's inspiration and design foundation. In part 5, we'll consider theories that explain why "that indie feel" stems from how designers are inspired. To be clear, all levels of game developers can make the mistakes that I highlight in this series. It's just far more likely for a small team of less experienced developers to make these mistakes than a large team that networks with industry veterans.
Learning One's Craft
If we think of design and craft as a collection of rules that shape a work to better achieve a particular effect for a particular audience, then it becomes easy to understand where "that indie feel" comes from. Just like in game design, rules are complexities. And, as I often say, complexities cannot be compressed. Putting it altogether, I'm saying there are a collection of rules that, for the most part, should be followed to create a quality gaming experience, and until a designer learns all of these rules significant mistakes will be made. This is one reason why clear communication and effective art is harder to achieve than unclear, chaotic messages.
Making mistakes is an inevitable part of the trial-and-error learning method that we all use. Put another way, we learn by doing; we take chances, make mistakes, and get messy, to quote a famous teacher from my childhood. So if we have 10 craft lessons to learn before we fully understand a medium, we don't dig in and learn all 10 and then attempt to make something; we learn our lessons one at a time while trying to make art (ie. convey our ideas and experiences) in the meantime. Amateur passion may be high and their dedication solid, but without all the core lessons learned the results are bound to be lacking in some way. Since we learn by doing, the more experience we gain the less likely we are to make the same mistakes, or the big mistakes. So, chances are if designers is hired as a professional due to their education level and experience, they are less likely to make the kinds of mistakes amateurs tend to make. And since the indie game development space is filled with more amateurs and aspiring designers (like me) than the professional development space, that indie feel that comes from making core craft mistakes will tend to be an indie quality.
Typically before amateurs mature, they learn by copying works that they like. It's great to start in the areas that you like, but, as I explained in my article Abstract on Abstraction, part of your education in understanding your craft depends on diversity. Even if you like FPSs the best and only want to make FPSs for the rest of your life, it's important to study, understand, and experiment with elements and features of other genres, and other mediums for that matter. Amateurs and indie game developers often put more focus and energy copying and twisting elements from a relatively narrow inspiration pool in attempt to express their ideas or to just make their work unique. I've met designers who are driven to the point of design tunnel vision trying to "do something that's never been done before." The sad part is by focusing on the fine details of their projects, these designers fail to avoid the big craft mistakes and end up making a lacking product just like all the other amateurs who are still learning their craft.
It is this failure to avoid the big design or craft pitfalls while still executing a high level of dedication, style, and personality into a work that gives indie games a very distinct feel. When playing these indie games you feel that the designers did the best they can even if they misfired on some big aspects of their design. You admire the detail and dedication in some areas, but are disappointed in the glaring mistakes in other, more important areas. That indie feel comes from this kind of indomitable spirit, almost a rule breaking spirit. But there's still more to understand about the way rules and art and craft come together.
The World of Craft Model
Rules are meant to be broken. There are no rules in art. These two ideas often come up in discussions about amateur versus masterful art wok. To clarify, when I talk about craft and certain design rules, these ideas are not absolute. There are exceptions to the rules and ways of getting around them. But the rules are rules for a reason, and the reason is the rules work most effectively for the vast majority of cases. So to "break" any of these rules successfully requires an artist that really understands their craft inside and out; it requires knowing what the rule is, why it exists, how many other aspects of design it affects, and how to achieve the effect of the rule in some other way without creating more problems than the work cannot sustain. To illustrate this idea, I offer this world model as an analogy.
Notice how there are 4 distinct layers in this model. At the core of the earth and of craft, which is the solid center around with everything else is anchored, are the most simple and pure craft rules that convey ideas in the medium. In this case we're talking about game design. This core consists of the rules that create works that effectively communicate to a completely inexperienced audience. There's no need to be an hardcore or casual gamer of any kind to appreciate games that adhere to these rules. Mechanics design, variation, development, cleanness or feedback design, difficulty design, level design, are all topics with core design rules. Understand these rules and you'll have everything you need to make great gamplay experiences.
But there is much more to game design than the core. The core sets up the foundation upon which the medium works on the most basic level. Beyond the core are what I consider to be genre defining works (see the orange layer in the image above). For example, games like Super Mario Brothers for the NES that are great in themselves and have had such an influence over other games in the genre it defined. There are a lot of design choices in SMB that has set the example for other platformers to worked off of. Many games have followed Mario's lead, though history and the trends of platformer design could have swung a different direction if SMB never came out. Even within the Mario inspired realm there is plenty of room for other platformers to develop their own style and own way of working with the core to create quality gaming experiences.
Keep in mind that volume wise this outer-core layer has more volume than the core. This means there is more room for games to differentiate themselves here than by strictly adhering to the core rules. This outer-core is fluid and flexible. Instead of explaining everything from the ground up, instead of working with a completely inexperience audience, these games start at a more complex level of difficulty and go from there. Casual game designers typically work from a core level instead of the outer-core because they seek to walk inexperienced gamers through the gameplay experience.
Then there's the rest of the inner earth material called the mantel (see the red-orange color in the image above). Here is where developers create games where the core (gameplay and game design) is not the primary focus. Perhaps the interactivity and the gameplay are used to serve some other purpose the designers felt is more important like story or experiential effect. There's a lot of room here because you can blend gameplay experiences with other kinds of mediums and experiences. Games like Heavy Rain, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Journey belong here. Keep in mind that this model is not a mark of quality. A designer can create a quality product at any level of this model or fail at any level. The point is that when you don't stick to the core rules, you have great freedom to bend or break the rules in service of other artistic aims.
One of the main reasons I find this model useful is the crust. Yes, that part of the earth that only makes up 1% of its volume. I believe that once you set out to create a work that is so far away from the core, the outer-core, and the mantel, you're making a difficult choice. This is the realm of parody, satire, and post-modern works that use the medium not as a means to convey ideas but to make a statement about the medium. Works of the "crust" are edgy (get it?). They mix form and craft and rules and expectations to create their effect. These types are works can be fantastic in their own way, but part of their appeal and effect stems from their deviation from the norm.
There are several characteristics which define the term 'postmodern' in art; these include bricolage, the use of words prominently as the central artistic element, collage, simplification, appropriation, performance art, the recycling of past styles and themes in a modern-day context, as well as the break-up of the barrier between fine and high arts and low art and popular culture. ~ Wikipedia
Another reason why I like using the crust as a analogy is because it's so thin and conceptually brittle. You really have to know what you're doing as a designer to create works that subvert the rules just so. Go too far or not far enough and you'll have a mess that fails to neatly rest inside that 1%. You really have to execute perfectly so that your art acknowledges and frames the 99% of the conventions, rules, and trends to ultimately work against it. I believe that while amateurs and indie developers alike strive to create works that they find interesting and reflect their current understanding of design, they gravitate toward design decisions further away from the core. The reason aspiring artists have so many fresh ideas is because they haven't endured the squeeze yet to learn that most of their ideas and the way they dreamed them up won't work for a given medium; more specifically, they won't result in products that are close to the core or outer-core of design. The fate of amateurs is to dream in big, incomplete pictures.
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few."~Zen quote
Fez is a great example of a game that subverts core design elements of both platforming and puzzle game design. As I explained in my article The Dimension of Fez, the core Fez experience is split between the experience of collecting yellow cubes, the mysterious world beyond (I say to avoid spoilers), and reveling in the world of Phil Fish. Recall the diagrams I made toward the end of my article series Design Space: Infinite Undiscovery. Though I use the term "core" in both this model and the World of Craft model, I think their overlap illustrates different views of the same reality of artistic and design limitations.
The core of Fez's gameplay experience, according to the rules of craft that make up the core of the video game medium, is small and relatively shallow in terms of complexities. Notice in the image above how the core circle doesn't even encompass the entire word "core." In what I assume to be Fish's inexperience as a game designer, Fish seemed to put more love and effort into the experiences beyond the core gameplay. Riddles, jokes, languages, codes, and more await the player who delves further in into the increasing complexities of Fez (indicated by the arrow pointing to the right). Ultimately, the game lacks focus and cohesion in its execution because the core is separate from the other interesting experiences, which are a disjointed collection of ideas. This is indicated by the dotted circles and how they overlap oddly.
So if you feel like Fez is a game unlike anything else you've played before, that's because it is. The reason though is because Fez exists far away from the core game design rules. And I argue that it unsuccessfully lands somewhere near that 1% crust and the mantel. Without a doubt, Fez exudes that indie feel. Now we know where it comes from.