Parthenogenesis basically comes from the Greek words “παρθένο” which means virgin and “Γένεσις” which means birth. So basically, my aim through this article is to talk about new and unique design in video games. Not necessarily just indie games, but I will most definitely be focusing mostly on that anyway, since my focus is always, mostly around that.
This is not a clickbait article though. If you came here thinking it will be one, then you are mistaken and if at any point you feel like it actually tires you or there is no point to keep on reading what I think about certain things in the indie games industry, then you are more than welcome to walk out the way you came in. I have to tell you this though in advance, since this is not going to be one of those “How to be an awesome indie dev” kind of article like one of the million, full of words and yet empty, kind of articles that get written by so called industry “experts”. I do not aim to personally attack anyone with that statement, since the people that know of those “experts” know who I am talking about anyway.
There are a lot of videos to watch while reading the article, so try to take it all in slow and easy. Feel free to finish reading through the article and then watching the videos though since they are 10 minutes long each.
I have been following a YouTube channel, called Extra Credits, for quite a while, but the channel’s latest video really hit a chord with me this time (check video below). It talked about Advanced Game Literacy and how that is important for games. It basically struck the chord inside me that always tried to tell me that I should definitely speak out sooner or later and call out all those crappy games that have been flooding the indie games market, making the market more saturated than ever for all the wrong reasons in all the wrong ways.
My words are my own, but I will be basing most of my opinions on all sorts of facts and opinions that others have expressed before me. Specifically, I will be linking a lot of the things to some of the videos on Extra Credits.
I usually have to explain myself every time I write a long article like this, since most people come to me, right after having read what I’ve written down, with their first question being “but why would you do this?” Even worse, they question my expertise on the matter. The reason why, is because I love the interactive art of games. I am not mentioning this in order to make myself seem like another “awesome games fan that decided to write about them” but rather in order to practice the technique of empathy here and get you on my side. Just like you (if you are a gamer or even better a games developer), I am a games art enthusiast. I may take it a bit farther than most of you do, even farther than games developers (as hard as that may be to grasp), but I do feel proud about it since it has allowed me to think beyond the boundaries that many set-in-stone philosophies have made me think up until the time I became that kind of an enthusiast.
I am studying International Business Management but at the same time, I spend dozens of hours on a daily basis studying programming, following online art courses such as in photography and cinematic techniques and many other things in order to improve my knowledge on art design and art direction. I am actually so dedicated to it, that I have a huge excel list with all of the things I’ve been through already. When I feel I have been far enough, I will most definitely publish that list online. It is beyond me how much I have learned in just a couple of years, by just watching videos, reading articles and following courses prepared by experts online, while paying zero cash for it. And yet, this is all surreal to most people. Art design, matters in games.
Why We Make Games
Talking about creating art though, we have to talk about why we actually do it. To put a quick end to this paragraph, I am just going to say that literally nobody is going to care about why you do it, unless they actually like your game so much that they want to know more about the things that happened in order for it to be made. Your game could be just about making the people around you happy, or just about making you a couple bucks by having to spend minimal effort in order to make a clone of something very successful while at the same time managing to not get caught in a shitstorm of comments as to how you copied somebody else.
Why you make games, is your own problem and nobody should be telling you why you should be doing it. There are thousands of amazing artists outside of game development that have been creating for all sorts of reasons and became distinguished for they own set of unique and particular reasons.
Non-professional game developers will be the focus for this article, so make sure you get this down right. I am not talking about any sort of game developer that seeks to straight out just make money out of their creation, but rather about the people that make games in order to create art. Find yourself a camp and take your place in it.
Although nobody cares about why you are making games, people that will play your game will most definitely care about how unique your project is. Is it platformer number 41582, or is it yet another adventure game that utilizes the point’n’click mechanics? Either way, you have to start thinking for yourself “am I satisfied with this being what it is and how I got inspired to make this?”
The thing that pisses me off the most about indie game developers nowadays is that they take everything for granted. What I mean is that, someone has already laid a nice path in front of them that they can follow into success. Or so they think at least and that is where things get really boring anyway. If you think you will be making the next Super Meat Boy then you should probably be looking at the 500 other titles that are rolling all over the place and barely have more than a hundred downloads each. Sure, one of them will shine, but will it shine as bright as Super Meat Boy? That is indeed the question you should be asking yourself.
So now that we have this out of the way, I would like to explore more, the whole “unique” part of creating art.
Nothing screams more unique than a game that the developer cannot explain in words. The developer studio of Pyre, Supergiant Games had to explain their game to the press as a combination of The Oregon Trail and Rocket League.
If you are going to be an indie developer, or as we said, let’s call it non-professional developer, then why would you go for making something that others have already made. If platformers inspire you and you enjoy those a lot, then sure, make a platformer game, but try to give it your own touch. Think outside of the box and try to bring something different. The glory of making your own game is actually taking risks and going beyond the what has already been tried out. Obviously, there is little room for new and unique games when so many have already been done, but we are constantly getting surprised in that by various games that come out and challenge the norms, so much sometimes that they even become known worldwide.
Had Overcooked been done before? Yes, but was it done that well and that artistically awesome? No, it hadn’t. Was Nuclear Throne an entirely new idea? Obviously no, twin-stick shooters have been around for way longer than Nuclear Throne has. However, what Vlambeer did was actually make a lot of specific things in the game polished enough in order to make a game that is unique in its own ways and for its own reasons. You cannot expect the customers to become any smarter and more willing to try out your game if all they see is just clones of famous and already successful games. I will be damned if you tell me more than just two or three successful games that were made as tributes to a specific IP such as Dark Souls for example. “This is a Dark Souls-like game.” Most of those are bad because the people that made them did not try to make a tribute game but rather a cash cow in the vein of a known game. The ones that were actually objectively good were just a few and those were made by huge fans of the original IP they were making the game after.
Art Design in Games
What I find most disturbing and frustrating is that the people that are oblivious to the fact that, art design matters in games, are usually game developers. How can you be an artist if you know nothing about art? Programming is essential but at the same time trivial if you end up having amazing gameplay but very bad-looking visuals on your game. Something obviously objective in most cases, but you get my point.
Rami Ismail once asked developers during one of his presentations “Who is your art director? Do you have an art director? Is he good?” You probably know what the response to that was. Exactly this, is my point. THIS, is the reason why we have “worse” games and THIS is the reason why we are flooded with game clones and shallow game ideas.
I recently saw a post by a studio that is preparing a game that is very much like Inside or Limbo. The company was asking for feedback on the game and things that they could improve on all aspects of it, be it the trailer or the actual gameplay, the visuals, the music and how all of that should look. They were reaching out to other developers in order to improve their game, which is something I find amazing in the indie game devs community (but we will talk about that some other time).
The world of Journey, a world so empty and yet so thematically unique. Add a red cape and you already know where you are.
The comments below the article were mostly “it looks beautiful, well done!” and things like that, whereas only a couple of comments in about a hundred had actual feedback as to how a couple things looked a bit off. I ended up writing three to four huge paragraphs explaining why the character’s running animation should be made to look slower and with less steps in order to fit the whole atmosphere and slow moving background. They wanted an atmospheric game from the looks of it and the hasty speed of the character’s running feet was ruining it. It was a clearly artistic approach that could end up affecting the game and how the player perceives immensely. This and a myriad other examples can prove to you that knowing just a little bit about how to go with other forms of art, can be quite important when you are making games, which are literally a combination of all those other forms of art put in an interactive environment.
Do you think Limbo or Inside did not have an art director? Art design in games does not just matter, but it is essential.
Concluding The Unconclusive
Being a games journalist means I am very interested and always inspired by the games people make, especially indie game devs. I am always closely monitoring as many channels of indie game development as I can in order to find out about more and more awesome projects. I have unfortunately noticed though that I am continuously becoming more and more disappointed at the things I see posted by new indie game developers. I had to ask myself at that point if it was the industry’s problem or if I was just getting tired of it all. Well, the answer was easy. If there are still some games I enjoy as much as I ever did when I tried out games with new ideas, it is definitely an industry problem.
The problem of course derives from the easy way out that I already mentioned. The mentality that new game developers have when they get started in the industry is just wrong for all sorts of reasons. Be it the millennials that are just in it for the quick thrills and the fast money sometimes or the eagerness to finish something and have an impact on the world, the result we are all seeing as gamers is famous games’ platforms such as Steam, getting flooded with all sorts of clones and redone game ideas. Developers do not even bother to put a message behind their game, or even if they do, they just polish it with some easy to implement point’n’click mechanics and then pass it on as a visual novel / adventure / casual / indie / exploration game.
No, I refuse to accept that this is how it is supposed to be done. Take for example my all-time favorite Hyper Light Drifter and how it reinvented storytelling in games (check video below) by explaining everything through pictures and leaving things to imagination. This sparked thousands of different versions of how the story went in the game since everyone had a different interpretation for it.
As a business student and a person that already has some work experience under his belt (some tell me that it was even too soon), I see all of the aspects of publishing your indie game as well and how that sort of business can be the downfall of any developer that is not prepared for such an endeavor. However, is it really what developers need to be focusing on? I see more articles about how developers should educate themselves to be good marketeers and salespeople rather than about how they should improve their artistic knowledge and skills. Yet again, money is the root of all evil and it is forcing us to go in ways that we shouldn’t be going in the first place. I am going to be bold here and just tell you that, if you are going to be spending any money in game development, it should be for an art director and a publisher/marketing expert. If you do not know how to do either of those, then your budget should be going there.
It is indeed true that these are all easy to say when you are not trying to make a living out of it, but if you have indeed decided to boldly go where others have not, which is to try and live off making games, then you should be realistic and realize that the chances of making the next Braid are not that great and you should be make yourself feel ok with the fact that you might end up working freelance or for other companies while you are making your game in your free time.
Regarding uniqueness though, I am not telling you to not try out and make something that has already been tried out, but rather to try and be an artist instead of a corporate drone that punches numbers in such a specific way just to please people around himself/herself. Leave the norms, leave political correctness, leave everything behind and make what you feel like making. One of the clickbaity “game dev pro tips” articles I recently read, surprisingly had an actually useful line in its standard, 500 words glory. “Do not be afraid to try out things, even small things, and fail.” If you do not spend hours trying to code a menu, you will never learn how to make one and even more you will never be able to make the kind of menu that you always thought would be awesome to have as a player.
Why make another platformer game when you can make something like That Dragon, Cancer and have an amazing interactive experience, unlike any other?
Parthenogenesis is a problem that is present in all forms of art, but it should not be an issue in interactive games. Not yet at least. There are so many things that have not even been tried out yet. It is true that the cost of VR is too high yet to become standard equipment for gamers but nonetheless, virtual reality alone provides more potential development ideas for games than any other art has ever had through just one means of technology. Just like the distortion on guitars and synthesizer sounds changed music, technology is the driving element that keeps moving games forward. Unlike all other forms of art, games keep evolving and becoming different all the time. It is not just about the better graphics, but it is indeed about the ease of access and the ease of developing more complex code year after year.
Everyone is excited about Nintendo Switch bringing the new Zelda game which everyone is looking forward to. Yet, here I am not giving a single f*ck about Zelda but being overexcited and looking forward to what developers will make with the mechanics that the motion controllers allow us to have since they work so nicely together and against each other. This is how an indie game developer should be thinking, not how they will milk players through something that has already been done.
Indie games are meant to be works of love and passion towards the making of interactive art. Be that kind of a developer too.
We here at Hyper Light Up are doing games coverage for the purpose of just covering them and providing exposure for them. We do not earn money in any way out of this, so you can always expect us to speak our minds about this. Our opinions are our own and we will never stop calling out the crap that we see and will also never stop showing you how amazed we are at the diamonds that indie game developers create day after day.
I hope you found this to be an interesting read and if anything at least a little bit enlightening. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on all of this and your own concerns about the indie games industry too.
We will be continuing our weekly Indies Streams from the next week or so and we are planning on running a series with discussions on various topics that concern the indie games industry. Best part of this is that we will be inviting various indie game developers from time to time to talk about those topics with us.
-Konstantinos “Kelfecil” Christakis