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You take games too seriously.

It Fit When I Was A Kid

Super Smashed Brothers, by TatsuSoft

Like indie movies, indie games rely on their low production values as part of their aesthetic. But because of the even-lower financial stakes and the inherent anti-commercial bent of someone coding a Flash game on their MacBook, indie games tend much more towards a referentiality that relies entirely on fair use and parody.

When you think about the games that have made their trip through the blogs recently, whether they’re the smart variety like Passage or You Have To Burn The Rope or the humorous (and occasionally very smart) variety of ROM Check Fail or Super Smashed Brothers, one thing seems to stick out – the use of early-gen assets and/or design as either a form of criticism or a design choice.

Think about Fez, a game that has won awards and spawned endless blog talkback. It uses designs inspired by the 8-bit era, and then flips them (twists them? rotates them?) to elucidate its new and exciting mechanic. 

But why are these among the most discussed indie games out there? Do indie games, which appeal to a small subset of hyper-literate, hyper-connected gamers actually just reach out to our inner children and say “Remember this? Remember how much you liked your NES? Well, guess what. It’s back, and it’s smart, just like you?”

How Passage, ROM Check, and I deal with this, after the jump.

Part of what led me into thinking about this was my research on Gravitation, Jason Rohrer’s newest and perhaps most game-like creation yet. In his artist’s statement, he talks about his re-using the same art style that he used to great effect in Passage.

I now see ultra-low-res pixel art as a kind of digital cartooning. It stands right on the line between the symbolic and the representational, leaving plenty room for viewer interpretation. Why draw sideburns when the viewers can imagine sideburns on their own? You just need to give them something to pin their imagination on, something to guide them a bit—cartoons are perfect for that.

[…] Though I don’t feel that low-res pixel art is my stylistic home, I can’t imagine using any other rendition of myself for an autobiographical game. On the other hand, my life is not interesting enough to serve as fodder for many more autobiographical games.

Is Rohrer speaking out to his gaming roots? Or does he just feel unconfident as an artist – or as a self-revealing artist? I’m not sure, but in either case, he’s created something that works, not just for gamers, but for BusinessWeek readers. Anyone who owned a Nintendo knows what to do in a Rohrer game, which might not be the case if it took a less conventional visual style. But even Rohrer seems conflicted as to why the game looks like that – whether it’s a style he knew fit or a mode of self-preservation in the vicious world of games journalism.

ROM Check, on the other hand, seems like it knows exactly what it is – a joke on gaming, played as a game. It’s a mashup of simple game mechanics, using the base assets of simple games. But the real gag is the visual one – the use of Space Invaders sprites in a Ms. Pac-Man machine. Like a drunken night at a Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga tabletop (thank you, Ding Dong Lounge, for providing me with this frame of reference), it’s both fun and disconcerting. 

Both games use their art direction as a contribution to their message, whether it’s humor or reflection. Indie games for the most part are, really, using nostalgia right – as a way to get at what we used to know and used to do, but then to use what they have to say to make us laugh or to make us think.

Unlike a Smash Brothers that uses art direction and assets simply as a way to push units, these indie games are using a style to do something bigger.

Retro games aren’t the key to art, by any stretch of the definition. But more than anything else, they provide a common reference point. Gamers come from every corner of the world, and every race, class, and creed. Eventually, Sonic, Pac-Man, and Mario may prove to be the closest things to Shakespeare that gamers have – wonderful forms that we can like or dislike, but that we can’t deny the genius and inspiration behind.

There are bad uses out there, but sometimes the aggregators work, and the cream has so far mostly risen. Retro mechanics are a fertile ground for experimentation, the kind of experimentation that publishers would never try to seek on a next-gen system. Retro-based indie games are where that critical and intelligent work is being done.

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Filed under: Commentary, Retro Today, , , , ,

One Response

  1. […] gets straight to the heart of what I was talking about in It Fit When I Was a Kid – and also adds a rub that I find interesting. More after the […]

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this is a blog about video games by chris plante, sam ryan and chris littler.


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