The power of choice

When you review games for a living, it’s all too easy to start treating everything you see with a healthy dose of cynicism.

When you review games for a living, it’s all too easy to start treating everything you see with a healthy dose of cynicism. With the industry’s ever-increasing penchant for shilling carbon-copy games created and marketed entirely around what sells, me-too design is plenty prevalent in this business.

Much how a lot of celluloid dreck is plagued with terrible writing and shallow-if-bombastic storytelling, so too do video games often sell themselves too hard on a payout that’s generally no more than a variation on a theme—one that very rarely goes beyond some semblance of competition, violence or both.

Lately I’ve been taking a break from a lot of the gaming industry’s Mountain Dew-swilling mainstream to scope out the growing indie scene, and now that I have I’m frankly surprised I waited this long. Freed from the demands of consumer (and corporate) expectations, indies take risks that bigger games simply can’t—at least not without staking a massive investment on ideas that may not jive with an attention-addled, expectant consumer base.

Though gameplay experiences between indie titles often differ greatly, a common thread running through many of them is the simplicity of their design, more often than not constructed with basic coding, sound and visuals.

Few games demonstrate this as well as Nintendo’s own recently-released Light Trax, part of their almost wholly-ignored Art Style series. Unlike most other titles in the puzzle-heavy series, Light Trax is a racer, and one that immediately individualizes itself with its very basic-but-unique looks and design.

The player controls a beam of white light, competing against other colored light beams on-screen. The whole game is created out of simple black-on-color wireframe graphics, as though it were ripped out of 1982—an appropriate timeframe, considering the game is highly reminiscent of Tron.

Beyond the aesthetic simplicity of its scrolling 2D-to-3D planes, Light Trax‘s gameplay is similarly streamlined. Compared to other racers, Light Trax is on-rails—you can only slow down, use speed or invincibility power-ups or your finite boosting ability.

To get more boost, you have to stay in close proximity to other beams of light, which will recharge your boost meter. Though your path on the track is predetermined, your placement is not, meaning that strategy involves maneuvering through obstacles and around speed-killing terrain while keeping an eye on your boost, placement of the race and items.

The design tenets of the game are so simple that the “tutorial” doesn’t even use text, and can be figured out in just a few minutes. The stark, purgatorial XBLA darling Limbo is the same way, with its basic puzzle-platforming design experienced as a continuously-unfolding, intuitive journey, while Wiiware’s retro-homage Bit.Trip series uses prompts as little as possible.

The point is, even when these games ratchet up the complexity and challenge within the confines of their respective designs, there’s still a certain experiential element that many commercialized games just don’t focus on, whether it’s sensory, intellectual or just the result of sheer expressionistic variety. Even Super Mario Bros. Crossover gives us something we haven’t seen before, reconstituting its classic design to interact with the movesets of various NES mascots.

Some indies, like the flash-based Every Day the Same Dream (a nightmarish repetition of the nine-to-five grind) and Beloved (an exercise in agency as told through an individual’s relationship with an omnipotent being), are entirely focused on the thematic experience or message rather than often-simplistic gameplay.

These can be “beat” in a matter of minutes, although beating them isn’t really the point. Instead of instant gratification, these quiet offerings have something to say—a distressingly rare trait in most mainstream titles. I realize this isn’t a new argument, but as the number of indies popping up across the digital landscape continues to grow, their relevance becomes greater and greater an issue.

In any case, there’s seemingly no shortage of fascinating ideas, themes and settings being explored on this smaller scale, and—regardless of the top-down financial stranglehold that keeps development teams constantly under the thumb or powerful corporate publishers—there’s no reason to focus exclusively on the latest flash-in-the-pan.

But we all want something different from time to time, even in a place as shortsighted as the game industry tends to be. So next time you’re feeling the myopic pinch of the mainstream, just remember you’ve got other options. If Hollywood can do it, so can games.