You may suppose, given the title of this article and the fact that this is a gaming site, that this is going to be a breakdown of the reasons to get into, or stay out of, the indie game development scene. That is not the point of this article. There are plenty of essays out there written by industry insiders, and you probably already know the score on that front.
Instead, what I want to look at is the pose, the cultural stance, of being “indie.” The fact that I’ve said “pose” probably suggests to you that I think this is an inauthentic gesture that I’m going to ridicule. That isn’t my aim either. Rather, I want to examine the way that the term is used, in games culture and elsewhere, and show what it actually means culturally — what it does, so to speak. Because when people say “I make indie games,” or “I’m into indie games,” they’re saying more than just “independent”; there are a whole host of connotations in play that need a little unpacking. My assumption is that the term performs a kind of cultural function, and I want to show what this work is specifically, how it helps, and how it hinders.
In other words, what are we talking about when we talk about indie?
Now Go Start a Band: An Independent History
I think everyone is aware that the term “indie” emerged from the music industry. So, I’m going to turn to that scene in order to help determine exactly what we mean when we say “indie.” [Note: this section is indebted to Michael Azerrad'sOur Band Could Be Your Life, an in-depth history of the independent music scene in North America from the '80s through to the early aughts. It's great, and you should buy it.]
The first usage of “indie” as a term was in Britain in the late 80s; however, I think for our purposes it is more important to track the North American tradition. Here, indie was initially understood as “indie rock,” and it was heavier than the indie we know today. For example, we can turn to indie rock’s “flag” bearer, Black Flag. While most think of this band as hardcore (or some derivative of that term) now, in the early ’90s they were the quintessential indie band. They were fiercely independent, and in some ways actively opposed to making money. In some aspects, they were what we think of now as punks, but with a slightly different style and much harder music.
At this point, “indie” was synonymous with “independent”; it meant that a band self-produced their own records (probably tapes, at the time), or was a member of a small record label and wasn’t distributed through the usual – mainstream – channels. These bands toured ceaselessly, played loud, and slacked like it was the early ’90s (because after a while, it was).
Somewhere along the line, in the early to mid ’90s, the sound of these bands shifted towards the platonic ideal of “college rock” represented by bands like R.E.M. and Pavement. Where “hard” was the ideal of the earlier scene, “sarcastic” became the new default standard. The liberal application of irony and whimsy let these bands interact with the embarrassingly earnest and angst-ridden grunge scene in a constant state of disaffection, while nevertheless doing something a little more playful and more cheeky. These bands, it seems, necessitated the use of “indie” as opposed to “alternative,” the nebulous denomination of grunge and its ilk.
I’m playing fast and loose with this history, but this is my point: after a while, indie didn’t mean “independent” at all – rather, it was a stance that set itself stylistically against a mainstream (remember, for a while “alternative” was the norm), while nevertheless engaging it and using its channels of distribution — Pavement played Lollapalooza, for instance. It is this standard that we use today: The Shins’ new album is being distributed by Columbia Records, but they remain undeniably indie. The National play arenas now, but in a style that could never be mistaken for “arena rock.” They’re indie as fuck, now and forever. You may disagree with my specific examples, but my point is that these bands are able to achieve this position as indie because indie has evolved into a style, an approach to making music that is no longer defined by the channels of distribution but by how the band presents itself.
That style, in my opinion, has become a heady mixture of light experimentation, whimsy, self-awareness and the embrace of existing genres without slavish devotion to their demands. Consider the label “alt-country,” which was maybe the quintessential indie style of the early aughts: bands like Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Wilco, Fleet Foxes and The Drive-By Truckers all use the tropes of country (steel guitar, warbling vocals, fiddle) but apply them in ways that don’t fit the traditional model (or, in some cases, which re-appropriate the traditional model that contemporary country bands would rather forget). I take this simultaneous stance of embrace and distance to be the defining feature of what it is to be indie: indie bands are both inside and outside, participating while remaining (pretending to be?) better than the norm.
It strikes me that this is why bands can be on major labels and still be considered indie — they oppose dominant trends in the music industry by creating a self-reflexive position for themselves to occupy within those very trends.
“We Want to Retain Our Pop Sensibilities, But, You Know, Go Further Out.”
This definition of distance and embrace seems to work very well for the still burgeoning indie game scene. For instance, all of the critical darlings (Jonathan Blow, Phil Fish, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes) featured in the now-screening “Indie Game: The Movie,” work within well established genres and styles. Braid is a solid puzzle platformer that visually refers to Mario, Fez worships at the altar of 16-bit aesthetics, while Super Meat Boy is a straight up run-and-jump platform game. Each distinguish themselves by offering some variation on a particular theme and they are traditional and innovative in almost equal measure.
What each offers is a remarkable degree of self-reflexivity. These are games that are fully aware they are games, and accordingly they give knowing winks to the player. Super Meat Boy turns “death” into an avalanche of bloody flesh careening through the level in a recap video, while Braid transforms the worn old theme of rescuing the princess into something much more subversive. Fez is almost entirely composed of self-reflexive moments, and makes certain you know it’s a “computer game” in its opening moments. While we can argue the merits of every one of these games, stylistically each game works inside and outside of genre, using and abusing tradition.
This ambivalent stance is more than just style, however – it’s also economic. In other words, this stylistic duality – of being in and out at the same time – strikes me as a reflection of a stance towards publishing, a new basis on modes of distribution. In fact it is in this arena that I think “indie” finds its function; in many ways, the term makes most sense as a way of describing certain games to the market. Publishers know what an indie game is – they know there is a demand for them, they know that they’re supposed to give some leeway to the developers in terms of the game they are creating. It’s a description that allows game developers a lot of leverage for creating the game they want and still getting it published.. There is some fantastic, experimental stuff on Steam, PSN, and Xbox Live Arcade that I think owe their place on those services to the term “indie games”: the word itself allows a leverage point for entry into the market.
There are problems with this. For one, “indie” has become codified in much the same way for games as it has for music. Just like indie once meant “sounds like Pavement,” in some ways it has started to mean “a modern game made with pixels and ‘clever’ references to older games.” Consequently, there are a number of paint-by-number, absolutely boring, cliched indie games out there that don’t do anything particularly interesting and aren’t really fun. Although this strikes me as a constant danger for every genre, so I don’t take it to be particularly damning. However, one can’t deny that indie has become perhaps too recognizable stylistically, relying on tropes and standards more than interesting approaches.
More problematically, some critics, notably Anna Anthropy, suggest that the term limits possibilities more than it creates them.
i don’t think the “indie” label has ever sat right with me because it has always seemed so limited: when we talk about indie games, we’re talking about a set of twenty or so particular games that look a certain way and play a certain way, which were made by an inner circle of celebrated indie game developers to be played by people who self-identify as “indie game fans” and perhaps no one else.
It might be said, though, that the ideal Anthropy holds of “games made by everyone for everyone,” is essentially opposed to the market: a “punk” ideal. I don’t want to diminish that approach in the least, but it does seem that it aims at different goals as those which fall under the indie banner. Punk wants revolution; indie wants better music on iTunes and cooler games on Steam. In that sense, it is a much more limited, but practical, way of thinking.
Please note: I don’t mean to be prescriptive in any way. This account of what constitutes indie is not meant to be a call to arms or a final goal. Instead, I am trying to describe what I see as the implicit assumptions in a term that a lot of people use: “independent” is not a sufficient definition, and it hasn’t been for years.
Ultimately, I see the term functioning as an umbrella – it’s a way of justifying a whole world of pursuits and interests to those who aren’t in the know. Just like Death Cab for Cutie falls under the same label as The Black Keys, so too do Dear Esther and Cave Story occupy the same conceptual territory. It’s a way of describing things to those who don’t want to delve into the world of minute differences in a given medium: publishers, Metacritic, your parents et cetera. It’s a constraint, sure, but it’s one which allows certain possibilities within those constraints.
The promising thing about this is that “indie” can be a tool, a nebulous term that allows wiggle room for identification. The thing is, it only works that way if we understand that it’s not a set of conventions so much as a shifting signifier, an empty set that could mean almost anything. It’s “New and Improved!” or “Under New Management!; it is a referent without a real object, a slogan for selling things.
But the great thing is that it can also be a secret handshake for those who understand that it can mean almost anything. Used properly, it’s a way for those who know to recognize those in the know.
Further Reading: “Less Talk More Rock” (Boing Boing)