CAN INDIE GAMES SAVE THE WORLD?
WITH WATTAM, KATAMARI’S CREATOR LEADS A NEW WAVE OF DEVELOPERS ON A MISSION TO FIX AN INDUSTRY IN CRISIS
The world needs Wattam right now, a game about logical processes and the natural order of things. A seed sprouts into a tree; it drops fruit, which is eaten by a mouth, and the resulting effluent goes in the toilet. It is nonsense, certainly: we expect nothing less from the brain of Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi. But it is nonsense that works, that fits together, and when the world outside makes progressively less sense with each passing day, it feels absolutely vital.
Videogames have never been bigger, yet things have rarely felt so bleak. Some of the industry’s most powerful companies seem to be more focused on taking more of a customer’s money than rewarding their initial investment. Others use dirty tricks to slow our progress, or fail to follow through on their promises, or launch with a mess they blithely intend to patch later on. The year 2017 was shaping up to be one of the greatest – perhaps the greatest – in videogame history, yet it has ended in acrimony and scandal, its triumphant peaks clouded over by games that seek not to delight, but to bilk us.
Yet there is hope, both within games and out in the real world. You just have to look a little harder for it. Away from the investor calls, the two-year content plans and the impenetrably complex monetisation strategies, indie studios continue to quietly change the world. In small teams, they playfully experiment with established conventions. Some eschew violence, tiring of a world that already feels brutal enough, and an industry that loves to sell nothing more than death. Others explore challenging themes, or impart messages that the big boys, with their armies of PR flaks and their multimillion-copy sales targets, would never dare to touch. For some it’s simply enough to let the sun shine in a medium that prefers dark, postapocalyptic skies. They’ve been doing this for years, of course. But we need them now, more than ever.
Above all, they’re not out to stiff you. They’re here with a simple, irresistible offer: they want you to buy their games, and they want to make you happy. After years working largely in the shadows of larger studios with bigger megaphones, it’s time for indie games to take centre stage. It’s time for indie games to save the world.
Wattam won’t do that alone, naturally. Yet it sits at the vanguard of the contemporary indie scene, a collaboration between Keita Takahashi and Robin
Hunicke. The former made Katamari Damacy which, while made with backing from publisher Namco, helped lay the foundations for the post-millennial indiegame movement. It was playful, silly, cool as all get out, and had a deeper, environmentalist message that you could either engage with or entirely ignore. Hunicke, meanwhile, helped make Journey, one of the biggest indie successes to date, one of the first games to take equal prominence on an E3 stage with games made to eight-figure budgets. Katamari was about using chaos to form a sort of order; Journey was about the beauty of companionship and working together. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wattam is about both.
Its premise is unexpectedly tragic. You begin the tale as Mayor, an affable green cube in a hat who, following a war that drives away the world’s entire population, finds himself desperately lonely. A storm initially provides him with some company – but it’s when he discovers a bomb under his hat that the real fun begins. Pressing a button has Mayor whip off his headwear to reveal the explosive: another press and it detonates, sending him and everybody nearby flying off into the air in an explosion of confetti and laughter. The noise is heard across the universe, encouraging departed friends to return, the arrival of each anthropomorphic object heralded by a joyous proclamation: “Welcome back!”
Explode enough stuff and, very quickly, the screen is filled with bizarre beings. A set of cutlery and a mouth; a walking toilet; a bowling pin named Deborah. Attracting these idiosyncratic sorts is the key to progress, for each one – when selected and controlled – has its own unique talent that continues a chain of visual free-association. The mouth will eat fruit at a press of a button (provided you can catch it: required objects have a habit of running away, giggling madly). The toilet can pick up the piles of excrement produced and dunk it into its own head. Flush it, and its cheerful load will spin down the pipes, only to pop out, newly golden, from a pipe that your baffled co-op playmate might be currently controlling. Deborah, meanwhile, demands that you have objects climb each other to create a stack as tall as her: only then may a bowling ball be summoned from the sky to knock her down and continue the chain.
It’s a game about bringing people together. Indeed, it works best played with somebody else, as you both switch between unruly objects and have them hold hands, dragging and herding them together before exploding them again. Some solutions are obvious: a patch of ground seems the perfect home for a rowdy acorn, and a gaggle of fragrant flowers suitable for a giant nose. Other elements are less predictable, and all the funnier for it. There are moments in our demo where we and our partner are briefly stumped, normally because we’ve forgotten to blow something up. Fortunately, Wattam’s population will occasionally force the issue, bursting into anguished tears and declaring, “I just want to explode – kaboom with me!”
Things are alternately logical and nonsensical. Coincidentally – or not, perhaps – since making
Katamari, Takahashi has become a father. “I have two kids, three and six years old. They’re super annoying,” Takahashi says. “But I’m always observing how they move, or how they express their emotions. When they laugh and when they cry, it’s so different from grown-ups. They change their emotions like that.” He snaps his fingers. “It’s annoying, but it’s also a great reaction.” Long-time friend and co-worker Hunicke agrees: “I really do think that having a family, and seeing kids all the time, has changed Keita, in a way that’s very obvious in the game itself. Children have this capacity for experiencing feelings that is very admirable. When you get older you learn to cover your feelings, or pretend you don’t have them, or act cool.” Wattam is certainly not concerned with being cool – and neither is Takahashi, who when asked to describe his indie-game philosophy responds, with careful emphasis on every word: “Don’t. Follow. Trend.”
“Keita moves against the grain, always,” Hunicke says. He doesn’t see himself as cool, either, preferring to label himself “childish”, his subversiveness always playful – hence Wattam’s confetti bombs. “When I was playing with my kids, stacking blocks, they’d always break the stack I made, and laugh,” he says. “Create it and break it: it’s a very fun, iconic moment.” Hence
Wattam’s surprisingly elegant physics system, which is frequently required for puzzle-solving and has been
TAKAHASHI MADE KATAMARI DAMACY WHICH, WHILE MADE WITH BACKING FROM PUBLISHER NAMCO, HELPED LAY THE FOUNDATIONS FOR THE POST-MILLENNIAL INDIE MOVEMENT
“IT’S A VIDEOGAME, SO MAYBE PEOPLE WON’T SEE THE SUBTEXT. BUT THE PEOPLE WHO SEE IT, SEE IT. THAT’S WHY YOU MAKE ART. THAT’S WHY YOU MAKE ANYTHING’”
fiendishly tricky for Funomena to develop. “It’s actually taken us quite a long time to build the game, because on a technical level, it is incredibly difficult to do what Keita wanted us to do,” Hunicke says. “The climbing, the stacking of arbitrary objects of arbitrary scale with each other while they’re also animating and executing all their AI… For a team of seven, the technical challenges are quite large. And yet, when you look at it, it looks so simple, so easy – it’s a baby game.”
Not everything about Wattam is so easily pigeonholed, then – not least because, even more so than a Katamari or a Journey, the game defies categorisation. More than anything, it feels profoundly social, a game to bring friends and strangers together on the couch through silliness and hand-holding and surprises. But, like Katamari before it, Wattam’s playfulness masks its subtexts – messages that feel essential, given the current state of the world. It’s all in the surreal language of Takahashi: this is a creator who made a game about rolling up pushpins and continents partially in response to both the ruination of the environment and the inhumanity of 9/11.
Wattam confronts tough themes, too, at times. “I know I was having real concerns about using a bomb, because you know, a bomb is so bad,” Takahashi says. “We still have many terrorists, and bombing is happening still. But this is kind of challenging.” For Takahashi, creating the mechanic was a chance to turn the bomb on its head, to rob it of its power by recontextualising it as a kind of language – just as he’s seen English, he tells us, help people of different nationalities at Funomena look past their differences. “We might be able to tell people, what if all the bombs in the world changed into more fun bombs, like fireworks or something? This world would be more peaceful.” In Wattam, explosions don’t tear the world apart, but put it back together.
It feels like something only Takahashi would come up with. During our conversation, we get the sense that it is sometimes difficult for him to unpick the way his mind works, or where the ideas come from. “I can’t tell. Of course I can’t tell. But for me, it’s very obvious, right?” His Twitter account is filled with celebratory pictures of obvious things, mundane objects of the sort that feature in Wattam, sometimes with little faces sketched onto them. “He just goes around and he looks at stuff and he sees things, you know. He’s actually
looking,” Hunicke says. “I mean, how often are you really looking, you know? Like, you see a tree, but you’re not really looking at it. In your mind you have this idea of what’s real. And maybe that’s how the game is, a little bit.” Indeed, in Wattam, a tiny rock is just a tiny rock, until we leave it unattended for five minutes and come back to discover it’s pinched two gigantic petal hats from its now-naked flower pals. Humdrum things are made to feel briefly extraordinary. “Another theme of Wattam is respect for our ordinary life,” Takahashi says. “How much we need this stupid, boring table, or this cup, or utensils. It’s boring, but we need it. But people get so used to their existence. It’s a very obvious thing, but very precious. Having life is unbelievable – kind of a miracle. “Wattam is about life,” he continues. “I know that Wattam doesn’t have any strong mechanics like Noby
Noby Boy or Katamari. But life is about so many small things having an effect. It’s getting very unclear, not so easy to understand – which is bad for commercial games, but for some reason, I’m still trying to make such a game.” The subject has shifted from the appreciation of modern life, of telephones and tables, to existence itself. Is the world so bad right now because people have forgotten to respect life? “I think people don’t pay attention,” says Hunicke. “They’re engaged in distraction. They’re numb. Looking at their phones.” She mimes swiping. “‘Do they like me? Do they like me? Can I buy it? Can I buy it?’ They’re just not looking up.
“It’s a videogame, so maybe most people won’t see the subtext. But the people who see it, see it. And that’s why you make art. That’s why you make anything. You really like drawing, or to make music, or whatever. It doesn’t really matter if you run a restaurant, or you’re a world-famous sculptor – you’re just making the work because the work helps you live. It’s part of your process.” Sensing that we might be building up him and his exploding, defecating, hand-holding game a little too much, Takahashi steers talk away from higher concepts. “I’m not a teacher, I’m not a coach. I just want to make a fun game – through a different way, a different way from the current.”
Takahashi is too modest to consider himself a figurehead of the indie scene, but that’s okay – we’ll do it for him, and so will his peers. “He doesn’t talk that much, but everything he says is really interesting,” says Ben Esposito, the lone developer of Donut
County, which owes, to put it mildly, a certain debt to Takahashi’s debut. “His perspective on the world always surprises me, and every time I get a chance to hear his thoughts on what it means to make a game, what it means to play, and how valuable that is, it’s always really inspiring.”
For Nathan Vella, president of Capy Games, the Toronto studio behind Swords & Sworcery EP and the forthcoming Below, it’s not just what Takahashi says, but what it represents. “[ Katamari] was very much Keita’s, instead of a game made by a whole bunch of people with some PR folks in front of them. We’ve always seen creators speak about their games, but never one that was that weird, or personal. That was the first time we saw someone like that – out in front of a big game, that was really a small game.
“And he was different from most of the other figureheads. He was quiet, and introspective, and you could tell he would probably rather not be talking about the game, but also felt like it was important for him to do it. Everyone else we’d seen was pretty much looking for that limelight. That sort of introspective, create-for-myself mentality is pretty prevalent amongst independent developers, especially the ones who were around earlier on.”
As Vella hints, however, it’s no longer enough to simply make a game by yourself. Anyone can do that these days, and so the concept of an ‘indie spirit’ has transcended the classic notion of a lone developer, dreaming big in a small room. While Katamari was in part born of Takahashi’s desire to process his feelings in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, it was driven primarily by a desire to make something that didn’t already exist. That’s come to typify his work since, in the experimental abandon of his mobile debut Noby Noby Boy, in the one-of-a-kind arcade game
Tenya Wanya Teens, and now in Wattam. Beyond that, it’s perhaps the essence of today’s indie movement. It is no longer about how you develop a game, but what you choose to make instead.
To see the benefits of this approach, we must look to the other end of the budgetary scale. Two games, in development at major studios and currently slated for 2018, have a rare opportunity within games of their size: to pass withering comment on the current state of the world. Yet David Cage insists there is nothing of Black Lives Matter in Detroit: Become Human, a game about a repressed underclass rising up against inequality. Ubisoft’s Dan Hay, meanwhile, claims that
Far Cry 5 – set in the present-day midwest, its aggressors a hardline religious cult – is not a commentary on Trump’s America. Neither man’s claims ring entirely true. Esposito points out that “you can’t make something without a subtext; whether or not you’re aware of it, you’re a product of your time, your situation and your life experience.” Okay, perhaps it’s hard to make a game with a strong political message when hundreds of people are making it – thousands, in Ubisoft’s case, stationed all around the world – but why downplay what feels like a marketable asset? To Vella, it’s easy to understand.
“It’s exceptionally hard to make a game that has to sell millions of copies, that costs hundreds of million dollars,” he says. “To recoup on that is so challenging that it puts pressure on people. I think a lot of developers have a lot to say, but are not allowed to, or are afraid to, because of those reasons. You don’t want to be the one that says something that causes a game to sell poorly and make all your friends lose their jobs.”
The reality, of course, is that downplaying a game’s perceived relevance to real-world events can have the opposite effect; that by seeking to avoid offending anyone, you make your game less appealing, and sell less anyway. For indies, Vella believes the opportunity that creates is clear. “Whether they’re working for a huge studio or a small studio, are independent or corporate-owned, developers want their games to have a positive impact. They don’t want these things to be black holes of intelligence, or of message. But one side of the coin can use that to their advantage, whereas to the other it has the potential to become a massive deterrent. I think that, at the end, PR does define that.” So being indie means a willingness, not just to make games with risky or simply uncommon themes, but being prepared to go out and talk about them, unencumbered by the easily scared PR firewall that holds developers at many bigger studios back. It doesn’t need to be overtly political, of course.
Wattam’s undertones are easy to overlook, after all. And many players missed, or chose to ignore, that
Katamari Damacy was a game about the impact humanity’s clutter was having on the environment, and simply enjoyed a crazy game about rolling up life’s detritus into a big ball while listening to mad Japanese house music. Being indie may mean it’s easier for you to be daring tonally, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it. Yet it’s clear from the developers we speak to that there’s an ethical layer to the way they think about the games they make. In an era where big publishers see the $60 price tag on a new release as simply the starting station of the money train, indies are taking a markedly different approach – despite the fact that the need to keep roofs over a few people’s heads is arguably a more pressing concern than making a rich investor a bit richer through loot-box sales. Money is uppermost in the current thoughts of
Tommy Refenes. Co-creator of Super Meat Boy,
the poster child of the XBLA indie gold rush, he’s now working on Super Meat Boy Forever, which will also launch on mobile – which brings with it a certain assumption in terms of how it will be financed. When Refenes was asked on Twitter if the game would be free, he replied: “Are you fucking high?” Yet he needs to strike a balance between shooting himself in the foot, and pricing himself out of the market.
“I do think about it, especially because mobile is very much centred on drawing in a player and drawing as much money out of them as possible,” he says. “Meat Boy would fit into that market perfectly. You want to beat the boss? You gotta get a boss ticket. You just died; pay a dollar to get 100 more lives. I could easily do that, and honestly, I would probably make more money than on any of the other platforms.
“Very early in my career, when I was doing website stuff, I was offered a job on porn websites. It paid $120,000 a year, and I was, like, 22. I barely considered it because I was like, ‘I don’t want to do a porn website, I feel like that’s going to mess me up’. I have the same feeling when it comes to making Meat
Boy Forever mobile. It’s like, at what actual cost?” Yet still, it leaves him in a quandary, and leads us to the downside of making games on a small scale; you have to do all this stuff yourself. Were Refenes making Meat Boy Forever for a big publisher, the pricing decision would be made several pay grades above his head. Perhaps there’s something to be said for being able to focus on the job you’re good at, without worrying about everything else. It feels instructive that, after a period where self-publishing was the norm among indies, publishers are once again proving their value. The likes of Devolver Digital, 505 Games and Annapurna Interactive can help lighten the load of PR, distribution, localisation and so on. Yet the real value of partnering with a publisher is that it can help solve what, it quickly becomes clear, is the most pressing concern among today’s indie developers: discovery.
The number of new games released on Steam in 2016 accounted for 40 per cent of the platform’s entire lifetime catalogue at that point. Even more were added in 2017: 6,000 by November, compared to 4,500 throughout the previous year. Over on mobile, it is expected that the iOS App Store catalogue will pass the five million mark by 2020. Console storefronts may not be seeing quite the same, but there’s nonetheless a steady feed of new releases on PS4, Xbox One and Switch. How are indie games to save the world if no one sees them?
“There are a ton of really good games competing for a small amount of promotion – a small amount of dashboard space – and the platforms that hold the keys just don’t have the ability to promote everyone,” Capy’s Vella says. “As a result we’re seeing a lot of really great games flying under the radar because they launched on the same day as another, huger game, or in the same week as two really good triple-A games that have already taken up the best slots on a dashboard. It’s a very, very challenging market right now, and even though I believe there are more great games than ever, I think more great games are failing than ever, as well. We’re competing against triple-A games for the same slots, the same promotion, and we don’t have the money to pay for it if we can’t get it.”
See for yourself: load up the download store on your platform of choice. You’ll probably have to dig pretty deep before you find an indie game, those big carousel spots occupied by the new big-budget releases of the day – or perhaps an old one that just got a new update or a discount. It doesn’t matter if you already own it; you’re getting an ad for it anyway, because somewhere behind the scenes a contract has been signed. While they may look a little fancier – using higher-res artwork, perhaps, or autoplaying a video – these are at heart the same storefront interfaces we’ve been using since the 360 era, when Microsoft tightly controlled the flow of games on Xbox Live Arcade. Now it’s a flood, and the platform holders can’t keep up.
Worse, they don’t seem to be too bothered by it. Vella sees cause for optimism in Apple’s recent overhaul of the iOS App Store, which now uses editorial content to shine the spotlight on certain games. But indie-scene stalwart Brandon Boyer isn’t convinced. “I don’t think the big services are going to get it right on the curatorial end,” he says. “It’s something we’ve been talking about for ten years,
“THERE ARE A TON OF REALLY GOOD GAMES COMPETING FOR A SMALL AMOUNT OF PROMOTION, AND THE PLATFORMS THAT HOLD THE KEYS DON’T HAVE THE ABILITY TO PROMOTE EVERYONE”
“AS MUCH AS I’D LIKE IT TO BE TRUE THAT INDIE GAMES CAN SAVE THE WORLD, IT REQUIRES A LOT OF PEOPLE TO COME AROUND TO THE IDEA OF SUPPORTING INDIE DEVELOPERS”
and it’s not coming, and algorithms aren’t the answer. Apple’s doing a better job by putting editorial focus on games, but there’s also a million algorithmic things they’re doing really poorly.” Or, to put it bluntly: “For as much as the world is fucked, it’s kind of fucked for indie developers too.”
Boyer is a fixture of the US scene. He’s advanced the indie cause at Edge, Gamasutra, Boing Boing’s indie-game offshoot Offworld and its Kickstarted successor Venus Patrol. He’s a former chairman of the Independent Games Festival. These days he’s the curator of Texas festival Fantastic Arcade and a board member of the Austin gamedev collective Juegos Rancheros. He’s been there since the start, and he’s worried. “It was so much easier when I was doing
Offworld, or even in the early days of IGF, to get a groundswell of support around, say, a Spelunky. It’s just fractally, infinitesimally harder to get people to care about anything these days. As much as I’d like it to be true that indie games can save the world, I think it requires a lot of people to come around to the idea of supporting indie developers.”
How, then, to fix it? Predictably, everyone we speak to has their own suggestion. Vella wants the Apple approach to spread, with the gatekeepers putting more effort into editorial curation of the games on their platform. Boyer wants the same from the media, believing it’s no longer possible for broadchurch outlets to shine a light on everything that deserves it – ouch – and calling for more specially focused websites to step into the void. Rex Crowle, the former Media Molecule creative director who is now making the cheery, friendship-themed adventure
Knights & Bikes for Double Fine, points to the segmentally focused apps available on Apple TV: “They’re all targeting in a slightly different way: one has the arthouse films, then there’s Hopster which is for kids. Maybe they’re pulling from similar libraries, but the content is themed in a certain way.” Refenes thinks it’s on developers to get better at marketing their own wares, though perhaps that’s easy to say when you’re working with something of the profile of a Meat Boy.
Yet they all omit one thing from the equation, and it’s probably the biggest one of all. We all, as players of games, need to do more to escape our comfort zones. If 2017 has reminded us of anything, it’s that the most obvious games are often the most likely to let you down. Just as, out in the real world, the politically motivated are turning to activism, so must educated players feel an obligation to help the less invested to unearth the gems in an ever-growing mound of dirt. To advance the cause of games which, in their quiet, playful ways, are pushing back against the tide, ignoring trends, taking on an increasingly cynical industry and an ever-more-miserable world and trying to make them both a little better. That last point, Boyer feels, is the true independent spirit.
“It’s not necessarily about, like, here’s 30 games about emotions, or a platformer about how my girlfriend broke up with me. It’s not like that. It’s something that feels life affirming, that makes you feel better for having done it, rather than worse.
“There’s an essential humanity to it. With Katamari, for as much as it was about everything, it was also about what it means to be a human on Earth. It’s this overwhelming catalogue of all the things that are on Earth, and what humans do with those things. I think you can also say that about Below, which is also a really personal journey, even though it’s a dungeon crawler: it says a lot about what you try and do with the time that you have. Fez was very much an expression of Phil Fish, but also said something about exploration, and beauty. And it was something only Phil was ever going to make. No one else was going to make it. I think that is still the best representation of indie for me: that feeling that this could have come from absolutely no one else but this person.”
Which brings us, rather neatly, back to Takahashi. The man who helped kickstart the indie spirit before we even knew what it was is back – at a time when the indie scene and the industry at large need him and his ilk. Naturally, he plays it down. “Honestly, I’m still not sure what ‘indie games’ are, or what ‘triple-A games’ are. For me, the more important thing is if it’s fun or not, if it’s great or not. Even if it’s indie, if it’s not fun, then it’s not good, right?” Wattam’s fun. Wattam’s good. And Wattam feels like it could only have come from him. It won’t save the world, of course. But it might make us feel a little better afterwards. With all that’s going on out there, we’ll gladly take that.
Funomena’s Keita Takahashi (top) and Robin Hunicke
Capy Games president Nathan Vella (top) and SuperMeatBoyForever creator Tommy Refenes
Knights&Bikes and Tearaway creator Rex Crowle (top) and Venus Patrol’s Brandon Boyer