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

EDGE - - FRONT PAGE - BY JEN SIMPKINS AND NATHAN BROWN

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

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