That Dragon, Cancer - indie games

Among ongoing controversies about triple-A developers and their increasingly anti-consumer business practices, independently-made games (better known as indie games) have emerged as shining examples of gaming’s ability to deliver unique artistic and emotional experiences without the need of big budgets. These games are an important reminder that the medium truly is an art-form — and between yearly releases, soulless shooters, and loot boxes, they are needed more than ever.

Of course, large developers can produce these experiences too (after all, Naughty Dog and Telltale Games are known for their cinematic and emotional games) but those that do are the exception. Releasing yearly sports and action games loaded with microtransactions is evidently more profitable, giving such companies little incentive to do anything more than just that.

Fortunately, this climate has given independent developers the perfect opportunity to capitalise on their genuine passion for making games and tell unique, deeply impacting stories without limits. The result has been intelligent commentary on topics such as mental illness as in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and a necessary exploration of the human experience through the frame of engaging narratives and relatable characters.

That Dragon, Cancer, for example, was made by a grieving father who wished to share his family’s experience of losing a child to cancer. Motivated only by the necessity to put one’s pain into something good, Ryan Green produced a confronting, personal experience that transcends its medium by telling a true story of love, hope, and loss that is common to everyone. Though they are not traditionally “fun”, games like That Dragon, Cancer are important, and for that, they are necessary.

Alternatively, games do not need to be confronting or emotional to be just as moving as those that are. Titles such as Abzu have no story in particular — players are simply set free in linear environments and encouraged to follow subtle clues without any set objective. This concept may sound conventionally boring, but these games have a unique meditative quality whose value instead comes from the inherently magical experience of swimming beside a whale or sliding down golden sand dunes as an orchestral score swells in the background.

More importantly, these games greatly broaden the accessibility of the medium as a whole. Not everyone has the reflexes or the means to quickly kill an enemy through a series of complex button-presses, nor are many interested in doing so. However, anyone can pick up a controller and occasionally tap a button if it means engaging with and experiencing a new world or narrative. This mass appeal opens gaming up to children, the elderly, and even the disabled, making these games even more of a necessity.

This accessibility and innovation in storytelling is already driving the games industry towards a new direction as companies are taking note of what indie developers are doing right. Consumers clearly value complete, meaningful experiences and are attracted to the subversive artistry that is apparently unique to indie games, which is encouraging giants such as EA to play with formulas and produce games like Unravel and A Way Out that mimic the successful aspects of smaller titles.

While overlooking indie games is easy as bigger developers’ blockbuster releases dominate storefronts and headlines each month, they are certainly an important new aspect of the games industry whose value is clear and whose impact is monumental. Despite smaller budgets and less fame, independent developers are undoubtedly producing some of the most innovative and provocative titles on the market, and their place in the industry cannot be overstated.

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