Death, and the Death of Indie Games
“Death (XIII) is the thirteenth trump or Major Arcana card in most traditional Tarot decks.(…) This card simply signifies, in any subject you’re inquiring about, “giving up all that is superficial and concentrating on what is basic, fundamental and truly important” in the specific matter you’re asking about.”
This is how it started:
On a late night in mid-2013, with my head filled with too many dangerous substances, and a strong will of having recently started a new project, that would give a new meaning to my life and redeem all my flaws, instead of coming back home, I took my bicycle and went through the beach, in search of the epiphany that would guide me in my new quest.
I took off my clothes and swam, until I was far from the shore. Few things are more terrifying than the sea at night, as you can’t see where it ends and the sky begins. But that night, the sea was beautiful in its obsidian, moving blackness. And so I dived to the bottom. And there I stayed, for what seemed a long time, considering if it was worthy coming back.
Until something pulled me back.
Last November I released my first commercial videogame, In Extremis. It is a shoot’em up, with strange visuals and a hodge-podge of weird, sometimes contradicting mechanics, oblique secrets and occult references. It took me almost four years to bring it to completion; from its start as a student project, to the decision to make it commercial, from the long road to converting an ambitious, personal project to something sellable, and most important playable. Passing through the motions of sending to festivals, readying trailers, preparing a Greenlight, writing devlogs and managing social media. And not losing hope.
It sold horribly, got barely a blip of attention on media, was featured on zero festivals, and chances are, you probably never knew it existed. But that is not the point of this article. There is ample literature among the internet of flawed indie projects, and nowadays, sadly, more than ever.
Because for me, it’s not only the closing of a personal cycle, but it so happens to be on the closing moments of a larger one, one that I saw being born up close; of independent videogames as a whole. A definition that has, perhaps, stretched so far as to become a grotesque caricature of itself. But that’s not a bad thing.
I was gifted my first videogame at age 5, and even before that, the allure of game had already enraptured me; my mother loves to remember old family videos in which an excited little boy shakes his fists singing “videogames, videogames!”. And to be making then was a decision I took before I was even able to take decisions at all.
I played all my childhood, graduating from Master System to Super Nintendo and Gameboy, to the N64 and PSX; original videogames, thanks to arcane taxation laws and good old-fashioned income disparity, were hideously expensive in my country, so I made a habit of replaying the same games over and over. Until I discovered other means.
Emulation for me was a revelatory experience; I was finally able to play all the Nintendo games the magazines I avidly consumed praised so much. This grey area persisted later on, when, thanks to a recently acquired broadband connection I began feasting myself on the PC classics I missed for the past two decades. My computer not being very good to run current games made me a bit of an archaeologist, digging through old stuff rather than fixating on new releases.
It was in that spirit that I originally found out about indie games, and the weird community around them. It must have been around 2006 or 2007 when I first stumbled upon the term, and it immediately called my attention, me being a fan of mid-2000s indie music and anything that could be called remotely alternative. Most importantly; everything was *free*, by design.
A game like Cave Story, that I replayed several times over those years, being free, almost boggled my mind, and it was not the only one; the more I digged, the more wonderful, strange and peculiar things I found. Back then, Indie Games Weblog used to publish daily creations from wonderful people across the globe; revitalizing old genres like the adventure, the shmup, the roguelike; making amazing thing involving kinetic, no holds barred action; having a sense of anarchy, that games did not have to be linear, long, story-driven exquisite polished things, with hidden trinkets that would unlock concept art and multiple modes, restricted to genre conventions and predictable patterns. It was for me as if some unwritten rule was being broken.
Perhaps one of my most important experiences was playing Jason Rohrer’s Passage. I sprinted in desperation through the pixelated maze, as the music and world fragmented and I slowly got older and older. The metaphor struck a deep emotional chord with me, and finding out later that you could explore the maze felt subtly revolutionary. And it was certainly better than The Marriage in terms of message, too.
The wheels were already beginning to turn; in 2008, two games, Braid and World of Goo, brought the idea of the indie game definitely to the mainstream, as an actual reality as opposed to being some curio. It was a vibrant scene, and if felt great to accompany it as it developed. It also helped that mainstream gaming was about to go through a strange period, where it seemed to abandon what it previously represented in favor of a brief flirt with mainstream audiences, with motion controls, casual games and social platforms. Indie games reappropriation of classic concepts and nostalgic attitude seemed like a counterbalance to that.
What I should be doing though, were my own games.
I had always dabbled in game making from wherever I could, from making drawings to making elaborate adventures in my head, much to the chagrin of my parents that wanted me to play soccer like a normal kid. My first real dabbles where with, unsurprisingly, RPG Maker, an all-powerful tool for the hopeful and lazy. Making my own short adventures, whose dedication to rarely lasted more than a week; and as simplistic as they were, served as my training grounds (though I’m confident I’ll finish The Adventures of The Bison-Men trilogy someday).
I did some courses, though they promised more than they actually taught; game making is an appealing proposition, but hard to teach, especially during early 2000s, when the model of game making was still very stiff. What I gained from them though, was the confidence that this was actually what I wanted to do with my life, not some childish fantasy. And that confidence was what helped my infinitely patient parents to allow me to attend an expensive, private college course that seemed risky and uncertain at the time.
I actually got to learning Game Maker, the tool I built In Extremis with, back in those days in college. Though rudimentary, those first experiments got me hooked on making my own small games, though I was never able to make something worth being featured on the websites I worshiped back then.
My first truly ambitious project, Pix, was Pac-Man clone that was also an allegory about our relationship with God-like figures and a critique of microtransactions in mobile games. I was quite fond of that project, but I firstly bumped into my own creative issues back then; having more big ideas then the technical capacity to execute them, for one. After submitting it to a local festival with popular vote, and finding out the build was irremediably broken, I spent a week of hell crunching to fix it, and it was traumatic enough that I never worked in that project again. After all, the end of college was nearing, and now I would undertake an even bigger task, my conclusion project. I was sure the mistakes I previously made would not repeat.
Oh boy I was so very very wrong.
Meanwhile, indie gaming blossomed and bloomed; more and more creators I was previously familiar from the freeware days were now trying their hands with commercial projects; several previously free games were having glitzy new paid versions; and the concepts that were once exclusive to the indie sphere,like the revitalization of forgotten genres, and an emphasis on simplicity and clean design, were more and more becoming present in the mainstream consciousness.
Minecraft appeared, and it changed the landscape so heavily that is still a bit mind-blowing (especially for a game I played back when it was in alpha and found it terribly boring). Indie Game the Movie was finally released, and it gave game making a layer of humanity and truth that it previously whole sorely lacked; it also, with its portrayal of relative indie success, foreshadowed an entire generation of aspiring game makers learning the wrong lessons.
The free games community was still pulsing through, bringing new and interesting projects, furthering experimentation and becoming stronger as a whole. But the shift had already begun.
The first drafts of ideas for In Extremis came probably during late 2008, my last year of school, if the dates on my Notepad docs check; back then, it was heavily inspired by the undercurrent of mechanic as a metaphor that many games adopted, and also a mild obsession with Treasure’s Ikaruga. The idea was simple; a shmup in which you fought through stages representing “bad” emotions, and your weapons would represent “good” emotions. Conquering the “bad” stages would give you weapons corresponding to their emotions, and conquering all would unlock its true ending. Stages would match which emotion could beat which (like “Courage” beats “Fear), so conquering and using negative emotions would parallel the player emotional growth.
It was also horribly corny, in retrospect.
Due to my not learning any actual game development tools until college, that idea stayed in the back burner of the mind, evolving as my own design philosophies also changed. The main idea of beating stages to unlock weapons stayed, and many of the gameplay concepts I wanted to experiment, like making each stage aesthetically unique from each other. But the main idea changed as I wanted to also reference to the many things that influenced and interested me.
The main structure of the stages in the game references the Kabbalah, a structuring that was used in two of my favorite books (The Illuminatus Trilogy and Foucault’s Pendulum). If you have your occult knowledge in check and perhaps want search for the individual sephirah meanings in relation to each stage, you might be sorely disappointed. It also features references to chaos magick, the Hero’s Journey, religion, and mythology. But it also has references to old tv cartoons, Disney musicals, op art, Grant Morrison comics, 70’s pornography, Cowboy Bebop, italian horror movies and DoDonPachi, so it balances it out.
The main thread of meaning also became more open; each weapon, now dubbed “aspect” to avoid the aggressive connotation, became metaphors for multiple ideas; musical instruments, physical reactions and unbound emotions. The interplay between the broad ideas contained in the game individual stages, which would have each a strong thematic line, and those aspects, would be the form of the game’s ultimate meaning. Something open to interpretation, and based on the player’s own relation to those signs and symbols.And in the end, when all those relations were comprehended, few dedicated players would then be confronted with an epilogue, that would change their lives (or I would not be doing my job properly).
With an outline and mechanics well defined, it was time to get my hands dirty.
The work of In Extremis started around mid-2013 (shortly after the anecdote that opens this text); that year also marked a consolidation of several changes in the indie games landscape. The opening of the Greenlight service made publishing on Steam, a then promised land of surefire prosperity, was now a real possibility. The success of Double Fine kickstarter in the previous year made crowdfunding a new, appealing, possibility, which made creators previously embroiled in the triple-A industry to come running for the indie spotlight. And the consolidation of Youtubers as tastemakers in opposition to the traditional games media, made some games successes overnight.
The bar was also rapidly being raised; the mobile market was starting to grow dry, thanks to its locked, static storefronts, and social games turned out to be a fad. The last console generation, had now fully absorbed the concept of indie games, featuring them extensively in their digital storefronts, and even big publishers now contracted indie studios for making premium exclusives for their platforms.
Also, slowly and quietly, the idea of indie games as free and accessible was being changed to a more commercial nature. My once loved Indie Games Weblog became for some time a rote bulletin board for Kickstarters and every-day-more-interesting launches. And with this commercialization, also came a change to the debate, and the perception of what indie meant.
Due to the fact that, despite being in a global society, we are still under north-american morals and ideals, success is measured in sales, rather than critical reception. And the most successful indie games started being the ones that followed solidifying trends in genres, mechanics and audience expectations; and many of the ones that followed after tried to replicate those that came before, with diminishing returns.
And right now, we are in the tail end of that cycle.
During 2013, I made most of the content of In Extremis as quickly as possible, using prototype art and Creative Commons music; my codebase for most of the more experimental parts was a mess, and that ended up being a pain until the end of development. But by the end of the year, I had all stages and weapons functioning and working, showcasing all the wild ideas I had previously envisioned.
It was somewhat visually shoddy, though, with some particularly lousy visuals; but I hoped the mechanics would talk louder. Sadly they didn’t, and, despite a positive impression from many, a bad overall grade led to a feeling of underappreciation for my project and frustration with my course.
But I had decided to finish and launch, and so I would spend the next year hard at work with it, submitting to every festival I could to garner attention to it, aiming for an early 2015 release.
Then came 2014 and everything went to shit.
That was a bad year for everyone involved in games, signalling a shift from discussing their inherent value (like having longwinded debates over narrative or doing cartwheels to convince Roger Ebert that videogames are art) to abrasive and ignorant echo chamber bullshit that in the end of the day had very little to do with games themselves, and more with broad identity politics, something that was rather ominous of the dreadful reality we current found ourselves embroiled in.
But for me, it was the year that my dreams of a lifetime were slowly eroded. For the first time, with school and college finished, I now had all the time in the world to work in my project. But that turned out to be a curse in disguise. During that year, I became obsessed with the game, doing little else with my life than working on it, from festival deadline to festival deadline. Some early showings in events in my country gave me a bit of confidence to go on, but soon, as I got refused from more and more festivals, things started to look dire, and I started to spiral more and more in depression.
I had some moments of depression in my life, and also have to deal with anxiety, and those issues started to deeply affect me during that lone development time; the game was an ugly, bug-ridden mess, that due to unchecked feature creep its end never seem to come. My naive fantasies of being selected for the IGF Showcase, were slowly crushed when I couldn’t even make the selection for a national festival. As the weight of reality weighted in my sheltered and privileged life, I started to wonder if I had any talent for that, and if videogames were the really the path for me.
I did not gave up, though; I decided to hire artists to polish up the game amateurish looks, and took a six-month break of development to get an actual job to get the cash for those freelance contracts. When that brief stint of professional legitimacy ended, I came back to development re-energized, and determined to finally finish it. I then started preparing the Greenlight campaign, and finally mustered the will to show the game more publicly, preparing a trailer and a page. The Greenlight came, and I sent countless e-mails with my weird little trailer with hope in my heart.
The Greenlight ended up being another disaster, though. The game unfinished visuals still were a major sore point, as well as some editing problems in the trailer, and coupled with almost no media coverage (which was expected, but the lack of local coverage from media outlets in my own country still hurt) its vote count quickly plummeted. It would be nine agonizing months until it was approved, and I counted vote by vote; and seeing game after game being approved in just a couple of days made it more painful.
Let’s talk about bad things.
When you spend so much time focusing on only one goal, you end up knowing more about yourself, especially, your less noble aspects. You feel envy of others; you feel angry, because deep down you feel you deserved something, anything. Without any sort of exterior motivator to keep going on, it’s easy to fall on a spiral of despair.
It’s easy to sink deeper into that black sea.
While waiting for the Greenlight to be approved, something that acquired an almost religious significance for me, I sat down and went about finishing the game. Several personal events happened on 2015 that changed me deeply; I changed homes, and found myself with all the space and quiet I needed to focus, as opposed to programming on the dinner table.
I learned to coordinate and manage the artists, and dropped my social anxiety to contact every single one of the artists whose music I had been using so far. The game visuals were slowly but surely improving, and adding layers and layers of new effects made it almost passable now. I still submitted it to festivals, and I still got refused, but started taking it easier (I sent the game four times in four years for a particular festival, and it was refused all of them — I mean, it is hard to take things seriously in those circumstances).
The game finally got approved, and I rushed to assemble a beta. The lack of approval for events meant the game lacked real testing, and me having anxiety attacks when trying to personally test it was certainly not helping, so it needed more eyes on it. By then, it was already the second half of 2016, and after almost two year of missed personal deadlines, I desperately needed to ship that shit.
By then, I lost most of the naiveté I once held; so much time of successive refusals and failures left me with a strong consciousness that my chances of even a minimal success were slim. So launching the game was not a matter of financial stability, as I already admitted to myself the game was more of a learning experience, a rite of passage, than a professional debut.
After all, I had arrived five minutes after the train left the station.
“Indiepocalypse”, or “indie bubble”, were terms that gained popularity last year; referring to an apparent saturation of the market, due to the flexibilization of the barriers of entry. It is a vastly inflated catastrophe, though; the main indie narrative during all these years, the one of commercial success, by definition excluded all the ones that did not correspond to it. Be it people that kept on making free, weird stuff, or the ones that made remarkable powerful, interesting games, but got unlucky and missed their chance in the spotlight. Things were always hard, they now just got even harder.
It also puts the whole concept of indie on a serious jeopardy. Nowadays, the term is being used as a label, rather than something actually meaningful; not only that, but more and more it is incredibly difficult to achieve any sort of notoriety without the help of a publisher, which is kind of antithetical to this whole concept of independence. Worryingly, those publishers and their budgets widen the gap between the high-profile indies and the rest, trafficking in the same kind of marketing bullshit triple-A gaming always did. Marketing now is not as important as making a good game; it’s actually far more important than making a game at all.
What was the best way to gather attention, then? Herein lies the paradox of videogame marketing; how to call attention to your project when people can’t play it yet? You can see what dominates attentions on social media, news blogs and games forums; sexy pixel art gifs, lush visual compositions, and oft-repeatable buzzwords. It would not be an issue, as it slowly facilitated an homogenization of indie gaming, as the spotlight would be constantly hogged by yet another procedurally generated roguelike pixel-art metroidvania inspired by dark souls and zelda with crafting and permadeath.
Yes, In Extremis never looked good enough to garner buzz by itself; but why should it be? When I was at those low points, it dawned upon me that while I certainly wasn’t content with some of the art in my game, a grand lot of it served a clear aesthetic purpose; and besides, a lot of it was something that I had made, myself, imbued with the same motivation I had while making every other part of the game.
The shittyness of my art was inexorably tied to the good stuff in my game, basically.
That made me realize something larger; the aesthetic demands placed on indie games nowadays, the ones that led to the homogenization I mentioned, are inexorably tied to the impositions of the dominant systems; that is expected, as the public at large nowadays is quite fond of those sexy pixel art gifs, that much is certain. But although what motivated me to mention it was the visual aspect, those aesthetic demands are much more insidious than that.
One could possibly say that, if you are making something unusual, strange, and even ugly, you should own it; that was what I believed in. And while it seems that there might be a place for these marginal, off-kilter approaches in the current space of videogames, the truth could not be farther from that. Despite all the talks about diversity and inclusion around the gamesphere there is a huge diaspora in the coverage of indie games; one that will not be rectified anytime soon.
Simply put, it helps a lot being well-connected and outspoken on social media. But of course, that is subject to being in the right place, in the right time. You see, I do not live in San Francisco, or Toronto, or New York; I have no means to visit GDC, or to graduate on a respected foreign institute. I live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a country that gives almost no support for this artform, in a city with a budding but still small scene. Me, and countless others like me, all over the world, are on the outskirts of this indie revolution.
There are hundreds of fantastic games being released, everyday; fun, innovative, clever and revolutionary stuff, that is left either to bankrupt its creators, to disappear as soon as it enters Steam or languish in obscurity somewhere in the net, as even the notion of marginal culture has already been appropriated by this self-centered, perverse system that established itself in the past couple of years; to be a successful alternative game developer, after all, you need to conform to these demands, these tools, these ideas, these concepts. To be outside of the sphere, you need to be inside of it.
I decided to launch in late november, which would be terrible dating, with all the triple-As launching and all, if not by the sobering notion of what my project actually was. The date was decided pragmatically, as to not coincide with Steam Sales, and allowing me to at least participate in the December sale. The in days preceding it, I made a new trailer with the pretty new visuals, and sent over 450 hand-made e-mails to media outlets and youtubers; this wasn’t Greenlight anymore, this was an actual, finished project. I had spent over almost ten years reading Gamasutra daily, and every single marketing guide I could; I had hopes to get coverage for at least some niche sites and youtubers.This was going to work.
At November 17th, midnight, I pressed the release button.
This is how it ended:
Two days after the release, with my head filled with too many dangerous substances and having recently finished a massive personal project, I found myself wandering in a park, with live music playing, among children and their parents, musing about death. More specifically, finitude. After concluding this cycle, I wondered why to continue going, to continue living, as I had contemplated several times in those dark moments before, the difference now being that my objective was concluded. The the joy in the place made me realize why. This story had ended, but a new one would start, soon. And who are we to decide when it ends? Perhaps that’s the only decision we are not allowed to take.
I went and watched Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. The movie is a lovely, provocative confusion of occult symbology and elaborate visuals, that reminded me of what I was attempting to make all those years with In Extremis. Its final message is one of abandon; to refuse riches and fame, the threat of fear or pain or loneliness, and to embrace what gives your life meaning. That, ultimately, all fictions we order our lives around are meaningless compared to life itself.
I left the movie theater as the fresh night air filled my lungs; contemplating the beauty of the skyline of my city at night, I knew I had found something I lost, a long time ago:
What pulled me out of the dark water back then was not a revelation or a sudden epiphany; it was the sense of *how ridiculous* that whole situation was. I mean, c’mon; had I decided to stay there, could you imagine the face on the poor saps that would find my body? That funeral was going to absolutely shameful. Perhaps a sense of humor is the best thing in keeping you alive, in the end of the day.
The game launched, after all; I received an immense support and love from my friends and family that had accompanied its development for far too long. Predictably, it sold poorly, and rather not predictably, the countless e-mails I sent had no effect at all, with only five ou six answers out of the almost five hundred sent. That said, every week brings a fresh new batch of scammers, and while is was quite fun to answer them initially, now checking and deleting is just a part of the routine. Incidentally, if your hate me, you can buy In Extremis on those lovely scamps at G2A or Kinguin; there is no torrent for it yet, but I’ll try to rectify that later on.
It had issues, certainly; I was not entirely satisfied with the visuals, some sections could still use more details and animation, sound effects lacked punch, and the difficulty curve could use a bit more work. Not to mention bugs, due to the immense complexity and messiness of the game’s code. The ultimate goal of In Extremis was to communicate an experience that could connect with every element of a person’s life; how he or she related to his feelings, melancholia and nostalgia, sexuality and desire, art and music, their fears and violent urges, and his relationship with the divine. To do that successfully, it might take the knowledge and experience of a master artist at his later years, and not the hubris-filled ambition of a deluded twentysomething.
And time went on. The excitement and renewed mental clarity of all the events of the game launch slowly subsided, the game went back to the obscurity it barely even left, and I went back to being the neurotic, destructive person I was before. The playerbase barely registered, to be honest, and many of the secrets I painstakingly spent months adding to the game ended up never discovered by anyone.
And indie games? Well, the title of the article should be a given, but they kind of died.
Meanwhile, games? Man, they’re awesome as they’ll ever be. Gaming is currently an embarrassment of riches, and last year alone brought so much cool stuff that my Steam backlog almost duplicated. Videogames have stealthily entered some sort of golden age in these last few years, and no one seemed to notice, in fact. Hell, a lot of pixelly, rogueliky stuff I so breathlessly complained about is undeniably, incredibly fun. And not to mention, the rise of the indie movement made an indelible mark in all of gaming; think about the big triple-A launches of last years; they could not have existed in a world without the subversions and design innovations of smaller game makers.
Indie died because, now, compared to say, 10 years ago, it is an actual reality to make games by yourself, in small teams, or in a couple of days. We cannot undervalue how this changed the landscape forever. Be we also have to admit that label kind of lost its reason to exist. We live on a strange landscape in which Steam cardbait games live side to side with transcended exploration of the subtleties of the form; in which ragdoll youtuber-ready titles live with smart reinterpretations of obscure classic titles. Where nothing is niche, everything is everyone’s business, and we have no clue of where we are going
Perhaps most of my observations, though, could be directed to the change in our society as a whole; the internet allowed us the infinite potential of limitless information and social connection, so of course that could not last; so it was colonized, and closed down in walled gardens, having its previous power changed into a tool of consumerism and mass social control. The notion of spontaneous success has been co-opted, again, by the powers that be, like they always end up doing; we spend our days arguing in never-ending fights of invented oppositions, being coerced by our biases into playing into the game of whoever controls the content algorithms.
Videogames are also subject to that; and while there are always exceptions to the rule, the idea of massive mainstream that was sold to us in times past is already an impossibility. So, why chase it?
I would love to live on by making games, but I have no idea if that’s is even possible; sadly, my impish mind probably won’t let me stop making them.
This is not a manifesto, or a call to action; for in those meditations, I realized the reason I truly dedicated myself to games. Not to be successful, or famous, or admired; to win awards or to pay my bills. To be admired by my ideas, or propose debates, or to answer the needs of niches. Not event to touch people or change their lives or political views, or push the artform forward, or any of that hokey craptalk.
We should make videogames because they have to be made; and that’s all there is to it.