Saturday Summaries 2018-04-07: Redefining Indie Edition

The AV Club recently put out an article delineating the history of the burgeoning Indie game market, choosing Jonathan Blow's Braid as its "definitive" example and the turning point for the popularity of smaller, downloadable games which has continued to grow unabated to this day. I have a few misgivings with that hypothesis, which lead me to consider two things: a list of what I would consider the most definitive Indie games, which I'm hoping to publish sometime next week and continue to curate in the years to come, and coming up with a better descriptor of what we perceive as an "Indie game".

By definition, an Indie game is one that has been independently developed and released, without the assistance or oversight of a larger publisher. However, this distinction has become nominal as larger publishers continue to fund smaller games, often developing them in-house through subsidiaries or smaller studios specifically created for miniature projects, such was the case for Ubisoft's Grow Home and their UbiArt Framework series, or Microsoft Studios's Ori and the Blind Forest. Some, like Minecraft or PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, were originally independent and then became the property of a major publisher. You also have the vast number of games with high production values that are still entirely independent, many of which received their funding through crowdsourcing and free-to-play transactions.

Spelunky is closer to my definition of a
Spelunky is closer to my definition of a "definitive Indie game". A relatively simple but endlessly replayable game that does so much with so little.

What used to be a good metric for this type of game was its availability. "Indie" games were exclusively sold via digital distribution for a time, and usually for a price far removed from the big retail releases. These days, though, Indie games are frequently sold physically and there are bigger games that are only sold digitally. You also have occasional cases like Drakengard 3, which was exclusively digital in Europe but saw physical releases in North America and Japan. If digital distribution was ever a demarcation between indie and retail games - and it wasn't, not since 16-bit era games were sold exclusively via download services like the Satellaview - that line's blurred into non-existence.

Even using a variant of "x-Tier" or "x-Game" is too inaccurate. First, the "B-Game" or "C-Game" usually refers to a game's budget, and the level of funding behind Indie games can differ considerably from case to case. They rarely have the funding of a giant "AAA game", a term that also usually indicates the amount of money behind the production, but just between themselves the level of resources available to their creators varies wildly. Second, this terminology is often conflated with a lack of overall quality, with "B-Games" frequently considered as trite or mediocre but containing some inherent entertainment value (similar to how "B-Movies" are often perceived). It's why a licensed Star Wars game was erroneously (and notoriously) dubbed a B-Game by this site that one time, simply because of its so-so quality.

Neither mini-game nor micro-game would suffice either, as while both adequately describe the Indie game in a nutshell - smaller budget, smaller run-time, smaller development teams - they both already have fixed definitions within the general video game lexicon. Mini-games are smaller games within games, usually supplemental to a larger experience (say, the lockpicking mini-game in the RPG Skyrim), while micro-games are specifically the seconds-long challenges featured in the WarioWare series and its imitators.

So with the above in mind, the only consistent quality of an Indie game is its size. The reason they've been able to succeed is because they filled a niche that no other games did: smaller experiences that can be produced and sold at a cost to match their brevity. Yet even so, we see a lot of RPGs and strategy games created in this space that prove to have colossal run-times. Roguelikes and their ilk can be played almost endlessly, as can survival-crafting games. The reason that a better name eludes us is that there are no hard and fast rules for what an Indie game is, or the boundaries it has to adhere to. That versatility is a strength in all respects besides the one that demands a cleaner classification. It could be that no classification exists. It could also be that video game production is far more like an analogue spectrum, along which we have countless development tiers, and that will continue to be the case as video game development remains accessible to teams of every size working on games of every magnitude. (Though I did like "brevities" for a hot second there. It's punchy.)

When I'm not trying and failing to deconstruct Indie games to find a better moniker for them, I'm talking about the games themselves, among other subjects. Here's what we have this week from the ol' blogging mill:

  • The Indie Game of the Week (and no, I won't be changing the title, despite everything) for the first week of April 2018 was Infinifactory: a surprisingly palatable assembly line puzzle game from the creators of SpaceChem and Opus Magnum. Without giving too much away, I just realized the game has an entire back half, so I'm a long way from concluding it quite yet. I might work towards a puzzle or two in shorter sessions in the future (though I say that about a lot of games I've left incomplete) but for now I've got other games I want to look into. Suffice it to say, despite the intimidating appearance and the hours spent watching conveyor belts go around as I work on trouble-shooting my industrial contraptions, the game's proven to be unexpectedly breezy and player-friendly. Well, for now at least. Maybe when I dig into that aforementioned second half and my mental faculties eventually desert me from one too many mechanical mishaps, I'll be singing a different tune. Like the really sad, discordant tune of an insane person.
  • The SNES Classic Mk. II enters its seventh installment looking at two games with cute appearances that belie far more calculated and sinister cores. I'm speaking of the diabolical color-fill puzzle game and extremely late SFC release Sutte Hakkun, co-developed by Nintendo themselves alongside eventual Theatrhythm maestros Indieszero, and the violently competitive air hockey/Breakout mash-up smash-up Sanrio World Smash Ball!. Something I overlooked when considering the latter for this hypothetical mini-console follow-up is how this mini system would benefit from an influx of multiplayer games, ones that perhaps embody the local competitive spirit as keenly as something like Street Fighter II or Bomberman. By design given its audience demographic, Smash Ball has some very simple controls and mechanics to learn, but the level of competition it provides is fierce indeed. Hey, if Windjammers can get itself resurrected, no reason a Hello Kitty sports game about frisbees can't (well, besides the licensing issues of course).


TV: Mr. Robot (Season 3)

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Well, that didn't take long. Shortly after writing up the second season of Mr. Robot, I wasn't able to will myself to not immediately devour the third in quick succession. Season three doesn't have the big timeskip that occurred between seasons one and two, so it almost felt like watching the back half of the same season, but it started ramping things up quite precipitously towards its cliffhanger ending. Season three is considerably stronger overall than the previous, really mining the drama out of some disheartening lows and encouraging highs, putting all its characters through the ringer - not just Elliot, Darlene and Angela, the three chief viewpoint characters - and leaving the fourth season with a strong sense of purpose, if not entirely without a few unexpected wrinkles. It ended... optimistically, which is not generally a term I would use to describe this show. Between watching a season of this show at its peak and the promise of more intense arcs to come, I'm more excited than ever to watch the next. It sounds like October's the most likely premiere month, so I'll have to keep myself busy with some other catch-up shows while I wait.

I get into more about what Mr. Robot is about and a rough breakdown of its characters back when I talked about it two weeks ago, so please refer to that for more details on the show. Either that, or just find a way to watch it: it promotes itself as a cyberpunk thriller, but it's more like a dramatic version of a comedy like Community or The Good Place where it plays around a lot with audience expectations and sudden thematic and cinematographic shifts. It doesn't so much indulge in 80s nostalgia than weaponize it, making fun little allusions to time travel movies as if to tease at what is increasingly sounding like a pivot into sci-fi that's never going to happen, and the delicate mental state of Elliot Alderson with his social phobias and paranoia is frequently exploited for its inherent "unreliable narrator" factor. Importantly, you don't have to know anything about computers to really follow it, especially in later seasons as they spend more time focusing on characters who are less computer-literate. Characters like Season 3's "Irving", played by Boardwalk Empire's Bobby Cannavale: a mechanic by day and fixer for the enigmatic terrorist hacker cell The Dark Army by night (or whenever they need him, really), with a certain chummy world-weariness that occasionally erupts into something less genial.

As before, I'll get into a few specifics of season 3 with this spoiler-blocked section. Don't read if you intend to watch the third season and haven't yet (or previous seasons, for that matter):

Man, I have to say, the space of time between when Mobley and Trenton buy the farm and Elliot sits alone at Coney Island contemplating death by morphine tabs before Trenton's brother interrupts him? I'm not sure the show's ever gotten that dark before. Nor has it been as vicious as when Irving finally snaps and kills the Dark Army's FBI mole Santiago, in a twist I saw coming but still wasn't prepared for. The return of "brave traveller" and sociopathic criminal Vera reminded me that the show's been plenty dark before, most notably in the senseless death of Elliot's dealer girlfriend Shayla, but it got hard to watch at certain points this season. On the other hand, the Dark Army's starting to show its hand a little more, which seems to be galvanizing Elliot into spending his energies fighting directly against it now that they've solved Evil Corp's little database problem (not to say that Evil Corp's in a particularly good place right now even with "stage one" undone). Speaking of whom, I'm gratified by how Mr. Robot and Elliot seem to be on better terms now, with Elliot finally absolving his dead father of the guilt of his tragic childhood fall and realizing that some small piece of his own morality still exists in his otherwise angrily psychotic alter ego.

With other characters, we see some amount of growth with pretty much everyone who takes a turn with the spotlight. Tyrell's mysterious vacation is explained (the Dark Army sequestered him away for his own protection) and how he came to play a substantial role in the "adjusted" Stage 2 of fsociety's attack on Evil Corp; Dom finally puts the pieces together too late to save herself from being betrayed and extorted, first by Darlene and then by the Dark Army and Irving; Darlene's continued cooperation with the FBI and how that drives a wedge between herself and an increasingly erratic Elliot/Mr. Robot. Angela's arc is the most challenging, as her culpability in "Stage 2" puts her in a half-catatonic state for the rest of the season as she continues to betray her friends for the sake of some magical "undo" button that Whiterose is putting together with her project in the Congo - the same project that took the lives of her mother and. We then realize the source of Philip Price's fascination with Angela: he's her biological father, and spiting Price was the chief reason she was turned into Whiterose's pawn. It takes Price's frank admissions of how their one-sided relationship has basically ruined her life before she breaks from the reverie she was in, accepts that Whiterose is lying, and fully accepts the consequences of her role in the deaths of thousands. A dark place for Angela, but far better than descending fully into insanity, roaming around the city in her bathrobe with Qwerty the goldfish in tow. Of course, the true victim in a literal sense was poor old Joanna Wellick, whose long (sexy) con to get Tyrell off the hook for his season one murder had some fairly tragic consequences.

In a sense, the season ends with everyone with a clearer vision for the path forward, even if that first means climbing out of the respective holes they're in. I suspect Dom won't take her forced cooperation lying down and is a far more resourceful and driven agent than Santiago ever was (and I secretly want her and Darlene to bury the hatchet - if you pardon the unfortunate idiom in Dom's case - and get back together, but I suspect that bridge got incinerated quite thoroughly); Darlene's got some atoning to do, provided she doesn't spend another season moping; Elliot has a new enemy in his sights with a now collaborating Mr. Robot at his side (well, "side"); and we're even seeing a more sympathetic side to Price and Wellick. The Dark Army, though? I think they've proven this season just how dangerous they really are, and I can't see a redemption arc coming for unrepentant murderers Leon, Irivng or Whiterose any time soon. I'm also secretly hoping that Vera gets dispatched relatively quickly once season 4 begins; I can't really take another whole season of his vicious Vaas-brand scheming when there are bigger motherboards to fry.

Movie: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

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It was probably my mistake thinking this would be like The Fifth Element. There are certainly similarities of course - Luc Besson likes his whimsical aliens - but Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets came across as remarkably flat in comparison. Set aboard the International Space Station several hundred years into the future, where it grew to first incorporate many nationalities across the globe, and later many more alien races who formed diplomatic ties with humanity and needed somewhere to reside, before eventually being launched into deep space to protect the Earth from its increased gravitational presence. Since then, the space "city" of Alpha has continued to expand and become an entirely independent entity, with its human astronauts having become its custodians and security in the meantime. The roguish Maj. Valerian is an agent of the city's defence network, tasked with difficult operations of galactic importance, and is joined by what we are to believe is the latest in a long line of partners: the by-the-book Sgt. Laureline, with whom the womanizing Valerian becomes immediately smitten.

The two central characters are the movie's weakest element, in my view. Dane DeHaan's bowlcut and youthful looks makes him look like Karl Urban's kid brother, rather than a rugged, debonair Harrison Ford-type that the role of Major Valerian demanded, and Cara Delevingne's modelling background has provided her with a wide repertoire of expressions that range from steely disinterest to steely irritation. The supporting cast is equally out-of-place: the inimitable John Goodman is heard as the voice of a large alien black-market trader that Valerian personally offends, eliciting a Taken-like promise of vengeance that never transpires beyond a large canine creature chasing them off the planet (I suspect the intent was for multiple sequels, one of which would bring this threat back around "Jabba the Hutt in The Empire Strikes Back" style), while Ethan Hawke appears fleetingly as a dirtbag cowboy pimp who is keeping the shapeshifting courtesan Bubble in thrall. Bubble, meanwhile, is played by the singer Rihanna in a role that doesn't involve any singing whatsoever - she instead has an elaborately choreographed dance number intended to seduce Valerian, when really he's there to procure her chameleonic abilities to infiltrate an alien base that's hostile to all outsiders in exchange for her emancipation as a sex slave.

The general plot, which involves a race of spiritual Na'vi-like aliens who lost their planet to a manmade catastrophe, is also kind of all over the place and the movie's various set-pieces alternate between establishing exposition for future movie entries, non-sequitur flights of fancy seemingly designed to show off the movie's aesthetics (which are amazing, I'll admit), and a handful of moments of quirky French levity. It's definitely a trip, frequently prone to detours, and I admire the movie's relative restraint in trying to explain how everything works. Sci-fi often operates better with a mild fantasy element, dropping you into a world beyond your comprehension and giving you just enough of a knowledge base to not be completely lost. A lot of its world-building reminds me of Mass Effect but done even better, with far more imagination and alien diversity, and I hope it continues to survive in one form or another. It doesn't sound like the movie did well enough to necessitate a sequel - it had a lot of money spent on effects to recoup, which I'm fairly sure it failed to do - but maybe it can continue to exist as a TV show, or a comic book, or even a video game. It reminded me of other flop sci-fi movies with a surfeit of ideas and style, like Titan A.E. or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, where we only get this fairly generic story about dashing heroes and moustache-twirling villains as our glimpse into an elaborate universe that deserved something better for its first impression. I think that marriage of an abundance of sci-fi style with a captivating yarn is something Star Wars managed to nail all the way back in the '70s, and everyone else has been keen to replicate with varying levels of success.

I can't see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets taking on the cult appeal of Besson's earlier The Fifth Element quite as readily, despite offering a similar depth of sci-fi weirdness, and I've come to appreciate how effective Bruce Willis was in the straight-man action hero role of Korben Dallas, serving as a sardonic anchor in a sea of Gallic absurdity. Still, it might be worth watching the movie for those impressive visuals and to experience a setting with far more promise that the movie perhaps missed the mark in realizing.

Game: Final Fantasy XV

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I've not spent long with Eos's answer to the Backstreet Boys quite yet, nor have I fully experienced everything Final Fantasy XV has to offer, but my early impressions are... well, warm, I suppose. Somewhere between lukewarm and mildly toasty, let's say. I think I probably made a tactical error playing this game after Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana; for one thing, I'm having to adjust the much more languid pace of FFXV as I trot around deserts looking for waypoints. FFXV has various types of conveyance from what I understand - there's the Regalia convertible that the quartet of Prince Noctis and his three retainers Gladiolus (the tough one), Ignis (the smart one), and Prompto (the "funny" one) ride around in, as well as the off-terrain option of chocobos - and there's certainly a lot of open-world distractions on offer. Between side-quests, hunts, and locating treasure chests on the map based on hints from restaurant "tipsters", there's plenty to chase after even this early on, and I clearly need to consider which skill trees to invest in first.

More notable than the usual open-world RPG filler, though, is the game's narrative and gameplay focus on teamwork and camaraderie. A lot of the fighting mechanics rely on your AI partners, with whom you can set up combination attacks, or use them as a distraction to recover your health and MP somewhere relatively quiet, or have them help you back up should you get knocked out. They have fewer customization options than Noctis, but they each have their own branches in the skill trees, and it seems to be worth considering enhancing and relying on their talents at any given moment. Likewise, they all have different roles outside of combat too: Gladiolus is able to recover useful items from the environment with his survival skills, Ignis is the team's chef and driver, and Prompto... is also there. Well, he takes a lot of photographs, and I suppose that counts for something. The game has a lot of incidental dialogue between the three of them, and they'll occasionally indicate points of interest or bring up necessary advice. I don't think I've seen a Final Fantasy game give this much attention to your comrades - it's usually the case that you can switch in and out team members to suit your preference once you've recruited them all, and as the playable cast continues to grow each member invariably gets less time in the sun. The way this game is set up, however, it seems these three are with you until the end and the game intends to keep them all front and center.

In terms of combat, FFXV sits somewhere between what Final Fantasy X-3 and Type-0 were doing with their more active/real-time focus and the team dynamics of something like Tales or The Last Story (which, while not a Final Fantasy game per se, is about as close as you're going to get with Hironobu Sakaguchi directing) where it's not just important to be cognizant of your own situation but also of everyone else's. You have a plethora of tactical options at your fingers, but unless you're abusing the hell out of the game's "wait mode" there's very little time to come up with a solution and execute on it when you're facing a formidable threat. I've yet to get too deep into the game, as stated, so I haven't thought anything tougher than a story-mandated mini-boss fight and large packs of wolves, but I imagine I'll see a battle where I'll need to use every trick the game has been slowly doling out to me before too long.

The dilemma, then, is to figure out how much of the open-world optional stuff I want to indulge in. I have a bad habit of going all-in whenever a completion percentage or platinum trophy rears its head, but my tolerance for FFXV's optional business is doubly tested by how recently it's been since I last played a game of this specific type (Ys VIII) and how much faster and more player convenient that game happened to be. I certainly don't intend to spend my entire April with FFXV, even with all the other games for other blog features I have planned for this month. I suppose I'll get more into the weeds this time next week, which will almost certainly feature another update on the "boys being boys" debauchery of Noctis and co. (seriously, these guys are way too well-behaved for a royal retinue left to their own devices on the open road. I'm half-anticipating Prompto to throw an imprompto cocaine party before the first chapter's even over).