The rise and rise of indie video games - ‘We’re pushing the boundaries of what gaming can be’
Video games are big business these days. In the UK alone, the gaming market is worth a record £7.1bn; that’s more than the music and film industry combined. But the industry is not just about blockbuster franchises like Call of Duty and God of War, indie gaming has become a significant part of the market, with the UK playing host to around 1,500 indie gaming outfits – a figure which is rising quickly.
Some of the more outlandish and inventive indie games will be on display at Somerset House as the London Games Festival gets underway. The venue will be hosting Now Play This, a celebration of indie gaming, for the ninth year.
“[The indie gaming space] is incredibly diverse and multifaceted to see now,” the show’s curator, Sebastian Quack says. “The divide was much stronger, between the people who were making video games and how [the industry] was seen... that border has really come down a lot.”
For the weekend, visitors are invited to play a selection of indie games, all chosen for the way they engage with the show’s central theme of love. “I feel like the love theme is a great way to get into the emotional core of game design, or the things that games can talk about, that are very personal and intimate,” Quack says.
Love may seem an unusual theme for gaming, but it’s proved hugely popular, and has been tackled in numerous inventive ways, ranging from paternal love to the love of the everyday. There’s Abort Game, a board game (and one of the few non-digital games in the exhibition) that explores access to abortion in the current political landscape; there’s also Angela Washko’s Mother, Player, which explores life as a new parent via hand-drawn animation sequences.
There are also games that explore the darker side of love: Washko’s other submission, The Game, The Game, is a lesson in how pick-up artists operate. “I grew up playing video games,” she says. “Really, I felt like instead of just critiquing games… I wanted to make my own games to contribute to rethinking the types of stories that are represented in games culture.”
The Game, The Game comes from her time interviewing and working on pick-up culture, which has become endemic in recent years. “Pick-up artists have created their own video game flowchart to how they approach women in public spaces,” she says, and The Game, The Game reflects this, inviting the player to imagine themselves as a femme-presenting person trying to meet their friends at a bar.
Unfortunately to do so, they have to dodge past multiple pick-up artists who are intent on separating them from the rest of the crowd, in a reference to the classic pick up artist book The Game by Neil Strauss.
It functions as much as a way of raising awareness as a way for gamers to pass the time, something Washko is clear about. “I made the game hoping that male players who played it, particularly straight cisgender male players who played it, that they would be able to recognise where potentially their own approaches, as to interacting with women may actually incidentally overlap with some of the things that pickup artists do,” she says.
On the other side of the spectrum, Jisoo Lim’s game invites players to explore a gay romance between two Christian women in South Korea – something she says still remains taboo.
“Homophobia in Korea, in church communities, has been a serious problem in our country,” she says. “They’re producing a lot of victims, their families, their friends, and even the people who support them. And the most vulnerable victims… most of them struggle with accepting their identities.”
If these sound like radical themes to explore, they are – but that’s the point. For Quack, and many of the designers taking part, the benefit of indie gaming is that it enables designers to explore themes that often don’t make it into the blockbuster franchises.
“A festival like this can show a board game about abortion access: it’s really difficult to do a massive huge production about that,” Quack says. “Or, some of these works that are just a bit harder to understand or a bit more ambivalent… the proximity to art, or just kind of more experimental things, is really helpful in this case.”
“The indie game space really embraces more experimental approaches to making more, let’s just say accessible or economical ways of producing games,” Washko says. “And so I think that, in tandem, certainly, supports a more diverse array of makers and stories.”
At the same time, technology’s rapid progression means that practically anybody can pick up a keyboard and start coding – such as Timo Wright, whose game Virtual VRealities is pushing the boundaries of what can be done with VR.
Virtual VRealities is a documentary-style game where the player wanders in and out of other peoples’ houses, adding to the pantheon of indie games that Wright describes as “pushing the boundaries of what a game could be.”
“VR is still kind of developing, and there’s a lot of technical barriers… and the content, which is done for VR is quite specific. It’s usually just games,” he adds. “We tried to do something more serious or something more like a documentary film… we wanted to see what we [could] do in that field.”
With more and more of us living our lives online, these games also function as a commentary of sorts on the way in which humans experience love online.
“[That’s] almost like a secret theme at the festival,” Quack says, citing the way that the team have sought to underline this: a semaphore-based communication game towards the end of the exhibition, or digitised images throughout the exhibition of people waving out at the viewer.
“I guess that’s still being processed from the pandemic… maybe there’s a new rawness about this. We experienced that it was possible to have really deep relationships and connections online. Like there’s this really true need for touch and intimacy and closeness and somehow both is possible.”
Now Play This will be at Somerset House from April 1-9; nowplaythis.net