In 2015, the game development world was simultaneously introduced to the word “Indiepocalypse” and also given a collective panic attack by the concept: a market so oversaturated with small, intelligent, auteur indie games that none of them could stand out or make any money.
And while the video game market continues to outperform other entertainment media in profitability (in large part because it has so far been immune to the pressures of streaming and subscription platforms that have rocked the music and film worlds), profitability can still be a challenge for indies.
In March 2016, Ryan Green, developer of the award-winning game That Dragon, Cancer, which artistically explored the heart-breaking experience Green himself endured—that of losing his son to cancer—claimed that despite widespread media coverage, the game had yet to turn a profit in its first quarter.
Green blamed Let’s Plays, which he considered tantamount to pirating in the case of a short, heavily narrative game like his, for the game’s financial woes, arguing that a full Let’s Play wasn’t any different than a YouTube video of someone watching a movie.
And while the profitability of the gaming world—who makes how much money off what—is a question that probably won’t be resolved any time soon, there’s something very lovely about small, deeply designed games that justifies the real concern over the marketplace incentives to create them.
Though big games like Overwatch, Dishonored 2 and Doom scooped up most of the Game of the Year Awards in 2016, with Blizzard’s MOBA behemoth Overwatch leading the pack, Inside, a 2-D puzzle-platformer from Playdead, the Danish studio behind the critically acclaimed 2010 Limbo, was rarely far behind, spending a lot of time in second place.
Inside was a strange, spare little game, fairly quick to play through, but brilliant in its use of depth, spare color, wordless horror, and perplexing storytelling. Though some puzzle mechanics were repeated once learned, the whole felt small, unique and lovely.
But while Inside was being feted, some of 2016’s most influential RPGs that were beloved by critics and fans alike, including Uncharted 4 and Dark Souls 3, were snubbed more often than honored, and far more often than expected. Oddly, despite many nominations, Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End arguably gained its highest honor in aggregate: it had the highest Metacritic rating of any game released in 2016.
So was Inside’s high ranking on end of year lists merely a sop to artful indies? A middle finger to big studios returning third and fourth times to the well?
Or have we perhaps gotten frustrated with big games that have a definitive “finish” point, that offer us (in the case of Dark Souls 3) forty plus (for many, well plus) hours of gameplay to complete when, as critic Danielle Riendeau mourned with rueful humor over her love/hate relationship with The Witness in the Idle Weekend podcast, we could be applying that energy to learning life skills rather than how to play a video game?
That’s not to take a scoldy, utilitarian approach. Leisure is just as important as self-improvement, and I’m definitely going to waste a lot more than forty hours of my life somewhere. But more and more, when I pick up a new release from a big, beloved franchise, I find a lot of filler put in to make the game longer, and often, I don’t even finish.
Take Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter from Frogwares, which I reviewed for remeshed in July. Though some of the stories were entertaining or (mildly) intriguing, the game overall was a kind of bizarre minigame hell in which every single goal, from picking a lock to scaling a chimney to playing lawn bowls was a tiny, pointless minigame.
After all, haven’t you always dreamed of being Sherlock…’s hound dog snuffling along the cobblestones following the scent of a clue? No? How odd.
Which is to say that in order to justify a $49.99 pricetag, the game was stuffed to the gills with filler. And sadly, that’s the case with a lot of games that are structured to have a pre-determined narrative path. If you want to complete a quest once, surely you want to complete it five or six times with slightly different flavor text and surroundings.
And while many AAA games (like Uncharted 4, which was in fact quite economical in its storytelling) are well worth the price of admission, it can feel a little daunting to receive a huge chunk of gameplay that feels like you “must” finish it or waste a substantial investment.
Maybe that’s why players are slowly moving either towards games that can’t be finished (like Overwatch or Ark: Survival Evolved) or small, deeply designed indie games that can be played through in an evening.
Consider The Little Acre, a point-and-click adventure released December 13 from Pewter Games Studios featuring full hand-drawn animation, voice acting and a story-driven experience set in 1950s Ireland. Aidan and his young daughter Lily, the two controllable characters, must discover why Aidan’s inventor father disappeared, and the characters, particularly headstrong, creative Lily (whose father uses a garden gnome as a kind of proto-Elf on the Shelf “spy” to try and prevent her from wandering), are as much fun as the mystery itself.
It’s a small, charming game—obviously nothing intended to rival the kind of industry heavyweights Bethesda and Blizzard are putting out. Yet the scale of it, rather than being a detriment, is the attraction.
I’m a hand-drawn animation junkie: I love humans making art with their hands and then using technology to make it come to life, whether it’s in video games or movies. And as it’s used in The Little Acre, it creates a kind of intimacy between the creators and players that vast, open-world landscapes full of the same six tree models endlessly reproduced can’t match. Every scene has been lovingly pored over by the eye and hand of a person for playability and delight.
As an investment of time and money, it’s approximately the equivalent of seeing a Pixar movie at the theaters, so the pressure to enjoy it and extract every penny of gaming pleasure is off. It’s a small thing that makes a small demand of you and gives you a small, enjoyable experience in return.
No side quests, no filler.