Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Metal Gear Solid: The fusion of camp and drama

Gamers can be pretty self-deprecating when it comes to the stories told by their chosen medium. Conscious of the fact that video game stories have struggled (or perhaps more accurately, failed outright) to acquire critical renown from the reigning artistic authorities, most gamers acknowledge that the writing is just second-rate - even when it's writing that they admit to enjoying a great deal. Occasionally a few are held up as legitimately good - Shadow of the Colossus and Planescape: Torment appear frequently - but even then, the praise is all too often appended with "for a video game." Part of the problem, of course, is that a lot of video game stories are really bad. Insofar as the story of a game will tend to be in service of its gameplay and not the other way round, games are prone to story settings that involve copious gunplay rather than nuanced character development. The medium may simply be predisposed towards being juvenile. But I also suspect that many video game buffs have uneasy and ill-defined relationships with the stories of their games. On what level, if any, do they appreciate them?

Shadow of the Colossus

I recall spending countless hours on a Final Fantasy fansite as a teenager. One got the sense that a lot of the members were interfacing more meaningfully with RPG stories than they were with the classics from their English classes. Broken, unevenly-translated Engrish was deconstructed and interpreted as subtly-crafted prose; Cloud Strife and Fei Fong Wong were unironically lauded as the greatest characters in the history of fiction. The medium was treated with a starry-eyed reverence which, considering the frequently infantile sense of writing and comic book settings, seemed wildly out of place. And as we grew older, it was expected that this reverence be disowned, acknowledged as a symptom of aesthetic deficiency, progressed from, as a young adult might find their idea of high cuisine progressing from grilled cheese to foie gras. The few that remain stalwartly attached to the sprawling, fumbling, awkward epics of JRPGs past were cast under suspicion of wearing rose-tinted glasses (and if the baffling tale told by the recent Final Fantasy XIII is any evidence, this may well be true).

As much as I love him, Cloud falls somewhere
short of establishing himself as the Holden
Caulfield of our generation.

It's certainly true that no character from Final Fantasy VII or Xenogears holds a candle to the thematic depth of literature's heavyweights. On the other hand, I think there's something fascinating going on with the gaming community's persistent fixation with character-centric dramas set against the backdrop of giant robots or cyborg assassins or a mission to kill God, something that merits a little more than a snort or a groan. The subject matter is certainly pure camp. We're not accustomed to having to take giant robots seriously; we associate them more with cheap cartoons and merchandising than stories of personal revelation or Freudian psychology. But it may well be that the campy premises which video game narratives are so frequently drawn to constitute particularly fertile soil for dramatic storytelling.

There are some pretty interesting parallels with the comic book movie renaissance of the last decade, when the success of X-Men and Spider-Man filled summer movie screens with big-budget comic book adaptations. Spider-Man in particular is a good case study, because director Sam Raimi, a modern master of camp filmmaking, appeared to have somewhat schizophrenic intentions when he approached the franchise. Clearly, everyone knew the corniness and cliches were present - it was Raimi, the inclusion was willful and done with relish - but at the same time, the audience was expected to take Peter Parker's personal struggles seriously, even as he donned a spider costume and battled Willem Dafoe clad in a green Power Ranger suit. The fusion of the comic book's camp sensibilities with big-screen drama was a little uneven, but it found popular resonance where it had previously been niche. And by the end of the decade, murmurs of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight for Best Picture were circulating; Heath Ledger was posthumously awarded Best Supporting Actor for his role as the Joker.

Campy? Yes. Effective? Also yes.

We can still sense some discomfort with the improbable fusion. The Dark Knight called upon both Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine to buoy the film with a sense of venerability from their supporting roles, as though Nolan suspected the premise was just a little too ridiculous to independently sustain itself as serious subject material. But whatever the case may be, camp and drama are increasingly cementing themselves as partners in modern filmmaking, to wild popular reception and more-than-occasional critical acclaim. How, then, should this affect our interpretation of the obvious analog in video games?

Camp we all took seriously.

I mentioned in a previous post that I'm a big Metal Gear Solid fan, and it might strike some as odd to follow an entry ripping into StarCraft II's story with praise for Hideo Kojima's notorious mindfuck epic. But the series is probably the medium's foremost exemplar with respect to high drama in a camp setting. The title itself, after all, refers to giant robots - walking, nuclear-equipped battle tanks that bear no small resemblance to Godzilla (which, incidentally, may well be where the entire marriage between camp and drama was blessed) - but the bizarre premises don't stop there. Floating psychics and flamethrower-wielding astronauts deliver insane soliloquies about their tortured lives; enemy commandos deflect bullets ("She really is Lady Luck!") and survive shots to the head with no real explanation; a nerdy companion named after an anime convention strikes up a conversation with the protagonist about whether love can bloom on the battlefield. Metal Gear Solid is a gritty war story at heart, but it's not itself without healthy servings of the paranormal, perplexing, and preposterous.

One could be forgiven for assuming this
game wouldn't tug many heartstrings.

But - and this is where many gamers are understandably confused - Metal Gear Solid doesn't invite you to laugh at its sheer ridiculousness (at least, not always). Underneath all the jargon, technobabble, and downright cheese, it's got a serious thematic story to tell, and something about its B-movie sensibilities - from the lengthy, stilted exposition and broad, exaggerated caricatures right down to the pitch-perfect, gravelly corniness of David Hayter's delivery as Solid Snake - just clicks. The player becomes increasingly confused about where the dividing line is between the pretense of serious, traditional spy drama and the lunatic fringe. Eventually, we let our guards down, and the full dramatic force of the game's camp side - which would under normal circumstances be simply too silly to be moving - comes crashing down upon us. Snake's introspection, Naomi's betrayal, Otacon's sense of loss: all of these things are the better for their unabashed willingness to situate themselves within the aesthetic of camp science fiction.

Kojima refuses to let the medium compromise
his flair for the dramatic

The narrative strategy is perhaps best exemplified by the death of The Boss at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3. As she perishes, the scars on her chest turn into a pair of (heavy-handedly metaphorical) snakes, which slither from her body onto the ground as the white flowers surrounding her bloom red. At face value, it's an utterly ridiculous piece of visual eyeglitter to underscore the departure of an important character, a scene with no obvious consistency with the game's portrayal of the supernatural, and a catastrophically failed attempt of a director with juvenile sensibilities to execute something abstract or new-wave. But Kojima is nothing if not in constant implicit dialogue with his audience's confused reactions. The scene, which is punctuated by requiring the player to execute The Boss themselves by pressing the fire button (a move which cleverly recontextualizes the hitherto-unreflective manner with which they have killed every other enemy in the game), deliberately blurs the boundaries between the emotionally moving and the aesthetically indulgent. The storytelling technique of Metal Gear Solid therefore functions very much as a curiously effective embracing of kitsch.

The Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3

Metal Gear Solid exemplifies a narrative style which has transcended the realm of authorial immaturity and become genre. As it willfully insists that it be critically defined by its own terms rather than condemned by the criterion of traditional drama, it also insists that the player, at least for the duration of the game, suspend their own understanding of the dramatic, fray its boundaries, and allow the game's potent camp sensibilities to become interwoven. I should note that, while I think this is a genre that shows a lot of promise, I don't want all game stories to be like Metal Gear Solid, as surely as I don't want all film stories to be like Spider-Man. Moreover, I certainly don't want to see the "genre" label applied as a catch-all defense against bad writing in video games. This can be particularly dangerous when the bad writing is also writing we enjoy - witness Castlevania: Symphony of the Night's "Die, monster!" introduction, which ought not ever be construed as anything other than a humorous relic to be appreciated with a giggle and a smirk.

What I hope is that gamers, while still holding the medium's storytelling to high standards, can acquire some context for their appreciation of a series like Metal Gear Solid or Xenosaga or Final Fantasy. One might survey the prevalence of camp in video game storytelling and conclude that it is frozen in permanent infancy. But whether the writing is infantile or not, it is missing the point entirely to judge it by the same criteria one would a Kubrick film or Shakespearian classic - or even the latest generic drama that Ebert reviews favorably. The giant robot-centered camp drama just might have established itself as its own breed, rather than high art's kid brother.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

StarCraft II: The anti-narrative (Spoilers within)

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty has the worst story ever told in a video game.

That's not to say I'm down on the game in general. I've had more fun playing through StarCraft II's campaign than I have with any other game in recent memory. It's an immaculately constructed experience, with varied, briskly-paced missions and painstaking attention to detail at every level. In fact, the gameplay is so good that criticizing the writing - which many players, jumping straight to online play, will never even experience - feels somewhat besides the point. But lead writer Chris Metzen's effort for StarCraft II isn't just bad. It's fascinatingly bad. It's bad in a way that few games ever even get the opportunity to be - it takes the cast of beloved franchise and misuses it in every way possible.

Much more fun than the cutscenes.

Let's start with the narrative structure. StarCraft II begins with the premise of a political rebellion against Arcturus Mengsk's Dominion, then shelves that idea about an hour in to introduce the premise of a Zerg invasion. The game then proceeds to ignore both of these plot points for the better part of the campaign's duration, instead focusing on the fascinating goals of raising money and collecting mysterious artifacts for no very good reason. The missions proceed nonlinearly, so there's no semblance of logical progression towards a coherent endpoint; the story simply meanders for ten hours as protagonist Jim Raynor diligently ignores everything that might interest the player in favor of running off on his latest random errand. With the exception of a sidestory involving the Protoss, none of the story's five prongs ultimately amount to anything significant to the endgame. They simply exist as a buffer to stall the player over until the game's concluding twist comes out of left field - but more on that later.

Mengsk is ultimately irrelevant.

To Metzen's credit, writing a plot for a real-time strategy game is difficult. It's essential, for the sake of mission variety, that every faction wind up fighting every other faction in the game at some point, and coming up with a plausible reason to pit the Terrans against the alien Protoss - with whom they allied themselves to save the universe four years prior - would be difficult, to say the least. The effort made, however, is beyond pathetic. For instance: in his quest to acquire resources and Xel'Naga artifacts, Raynor spends several missions butting heads with a Protoss faction known as the Tal'darim, who are cutely described as "fanatics" but commit no obvious crime aside from refusing to roll over and die when Raynor comes to scour their worlds (by force!) of their rightly-owned valuables. The Tal'darim are dressed up in scary religious language - "You shall not defile the Breath of Creation! Execute all those who would desecrate our altars!" - but it's hard not to see Raynor as the villain here, especially considering that he's knowingly making a grab at a resource the Tal'darim consider religiously significant.

Imperialism: the Game

The cultural insensitivity and abject stupidity reach their heights in the mission "Supernova" - an implausibly-constructed scenario in which Raynor must plunder a valuable artifact from the Tal'darim before the planet is engulfed by a slowly-moving wall of flame - where the following dialogue is uttered:

Tal'darim Executor: "Now you will pay for desecrating our holy relics!"
Raynor: "Aw, hell. Not these Tal'darim guys again. They seriously need to learn when to quit!"

A rough translation would be as follows:

Tal'darim Executor: "Stop robbing us of the objects of our faith at gunpoint!"
Raynor: "Gee whiz, these Tal'darim are just so unreasonable!"

Jim Raynor, real American hero

So Raynor has some trouble setting himself up as the most scrupulous of protagonists, the game's halfhearted attempts to other-ize the Tal'darim notwithstanding. Meanwhile, his partner in crime, a rough-and-tumble ex-convict with a Southern drawl named Tychus Findlay, manages to inject stupidity into the story in completely different ways. Tychus bought his freedom from Dominion emperor Arcturus Mengsk in exchange for agreeing to work for him in secret - a plot point which is revealed hamfistedly in the game's very first scene. Since Raynor is leading a rebellion against Mengsk, it's an ostensible source of tension that he has a traitor in his midst. It's somewhat confusing, then, when Findlay thinks nothing of committing violent acts of sedition against the Dominion alongside Raynor, even going so far as to personally steal their new secret weapon and rampage across town with it. Mengsk - who has taken a curious turn from dangerous megalomaniac to cartoon villain in the interim between the two games - is surprised and befuddled by Raynor's tactics at every turn, but he ought to know about all of them in advance, seeing as Raynor literally has a plant as his number two.

An extremely ineffective double agent.

Another problem with the game's story is that there is no clear singular antagonist. I think the antagonist was supposed to be Kerrigan, but she exists more as ambient noise than as an actual character. She shows up for a couple of missions to dispense some occasional generically threatening banter ("You were fools to come here!"), and then, in a truly impressive squandering of an entire game's worth of buildup, turns in her villain card in the ending sequence through a deus ex machina. The chemistry between her and Raynor which was built up in Brood War is nonexistent here, as is any of her former charisma or presence. (On that note, someone might need to remind Tricia Helfer that she's not still voicing the Normandy's artificial intelligence from Mass Effect 2 anymore. Glynnis Talken's original performance is sorely missed.)

Sadly, her pet hydralisk never becomes
a miniboss.

I'm not even going to touch upon Zeratul's excruciatingly-written encounter with the hitherto-dead Tassadar. The scene deconstructs itself.

All of this pales in comparison, however, to what can only be described as the dumbest moment in the history of video games. There comes a point at which a Ghost operative named Nova contacts Raynor and tries to convince him that his ally Tosh is conspiring to free a band of violent prisoners and drug them to create psychotic killing machines. The problem here is that Nova just so happens to be employed by the Dominion - the very same Dominion that Raynor is in open revolt against. The scene literally amounts to Raynor's sworn enemy calling him up and telling him to betray someone who has been helping him the whole game, just because she says so. Tosh has not at this point wronged Raynor in any way or even committed a single violent act. Ostensibly, he's a pirate, but that should make him and Raynor good pals, seeing as Jim's the one looting and pillaging alien worlds. So why would the player trust Nova? There are only two reasons I can think of as to why Blizzard would think there was any choice to be made here:

1) Tosh's portrait is on a scary red background instead of Nova's friendly blue one.
2) Tosh is a black guy with dreadlocks instead of a hot white chick.

Make your choice.

The scene transcends mere stupidity and treads precariously on the grounds of racist imagery. Could they have possibly even attempted to construct this scenario without the manipulative way Tosh's race and physical appearance are used? The worst part of it is that the player can literally do no wrong in their decision. If they choose to side with Nova, her testimony is vindicated; if they side with Tosh, her claims turn out to be false. The weight of choice fails to materialize on almost too many grounds to count.

There are a few bright spots hidden within the horrible effluvium of fan-fiction that is StarCraft II's story. The propaganda-laden Dominion newscasts that can be viewed between each mission are occasionally funny, even if they make it difficult to take Mengsk seriously. And Tychus, though his character arc is nonsensical, is amicable enough, and his chemistry with Raynor is genuinely believable. If there's one lingering trace of the original StarCraft's space Western aesthetic to be found in the sequel, it's there. But on the whole, the story is such an inexplicably impressive disaster. The flimsiness of its pretenses and compounded failures of logic are so myriad that they seem almost willful, as though Metzen was afraid of someone taking the story too seriously. Considering the duration of the game's development (seven years) and Blizzard's important role in the game industry, I'd venture to say they have a responsibility to do better. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty has a plot so foul that it may well sabotage the credibility of gaming as a storytelling medium.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII: Culture clash

The Playstation era of the Final Fantasy series was a curious phenomenon. On the one hand, the huge sales of Final Fantasy VII forcefully vaulted RPGs into the mainstream. On the other, for every gamer who genuinely loved RPG stat progression and turn-based battles, there were another five who were really only along for the ride because of Square's spectacular technological displays and gorgeous FMVs. While series like Zelda and Mario awkwardly transitioned into muddy 3D, Final Fantasy VII opted for gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds. The series cashed in on the promise of next-generation visuals quicker than anyone else, and for a while its selling point was that it just looked better. True, some loved the genre for what it was, and went on to play Suikodens and Xenosagas and Chrono Crosses and Tales of Symphonias. Many others, however, ooh'd and aah'd at the opening cutscenes, played it for a couple of hours, wondered what the fuss was about, and then went back to GoldenEye.

Final Fantasy VII

The criticism is often levied upon JRPGs that they haven't evolved as a genre. While some of the genre's standard bearers (see: Dragon Quest) may be guilty of this claim, I don't think it can be said of the Final Fantasy series. True, Final Fantasy coasted on its ATB battle system and its superior visuals for pretty much the entirety of the 90s. But once the Playstation 2 rolled out, and full 3D became effectively mandatory, Square was forced to experiment with the series to ensure that it continued to stand out. Even the ardent fans were growing weary of same old, same old. Consequently, every Final Fantasy outing since X has taken a surprising new direction.

Final Fantasy X scrapped the pseudo-real-time ATB for a true turn-based system, eliminated character levels and XP, and introduced character swapping during battles. The product was still functionally the same – stat-based, menu-driven combat – but the tenth installment marked a definitive shift away from the cut-copy nature of the previous nine. XI dipped the series' feet – for better or worse – into the waters of massively multi-player online role-playing games. XII did away with compartmentalized enemy encounters, with every battle occurring in real-time on the world map, and was Square's first foray into party meta-management. That is to say, rather than controlling characters directly through specific commands, the bulk of the strategy was in setting up a tactical suite of Gambits – simple AI scripts – to manage characters indirectly.

Final Fantasy XII's real-time combat

And that brings us to XIII. What's very clear about the game, after playing it for only a few hours, is that the end result we get in Final Fantasy XIII is the result of Square Enix listening sensitively to player feedback for the past twenty years. All of the following has been said about Final Fantasy at one point or another, some of them rightly:

“The game is too easy. All you do is press attack over and over.”
“Status effects and secondary abilities aren't useful compared to attacking and curing.”
“It's too easy to get lost in dungeons and get interrupted by random encounters.”
“There are too many dumb mini-games cluttering up the experience.”
“The pacing is too slow; there are too many cutscenes.”
“The core gameplay isn't that fun. You'd really only play this game for the story.”

Lightning and Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII

The team behind Final Fantasy XIII clearly made earnest attempts to incorporate all of this feedback when designing the game. The desire to produce an RPG that could be appreciated on a wide scale as an RPG, and not just as a technical showcase or an interactive storybook, is transparently fervent, and perhaps best exhibited in the combat system. As a corpus of gameplay mechanics which demand tactical thinking, quick reflexes, and thoughtful responsiveness, it's easily one of the best in the series. Players are frequently required to make tactical switches between Paradigms - customizable party setups based on job combinations - to succeed. One might begin the fight with "Evened Odds" - which focuses on simultaneously debilitating the enemy and bolstering the party's status - and then switch to "Relentless Assault" for an all-out offensive. It's fast-paced, mentally demanding, makes good use of its mechanics, and most important of all, it's fun.

But in refining the genre's gameplay to its logical endpoint, Square Enix produced a game which could be accused of being stripped-down, grueling, and unfriendly. The game is certainly no longer easy; the question now is whether some of its encounters simply demand the player to think about too much too quickly. There's no risk of being lost in dungeons, but that's because most of them are just a straight line. There are certainly no mini-games to break up the pacing, but neither is there a proper town in sight, a world map to explore, or even many people to talk to. And the gameplay? If you like RPGs, it's definitely fun – but you had better like RPGs, because the game is more laboriously combat-focused than any other in the series.

The gameplay experience is refined, yes – perhaps over-refined, because it ends up feeling a little bit emaciated. This vague sensation of hollowness is the product of game designers diligently stripping the game of any chaff that might get in the way of a fun battle system; the result is a game which is pretty much just a battle system (albeit a very good one) and a handful of cutscenes. And the reviews, which were lukewarm as the venerable series goes, reflect this problem – Square Enix, for all their efforts, just can't seem to make an RPG that a Western audience wants to play for its own merits. They can't be accused of not trying. Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy XIII are such polar opposites of each other that they almost feel like the results of a thought experiment. But, while their visuals continue to dazzle, their game mechanics both continue to elicit the same general apathy from North American gamers.

Why? What is it that makes an RPG accessible to a Western audience? If we were to look at recent hits like Mass Effect, Fallout 3, and Bioshock, the common denominator would seem to be guns. But the distinction lies a bit deeper than that. The JRPG is fundamentally about abstraction from reality. The fun is that it does not closely mimic the way actual battles work: Enemies line up on opposite sides of the battlefield and take turns. Characters learn abilities from items, sphere grids, or mythical beasts. Mechanics like Boosting (Xenosaga), Comboing (Shadow Hearts: Covenant), and Paradigms (Final Fantasy XIII) have only very loose analogs to real life, if any at all. Any semblance of realism is wholely in service of developing tactical depth and satisfying character progression.

Mass Effect 2

Modern RPGs produced by Western developers tend to take the opposite approach. RPG abstractions, like XP and levels, tend to supplement what is a fundamentally realistic experience. Recently, even highly realistic games which are decidedly not RPGs – like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – have decided to spice up the package with the succulent allure of grind-reward. Meanwhile, the “proper” RPGs, like Mass Effect 2, blur the genre's boundaries by putting a greater focus on twitch gunplay and cover mechanics. Experience points are only doled out upon mission completion; the ability system is vastly streamlined when compared to its predecessor. It's not that the statistical elements are just gravy – Mass Effect 2 is quite unambiguously an RPG, though some of the ambiguity is dissolved by the presence of actual role-playing – but the crucial distinction is that the game wants to make you feel like Commander Shepard, much moreso than it makes you feel like the sum of your stats.

I should conclude by noting that I am a huge fan of both Final Fantasy XIII and the series in general, and I don't think the sum of Square Enix's experiments over the past decade was a string of bad games. Japanese RPGs scratch a very particular itch; if you get the urge for Sphere Grids or Paradigm Shifts, Mass Effect or Bioshock just won't do. On the other hand, their inability to connect with the popular audience that the games were intended for certainly represents a failure of some sort. If there is a lesson to be learned from the languishing state of JRPGs, it is that many gamers resonate much more strongly with non-abstracted experiences. In a way, RPGs are going stronger than ever, but they must be wary of letting their own fetish for statistics consume them.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Cave Story: Indie games done right

Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to listen to three indie game developers speak at the July meeting of Boston Post Mortem. I went into the meeting with mixed feelings on indie games in general. I've played a reasonable handful of them - World of Goo, Everyday Shooter, Geometry Wars, N, Trials HD, the ever-controversial Braid - and while all of them were pretty fun, none of them approximated the sort of gaming experience I'd grown to love. Without exception, the indie games I've played focus on taking a very simple, clever gameplay mechanic and executing it very, very well. This is perhaps by necessity - for a developer operating on a limited budget, putting forth basic, fun, functional gameplay is a much more plausible way of making a good game than trying to produce a sprawling, 30-hour cinematic epic. (One of the speakers lamented making this very error, having recently put his own epic on indefinite hold.)

Everyday Shooter by Jonathan Mak

But while I spent some number of hours being entertained by all of those games, none of them formed an emotional connection with me. I couldn't relate to most of them as anything more than the sum of their gameplay mechanics, and (with the possible exception of World of Goo) I'm not going to look back at any of them years from now and remember them with unqualified fondness. And it struck me as problematic that, upon reflection, I struggled to come up with a single character from an indie game that I identified with, or even remembered. (I posed my question to another attendee, who frowned at the sentiment, puzzled for a while, and then offered the goo balls from World of Goo as a counterexample. I don't remember reacting to the little guys in quite the same way, cute as they may have been.) Now, I should get this out of the way: there is nothing wrong with making games like these. Not every game needs to be a life-changing experience; some of them just need to be fun. And some of them even manage to be more than this - World of Goo and the recent Limbo boast art direction which is genuinely impressive. My concern, however, is that the minimalist, non-story-based gameplay of many indie games is beginning to constitute an ethos.

Geometry Wars by Bizarre Creations

There is, after all, a definite adverse reaction to the view I've raised among the indie buffs I talked to at the meeting, as well as throughout the web. The idea persists that big-budget titles have so thoroughly drowned themselves in superfluous frills - highly realistic graphics, sweeping orchestral scores, lengthy cutscenes - that they've lost sight of gaming's actual roots: gameplay. By positioning themselves in opposition to the big budget title, many indies tout themselves as a sort of return to form, injecting some badly-needed innovation into a medium that is increasingly stagnant and awash with frivolous eyeglitter. The constraints of indie development - simple, accessible gameplay instead of complex mechanics, abstract visuals rather than realism, loose interpretive plots instead of concrete ones - become construed as a kind of purism.

N+ by Metanet Software

The problem with this view is that art matters. The corners that were cut to make N fit the indie budget weren't just secondary and they weren't just frills - they were what pushed the game above the level of Minesweeper or Solitaire. This is not to say that all or even most indie games don't care about art. Limbo, for instance, boasts some of the best art direction I've seen in a game in the past few years. But it is becoming increasingly and troublingly difficult to find an indie game which doesn't ascribe to the minimalistic indie paradigm. Limbo was a great game, but once I realized that the game was adamantly refusing to give me anything concrete to work with plotwise, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointment that all its artistic brilliance was going to produce another minimalist, interpretive story. Minimalism, while not a flaw in its own right, is consuming the genre, and this cannot be a sign of health for it.

Braid by Jonathan Blow

Worse still, some indie games are receiving praise for their minimalistic elements they have no business receiving. GameSpot described N+ as having "stylish design;" writes "I think [the basic graphics] work in favor of the game, though, because there's something charming about its plainness. It's almost as if the devs created the graphics that way on purpose, knowing that the gameplay would carry the game." N+ is a visual abortion. It falls well short of what can be accomplished visually on an indie budget, and it troubles me to see such low effort met with such high praise. Meanwhile, Braid's lopsided, fanfiction-level prose has been lauded as a "moving story "(GameSpot), a "beautifully written text-based story filled with philosophical turmoil and horrifying twists," (GamePlanet) "a fairy tale full of melancholy... unlike any story you'll see on XBLA" (IGN). When the outright ugliness of N+ becomes "charming," and Braid's present-only-just-enough-to-be-embarrassing story becomes "beautifully-written", this suggests that a fetishization of minimalism is beginning to pervade.

By contrast, let's look at a series like Metal Gear Solid. When the first game was released in 1998, it pushed the envelope for storytelling, cinematography, voice acting, and production values like no other game before it. But although the series is much-beloved, it has acquired increasing notoriety over the years for its liberal use of in-game cinematics, which occasionally drag on for longer than half an hour and frequently indulge in labyrinthine, preposterous plot developments. It's enough to occasionally bring out the gaming purist in all of us - "When do I get to actually play?" many have asked, as they twiddle their thumbs through the opening cutscene. The player sometimes feels downright browbeaten by the sheer volume of expensive art assets that were poured into the game. In this respect, Metal Gear Solid is the anti-indie. It is as far from minimalism as you can get. What does it say about the state of indies, then, if I love the series to bits? What do indies have to offer someone who views Solid Snake not as an unfortunate logical extreme of directorial excess, but as a permanent fixture in gaming history and an irresistably captivating character?

Cave Story by Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya

Of course, Metal Gear Solid is kind of a laughable standard to hold indie games to: it just costs too much money to be an exemplar. However, the ability to form an emotional bond with the player is not a function of money, and there's certainly untapped room on the spectrum of minimalism somewhere between N and Metal Gear Solid. Enter Cave Story. Developed by a single individual (Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya) over five years, Cave Story's detailed sprite art and chiptune soundtrack evoke the SNES golden age, circa 1994. If you've played any of the material which obviously inspired Cave Story, it's almost impossible to not be immediately enchanted with it. And when I reflected on my experience with Cave Story, it made an enigma of itself. Why does it connect with me while other indie games fail to do so? Why did I care about Cave Story, instead of just play it?

I owe the solution to this problem to Scott MacMillan of Macguffin games, one of the three speakers at the Post Mortem meeting. When asked to describe a sequence of different games as "indie" or "not indie," MacMillan refused to answer, claiming that the distinction was not only stupid, but counterproductive. All it accomplished, he argued (and I paraphrase), was to further the stratification of "indie" as a brand, positioned in a sort of counterculture opposition to the triple-A spectacle. And the persistence of this brand is harmful to the development of indie games, because it just gives them another form to mimic, instead of letting them be their own production.

Cave Story connected with me where other indie games failed to do so because, in spite of the fact that it was produced independently, it refuses to wear the indie label. It positions itself firmly within the history of video games, instead of in opposition to them. It's not an experiment, it's not an exercise in purism, and it's not any more minimalist than it needs to be - it's just a good game. As a gameplay experience, Cave Story doesn't do anything creative or new - it's homage to Super Metroid, plain and simple. But Cave Story is captivating precisely because it makes no effort to be new-wave. I remember it because of its rich, retro-evocative soundtrack, its classically-styled, charming sprite art, its cute, likable characters and quirky writing. Perhaps best of all, it tells a concrete, linear story, something even the best indie games have historically been averse to doing. It has the feel of a concept that was the artist's original, sprawling vision, conceived in wide-eyed naivete, unfettered and uncompromised.

The drive to realize such visions is what makes games great, and Amaya shows that it can be done on your own, but Cave Story is a frighteningly rare breed. With the "games as art" debate set as a permanent backdrop for the philosophy of game development, the minimalist, interpretive puzzle game is beginning to look like gaming's equivalent of the Oscar-bait Scorsese drama. I am glad that games like Limbo and World of Goo exist - they need to exist - but fledgling independent game-makers need a development culture in which Cave Stories are encouraged just as much as Limbos.