June 15, 2009
I started playing video games when I was about five years old, cutting my teeth on MS-DOS and the Sega Master System. The first game I ever played was Alex Kidd in Miracle World.
By contrast, a gamer who is five years old today was born during the heyday of the PlayStation 2. His first Mario game might have been Super Mario Sunshine, and Halo 2 came out before he knew how to read.
What, I wonder, would today’s five-year-old gamer — or any new gamer, for that matter — think of the burgeoning indie scene?
It seems to me that many independent games rely on an appreciation of, or at least a familiarity with, video games of the 1980s and 1990s. Judith’s stark textures and sprites evoke early first-person shooters like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. Don’t Look Back counts on the player having internalized platformer conventions (such as timed jumping puzzles and Mega Man-style boss HP meters) so they can be subverted halfway through. Games like You Have to Burn the Rope and ROM Check Fail are probably unintelligible without context. And of course loads of indie games, from Passage to I Wish I Were the Moon, use low-fidelity graphics out of the NES era — which, whether by necessity or as an aesthetic choice, are nostalgic for some but potentially alienating for others.
Do these games resonate with an audience that is new to the medium? Perhaps. They certainly don’t suffer from a lack of availability; all the games mentioned above are free, and most of are even playable in a browser. If some of their effect depends on familiarity with older games, though, the appeal will be limited. We’re staring down the Long Tail of video games, and indies are at the far end of the curve.