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The Games That Are Too Underground to Be Indie

When games are too experimental or offbeat to be "indie" or "AAA."

It's easy to think there are two types of video games—the AAA titles like Bloodborne, Grand Theft Auto V, and Destiny, and indie games like Guacamelee, Kentucky Route Zero, and This War of Mine. But if you follow certain game critics and developers on Twitter, you can often hear the faint whispers of games that are doing something else entirely.

Many marginalized creators in the industry don't relate to "indie" or "AAA" because their work can be viewed as too experimental or offbeat—and thus, not as marketable as more popular games. Their approaches to development may also be hindered by only having access to open source tools, and not being able to afford more sophisticated resources (although that will hopefully begin to change now that powerful game development engines like Unity and Unreal 4 are available for free).

Instead, they create their games using accessible tools like Twine, Ren'Py, Game Maker, and Construct 2 to build new stories and create different worlds. And as ever more diverse creators dig deeper into the frameworks of open source or inexpensive tools, their own life experiences seep into the games they create. The content most of these games explore is often experimental, autobiographical, or political.

In 2014 I created the twitter account @SupportAltGames, which I intended to be a curatorial space where games and criticism not categorized as AAA or indie would reside. The bot would retweet tweets with the hashtag #altgames, thus creating a collective where diverse creators could go to showcase their works. At the same time, I was trying to negotiate a space for alternative forms of criticism, since popular hashtags such as #indiedev and #gamedev rely heavily on sharing progress or completed works solely in development, programming, or art.

At IndieCade 2015, game developer TJ Thomas spoke about the need for alternative spaces for creators to survive, and was a major influence behind the creation of @SupportAltGames. More recently, in response to the bot, Montreal-based critic Lana Polansky and game developer Robert Yang outlined their thoughts on games not prefixed with "AAA" or "indie."

While the initial purpose of #altgames wasn't to start a movement or build a manifesto, the unwritten mission statement celebrates content and designs not found in mainstream development or criticism. Rather than write out a how-to guide or list the dos and don'ts, the best way for me to articulate what both "alt" games and criticism can look like is through a few shining examples.

In She Who Fights Monsters, the player must help Jennifer live with her alcoholic father. Image: ​Gaming Pixie 

Game developer Gaming Pixie, for example, approaches her work by utilizing elements that are "gamey" with a twist of fantasy. For example, in her text-based adventure game Eden, maps and achievements exist alongside an otherwise surrealist narrative wherein the complexities of gender and sexuality are explored. In She Who Fights Monsters, Gaming Pixie implements a nostalgic 2D design with a JRPG-like battle system, but weaves these classic building blocks into a story told from an eight year old girl's perspective about surviving at home with her alcoholic father.

Her work embodies one of many "alt" characteristics, where traditional game elements, such as maps, achievements, and battle systems, are reshaped to tell different stories—often ones that are transgressive from a status quo. Being able to experience a story from the perspective of a little girl, or witness a character deal with emotional trauma, is seldom seen with such complexity in mainstream games.

In other cases, #altgames actively defy normative game design elements and structures too. Ansh Patel is developing six short, experimental games in a series titled Agency? which skew the concept of player agency and criticize its use and existence. His work confronts the importance of giving player's choice by placing players in situations where there aren't many choices for them to choose. The first in the series, Security Guard Simulator, gives the player very little to do: answer the phone, look at messages on your cell phone and computer, and that's about it. It's unsatisfying to complete these boring tasks, and leaves the player with no sense of purpose.

Encore is a game where all you do is applaud, waiting for something to happen—or not. Image: ​Ansh Patel

Other games by Patel are existentialist, surrealist, and invoke philosophical questions. There's nothing comforting or nostalgic, and there's often an anxiety surrounding objects in his work. While it differs from Gaming Pixie's portfolio in several ways, both artists use games to provoke alternative responses from players than more popular games; there is no aim to entertain or enable a mechanized power fantasy.

Meanwhile, the Arcade Review is a digital magazine that publishes art criticism on experimental video games with a focus on free, inexpensive, and obscure titles. It was founded by Montreal-based critic Zolani Stewart and aims to approach alternative games and art not often covered by mainstream press—in particular, focusing on feminist, Marxist, and non-white perspectives. Its criticism comes in several forms: essays, editorials, reviews, and interviews with game creators like Amy Dentata and Titouan Millet.

Pieces are often prefaced by photos of paintings related to the themes discussed, and topics range from community-building, queerness, art history, and game titles long forgotten. Some of these articles are available for free on the Arcade Review's blog, and are highly characteristic of what I envisioned when creating @SupportAltGames.

Another important resource for alternative criticism is the newly relaunched Offworld, spearheaded by Leigh Alexander and Laura Hudson, and in collaboration with BoingBoing. It's a vastly growing gaming website which offers spaces for marginalized creators to showcase and feature their works, as well as voice concerns and share criticism of games and gaming cultures at large.

Offworld's rebirth is a refreshing change of pace—a publication where articles regularly embrace femininity, queerness, and cultural experiences as part of a standard approach to criticism, rather than a one-off article awkwardly poking out of a slew of tech industry news and game reviews. It's resources such as these that give me hope for the future of bots like @SupportAltGames, where personal expression and diverse experiences can be tied into a booming medium with which players who aren't the target demographic of mainstream content can deeply relate.

Moving forward, I feel optimistic about the direction of #altgames. Keeping its structures loose and foregoing a how-to guide is the point; it encourages more diversity and welcomes new perspectives on a growing medium. I often see creators use the bot to ask if they're "alt" enough to contribute, and it's a difficult question to answer without creating expectations, or a certain aesthetic or genre, and making it the default.

Instead, I have them consider mechanics—taking something that players of mainstream games are used to, such as the comfort of a tutorial, or the strength of wielding a plethora of upgradeable weapons, or a narrative trope which fulfills a status quo. Then, I tell them to destroy it; rewrite it; to make it hurt the player, or push it out of their narrative entirely; and to make something that wields more power than the limits and expectations of the mainstream.​