Indie game makers ranted today. Their rants were on subjects like "Why you should make a demo," "What is indie?" and "The IGF is flawed [for accepting PixelJunk Eden because it's clearly not a bedroom work]." The latter was an impromptu rant given by an eyepatch-wearing Phil Fish (of Polytron, who's making the really excellent-looking 2/3D platformer Fez) that turned into an existential rant about what it means to be indie.
Fish's sentiment was this: I like being indie. But when I pause to consider the word indie, I no longer know what it means.
As an artist I think I can extrapolate on Fish's dilemma: I like the process of finding an idea. I like the risk and adventure that comes with following it. I like the commitment of pushing it into the outside world. Chances are, I like feeling like an underdog, because that makes the reward so much greater when my idea works. Not just for me, but for everyone.
"What's $100 [the cost of entering the Independent Games Fetival] to Q-Games?" Fish said. "It's like a fart, it's nothing."
Indie's a buzzword now, and it's not just because big companies like Sony are creating the buzz with (to use Gus Mastrapa's phrase) "fake indie" games. There's a buzz about indie because, for all its identity crises, the scene has clearly become aware of itself as a phenomenon. Unfortunately it's that indie (to misuse a scientific phrase) "phenome" that makes the scene want to examine and deconstruct itself in search of its defining qualities.
This happens a lot in small music scenes. There's a period in which the scene's creative fertility is at its max. The scene's creators interact and feed off of the energy and ideas of the collective. Then, seemingly overnight, there's a transition into self-awareness. This tends to dovetail with corporate awareness. There's then an attempt to define "rules" that preserve the scene's original spirit. (Take punk or hip-hop as broad examples.) There's an extended, never-ending debate about what's "real" and what's "not real" in the scene anymore. There's maybe a bifurcation, or a larger split, in which dissenting camps can keep on doing their thing while minimizing their interaction with each other. The "scene" moves forward as a sort of umbrella floating over its collection of sub-scenes and micro-scenes.
I don't know that all this fully applies to games. But I think two contradictory things about indie developers having existential crises:
1. Overthinking the future and romanticizing the past aren't great for creativity.
2. It's a very good sign that there's an indie spirit that wants to be preserved.
There's a thread in indie games, from You Have to Burn the Rope to Where, that acknowledges the medium's history while looking ahead, looking deep into murkier waters. That's what a true artform does, much more than it creates auteurs with personal visions. And where nods to classic games intersect with new gameplay experiments, that's where you can find a sort of gaming spirit that is finding its outlet. As developers argue over the value of what they do and how they do it, you can see their arguments hovering around this energy. As the divisions begin to lay out their boundaries in this scene, you can see the whole thing growing fitfully, but growing nonetheless.