By James King
We’d usually begin it with a slip of paper passed during class, or maybe a phone call as soon as we got home. The excitement would pace through my lungs, and I’d walk a little faster to my front door. Once inside, two simple words: login / pass.
Like a modern Ouija board, we’d collectively drop our hands to the keys and login. The simple text of the bulletin board system (BBS) would illuminate and scroll up the screen. This didn’t feel like a video game, this felt like we’d hacked something deep, secret and oddly fun. BBS games marked something of a beginning for me in the realm of indie gaming. This wasn’t a package to tear open, plug in and absorb–we could actually change what we played; make up what we wanted.
One of the most popular BBS games was, and still is, Legend of the Red Dragon (LORD). A role-playing game of sorts, LORD appeared in the early ’90s as an “add-on” or “door” for dial-up BBSs. Creator Seth Abel Robinson had actually created the game as a way to keep people signing into his BBS. LORD required gamers to play at least once a day, which kept them coming back faithfully. Without any advertising or marketing, this modest time-killing idea became a huge underground gaming hit–with the gamers to thank for its success.
Unfortunately for BBS operators, another, much larger online community began to grow–the internet. This didn’t, however, spell the end for LORD or other similar BBS classics like Usurper. Being one of the original indie games, a bit of nostalgia and some great game-play allowed LORD to become the oldest multi-player game around. A strong BBS community still thrives and LORD has appeared in various forms along the way.
But what made games like LORD the true precursors to the indie gaming world was something called inner game modules (IGM). Remove any semblance of ’60s pop-culture and you have the humble beginnings of the (gaming) mod (modification) culture. IGMs allowed the users to modify the existing game in order to add more avenues of game-play.
You walk into a LORD forest. The first time you played a talking tree gave you a snail and you were able to speak to fish. Well, add 50 or more IGMs and the possibilities become even stranger. Once the initial game was exhausted, gamers began to poke their fingers around to see what they could accomplish.
This kind of unsanctioned manipulation of the game code was actually accepted pretty painlessly by game developers. It was seen as an R&D of sorts, and extended the life of the game indefinitely.
The first mod was a Smurf remix of the original Castle Wolfenstein game for the Apple 2, where Nazi soldiers were replaced with Smurfs. Around the time of LORD, when Wolfenstein 3D was released, mods began to appear for sound FX, levels, and characters, completely redesigning the feel of the games. Gamers even began to make their own editors for other players in order to make the modding process easier.
Game developers soon realized that allowing for such modification (as it was going to happen anyway) actually extended the life of the game. By the time Doom was released, gamers were encouraged to mod and dissect the game any way they could.
Worlds like Doom and Wolf3D may be miles away from the realm of indie gaming, but the fact that they could be cracked and reassembled by common gamers turned a lot of people on to the idea of doing it themselves. The idea of the DIY game no longer seemed like a task reserved only for some phantom programmer. In 2000, local Toronto artist Myfanwy Ashmore hacked a Super Mario Bros. Rom, removing all the structures, enemies and power-ups from the game. The creation was titled “mario_battle_no1,” allowing Mario to become, as Ashmore describes “the users’ avatar, walking seemingly aimlessly … a solitary mission without any obvious goal.”
Indie developers Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns, creators of the Independent Games Festival 2005 winner “N,” share this indie gaming desire to crack and create your own. In an interview with Jim Munroe, Raigan states that the appeal of developing indie games is that “we can decide right there ‘OK, we’re going to change the game'”–as opposed to the larger corporate model where each person is simply a piece adding to a larger piece.
This attitude has allowed the indie gaming community to flourish. N’s success, much like LORD, depended on the gamers’ word of mouth (or, I suppose, text). Jonathan Mak, creator of Queasy Games, and developer of the amazing Everyday Shooter, adds in an interview with Gamasutra that indie games do not run into the problem of the corporate gaming model because for indie gaming, the “only concern is the idea, or more specifically, your idea.” The barriers that once existed for aspiring indie gamers have quickly crumbled down. Different gaming engines like Multimedia Fusion or Game Maker allow ideas within the gaming community to come to life, even for those without extensive tech-experience.
Now the indie gaming world begins to move a lot like the indie film world. The aim and quality of the games move in different directions. Some games, like Jugglin by Jim Mcginley are ridiculously fun, yet are obviously for the DIY crowd only. While 2006 Independent Games Festival winner Darwinia obviously has loftier aspirations. Financing such projects surfaces stories similar to the exhausting creation of the Evil Dead franchise. But, like Mak said, what exists first in indie gaming is the idea–any financial success that follows is entirely accidental. Debating when and where a game remains indie is a line which few draw the same way.
The political implications of such an indie gaming divide become obvious in the new breed of anti-advert games. As a response to the increased presence of corporate advertising in video games, some indie gamers have taken it upon themselves to satirize the big brands. Italian game site La Molliendustria grabbed some attention in the blogsphere recently with its McDonalds videogame. Posited on the site as an actual piece from McD’s, players are invited to run the fast-food empire from every corner. Cows are processed in the plant (induced hormone therapy is up to you), employees are fired or disciplined or rewarded, and corporate head office decides on the different marketing strategies to deliver the product. The game is actually remarkably difficult, but hilariously subversive (especially when the angry Ronald McDonald fires you).
Thankfully, sites promoting such indie gaming–subversive and regular–have been running for several years now. Websites like Game Tunnel have given indie game developers a forum for their work. Game Tunnel itself has recently released the first edition of its indie gaming ezine titled Game Tunnel Magazine.
With an industry that easily topples the music and film giants combined, the talent that brews below somehow goes unnoticed. Indie gaming is no longer a recluse to the hardcore gamers or net-l33ts. Much like its Machinima film counterparts, indie gamers are starting to gain attention and interest through its ability to avoid the constraints of the electronic corporate giants. These subversive and strange ideas exist because the ideas crawl from the same heads that produce the rest of the strange and subversive material in this magazine.
Toronto recently held its own Indie Game Jam. An event featuring a shared-game technology hacked by various contestants over one long weekend to produce a game. The event is organized and founded by game designers for indie gamers. Against the suffocating corporate gaming culture I find relief in the ideas of the indie gamers who still incite that same sense of awe I found in games of LORD on a dial-up BBS in a small town.
Indie Game Essentials:
Game Tunnel (www.gametunnel.com) – an endless vault of indie games and reviews
Dismount (www.jet.ra/dismount) – a brutal and addictive breed of physics-games
N (www.harveycartel.org/metanet/n.html) – the game N, small super-hero collecting coins. A must play.
Rumblebox (www.phackett.com/rumblebox) – Smashup between bomberman and 3D fighting
Darwinia (www.darwinia.co.uk) – Built in a virtual theme park, your task is to save the evolving digital creatures from an infectious computer virus. Stunning game.
Jugglin (www.bigpants.ca/juggling) – Hypnotic juggling game
Mario_battles_no1 (www.student.ocad.on.ca/~myfanwyashmore/mario.html) – Hacked Mario-land. Go for a stroll and enjoy the lovely weather.
Queasy Games (www.queasygames.com) – Jonathan Mak´s collective work of amazing indie games.
Legend of the Red Dragon (lord.nuklear.org) – Play the original multiplayer addiction of Legend of the Red Dragon