The One-Man Show of the Indie Game Scene

As a theater major at Rutgers University, I saw a total of about one hundred and fifty shows in four years. And, as someone who was, at the very least, acquainted with all of the other theater BAs, BFAs, and MFAs, I received a perpetual stream of invitations to one-man shows, re-imaginings, first-time musicals, spoofs, improv sets, and "groundbreaking and innovative" productions of Our Town. It took some time before I realized that it wasn't my responsibility to see every show that every person I knew put on.

Although it isn't and never was intended to be permanent, when I left the theater world for the game world, it soothed me to consider how similar the two were. Like those working in theater, indie developers largely make games because they feel compelled to, not because they expect to make exorbitant amounts of money. Like in theater, talent has to be amplified by luck and gregariousness. Every indie developer, and every higher-up at bigger companies, is an auteur and an artist, and they all have something to say. Let's be clear - I love this. These are the kinds of worlds I enjoy living in. Worlds where opinions only come on one style - bold.

I've spent the past week or so going through my Steam library, which is filled to the brim with games obtained through bundles and sales. I own more than five hundred games, and have played little over ten percent of those, collecting them and storing them like mint-condition baseball cards. Making a concerted effort now to go through them, I realize that I am once again faced with a litany of one-man shows.

When I played 2008's Braid, it was a full year after the game had come out and I had been told from all sides that it was the first step into a new world of video games: the story would shake me to my core; the mechanics were innovative in a way that would change the indie scene. Much of this is true. Braid did change the world for indie developers, and the mechanics in that game were fresh and interesting. But the story?

Transient

I tried getting into and appreciating Braid's story more than once, but could never appreciate what it was doing without also thinking that it was all a bit much. The style of prose and language used in the pages between levels all read like an Advanced Creative Writing class final, and I realized that Braid was Jonathan Blow's one-man show. If I had known him, and he had asked me to play the game and tell him how I liked it, I would have had to have that same conversation of, "yeah, no. It was super interesting. I really thought the art style was incredible and just, yea, quite an experience. Thank you for sharing that!"

I don't have a problem with this kind of game existing, and I've seen it done better. Where Braid and Papo y Yo struck me as over-the-top, Bastion and Gone Home struck me to the core and have cemented their places in my Big List. There are games, however, that go too far, and fall into my Indie Bullshit category.

See, this is a theater thing, too. For every five sort-of lame shows written by classmates, there was always one that made me viscerally angry for stealing a piece of my life from me. I worked on a show once called House For Sale, adapted from an essay by Jonathen Franzen and directed by the visionary Daniel Fish. The show was offensively bad. It had the character disrobing and putting on Mickey Mouse mascot heads, screaming gibberish, and jogging in place, none of which was in any way in the service of the loose narrative. It was, in my opinion as someone who has seen a lot of theater, the epitome off bullshit nonsense "artistic" trash. These types of shows reek so strongly of a director's desperation that it overshadows every other aspect of the production.

Two days ago, I installed Bientôt l'été. I watched a video on Giant Bomb in which that crew tried to decipher the game's meaning or intention, to little success. Upon loading it myself, however, I was optimistic. I thought, I know about art. I think I'll understand what they're going for.

I didn't.

 Oh boy.

Oh boy.

Bientôt l'été greets players with a player avatar clad all in white, and a long stretch of beach with invisible barriers on all sides. Upon approaching these barriers, a series of computer-display-like neon lines appears to prevent progress, the sky fades to black, planets and stars whir by quickly, and the music swells, scary and foreboding. The player has no options at this point other than to enter a small building in the center of the beach, in which they may connect to another player (or a simulation) to smoke cigarettes and play chess. Players aren't, as far as I can tell, encouraged at all to play chess well. This whole exercise... To what end? What message is being served? Well, when you leave the house for the first time, a large pile of coal appears outside the house, which disappears when you approach and examine it.

I don't get it. I'm absolutely open to the possibility that the game is operating on some higher level that I can't reach, but as far as I can tell, it's a lot of nonsense trying very hard to make some sort of statement about futility or about relationships that it just doesn't do justice. (Note: According to some research, the game is about two lovers on two seperate space stations connecting through a game of virtual chess. So.) And this is a question that has come up time and time again in my own endeavors while getting my MFA. I want to make meaningful experiences, I want to say something about myself and about the world with the games I make. But I don't want to do so at the expense of making something good, and I don't want to try so hard to do so that I alienate players by slapping them in the face. I don’t want to have to invite my friends to my one-man show about growing up in New Jersey; I want to write a really fucking good show, and I want it to contain a piece of me.

I recently played Paranautical Activity, a roguelikelike in the style of a 3D Binding of Isaac that forced me to realize that not every game makes for a good article. The game wasn't terribly well-made, with some serious problems in sound design and overall feedback as well as poor pacing and lack of features. But it was a fine podcast game, a game that requires zero attention and offers a serviceable distraction. Games like Bientôt l'été, though, ask you to really pay attention; they imply with their existence that something important is being said without paying the player for their time.

 Paying the player by, say, threatening to rip off their head and shit down their throat.

Paying the player by, say, threatening to rip off their head and shit down their throat.

A question comes up when talking about games (and, to a lesser extent, other media): why are we doing this? Why did I spend forty hours playing a piece of fiction that has no impact on my life? Why did I spent several hundred hours leveling up a World of Warcraft character? The answer, it seems, is that games are their own reward. Some games just feel good, while others give you a chance to think differently. These are the rewards you get for your payment of time and money, the same as purchasing a book or, say, crystal meth, for those of you who enjoy Dota 2. Games like Bientôt l'été, on the other hand, ask you for time while either obfuscating the benefit of that expenditure or lacking a substantive meaning altogether.

With five hundred and eleven games in my library, it is hard to justify the hour or so I spent with Bientôt l'été. There is no shortage of shitty games on that list, but most are, at the very least, not masquerading as high art. I would say that Bientôt l'été is a tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but it isn’t a tale at all. It’s mostly a house on an empty beach.