BitSummit 7 Spirits: What Is Indie?
For the second time in as many years, I find myself blinking in the 6am sunlight outside Kyoto Station. I’ve been on a bus for the last 10-or-so hours and feel frankly disgusting. It’s worth it, though. BitSummit, Japan’s leading indie game festival, is back in town for its seventh year, and it’s bigger than ever.
What started, according to organiser John Davis, as a point for usually isolated Japanese developers to meet and promote their games to the West has grown into one of Japan’s largest shows, with industry giants like Nintendo and Sony bringing booths alongside individual developers.
This has not gone unnoticed. One participant told me that especially among Japanese attendees, the presence of major publishers, even if they’re showing off indie titles, is a big turn off. “They’ll come through the door and the first thing they see is ‘Nintendo.’ To some people, automatically that makes this not an indie show.”
Seeing as both the Switch and PS4 launched courting indie developers, such an opinion might be deserving of more nuance. But it does raise the question of what, exactly, ‘indie’ is. Keen as the next man for an angle, I resolved to find out from developers and participants what they thought.
“It used to mean something, and now it means nothing,” Wolfgang Wozniak of publisher and porting house Poppy Works tells me. “Everyone’s working for everyone else. Post-Xbox Live, there’s not really anyone making games quietly. That’s art for the sake of art, not flying 7000 miles to show a game here. I’m representing some of those games here, so maybe if I’m able to do that I’m not sure if I fall into that category. If you have full-time employees, you ain’t indie.”
He then takes me on a short tour of the surrounding booths, pointing out “indie” or “not indie.” This is all pretty much in character — we had enjoyed a healthy debate at great volume the night before, trying to pin down which circle of hell, exactly, games critics should be confined. Wolfgang is a man who is passionate about his work.
Today, he’s showing off two games: Melon Journey 2 and Bones ’n’ Bullets. Being as I am utterly useless at anything even remotely run-and-gun, I turn my attention to the former. Melon Journey 2 tells a slightly surreal story involving anthropomorphised animal characters in a town that’s banned melons, with soft, Game Boy-like blue-green tones. The premise is intriguing, and allows for some solid writing, but taken all together the whole thing oozes Nintendo-esque charm with an indie edge.
Charm is, of course, often held up as one of the hallmarks of indie games. For yours truly, this is epitomised in Brisbane-based developer Witch Beam’s thrice-nominated game, Unpacking. Speaking to producer and art director Wren Brier, she tells me that the game was inspired by, you guessed it, her partner moving in with a load of boxes. “There was something very game-y about it. You open boxes and you don’t know what’s going to come out next. There’s something kind of delightful about that, and then you’re also completing sets of things like figurines and stuff. There’s all these game elements to it.” she tells me.
Set in a series of lavishly pixel-drawn isometric rooms, the player is tasked with, well, unpacking. You start with a few cardboard boxes, take objects out and put them in drawers, on shelves, and the like. Over the course of eight planned house moves, going room-by-room, players can also learn about the life of the invisible unpacker. The room I played was a bedroom, and the trophies, cuddly toys and action figures suggested the little girl before Wren confirmed her. The stationery, cassette decks and secret diaries aren’t just visually beautiful, either — when placed, the sound cue is individual and well-crafted. It isn’t a game you’d think needs headphones, but sound gives the whole thing a 3D quality that really adds something.
What’s really well done here is the game design. They’ve tried very hard to let players express themselves while still creating and enforcing rules. My own attempt to do a full-on psychopath run, though, was thwarted by red outlines, pointing out that laying books all over the bed, or the collection of cuddly toys in the centre of the floor, don’t actually count as “unpacked.” Nevertheless, programmer Tim Dawson tells me that most of the players have made far more rules than they have as developers. It’s an interesting manifestation of the concept of player agency that defines video games as a medium.
And indie more broadly? It comes down to freedom too. For Tim, it’s “the ability to chase after things.” For Wren, it’s trying things that are different. “Indie allows freedom that bigger companies don’t get,” she says. With a game like Unpacking, it’s clear both of them have taken this philosophy to heart.
“Of course it’s freedom,” agrees Mio Yamashita. “Indie is being able to express something just as you see it.” She’s the planning director for Play Dog Play Tag, an utterly ridiculous four-player arena battle-ish game involving dogs firing their rag doll owners to smash buildings, collect bones or clonk a robber (who is a bear) on the head before yanking them back with the leash. It’s exactly as mad as it sounds, and benefits greatly from the slightly floaty physics and slightly skiddy controls. It’s the kind of game that utterly absorbs you, mainly because you’re just trying to keep a handle on what the hell is going on in your quarter of the screen, in a good way.
Play Dog Play Tag had started off as a dog-walking game, but in true “In Soviet Russia…” fashion, it turned out more interesting when the dog walks you. And fires you at buildings. And you’re the dog.
It’s made as part of Project Pegasus, a small indie arm of larger publisher Neuron Age out of Osaka. Even though they work within the lagoon of a big company, Mio says they still feel indie. “We’re given complete freedom, with no thought about how much money it would bring in,” she says. With six months down, they hope to have an early access version out within the year.
Surrounded as I am by brands and companies of all sizes in the biggest venue yet for BitSummit, it’s hard not to think of the money sloshing around this hall. Indeed, this plays into organiser John Davis’s feelings. He tells me it’s not so much about the size of a team, but “the capital the team has. The difference between AAA and indie is money. For a big game at Capcom the people have a vision, the same as an indie studio, but they have more resources to create it.” It’s far less about outward appearance. “There’s tons of different genres and looks, so you can’t just look at something and say ‘this is indie.’ For me it’s more of a business thing.”
If you’ve been reading thus far you can see why John’s definition is not un-controversial. Big publishers taking up and supporting smaller games can be a contentious issue, akin to the ‘craft beer’ sub-brands of major breweries. In the case of Wataru Nakano, any sort of business practice is contrary to the idea of ‘indie.’
“The idea of making money isn’t involved with it,” he says straight away when I ask him about the meaning of ‘indie.’ “I feel that strongly. It’s also the ability to do what you want. If you were part of a company, you’d have people telling you what you can or can’t do. If you want to make something ridiculous or interesting, you can just go and do it.”
Ridiculous and interesting certainly are appropriate when describing his work. A designer by trade, Wataru came to Bitsummit Volume 6 last year with a cardboard box as a controller for a game where you have to help a naked man run home. This year, he’s brought two: one involving two motion-sensing sticks with newspaper feather taped on and another with a microphone and a plastic bag.
The former is SALESBIRDMAN, a simple three-track runner type game where players flap the ‘wings’ madly to get through the level with as many coins as possible in the shortest amount of time.
The latter is more outwardly reserved, but to me far more interesting. Wataru tells me about his process. “A long time ago I made an animation of a cook making fried rice, but I couldn’t find a good way to make the sound. I stumbled upon using a plastic bag, because it makes a good sound for that. A little while ago I was clearing out the spare plastic bags from my house and I remembered the sound. So I thought, ‘hey that would make a good game.’
ONKOU CHA-HAN is, of course, a game in which players scrunch a plastic bag into the microphone, trying to emulate the sound of cooking fried rice in time with the chef. The closer your waveform matches whatever invisible platonic form of fried rice cooking audio Wataru has dreamed up, the higher your score. This is about as indie as it gets, folks. Being almost more installation than game, Wataru has no plans to release or sell it. “It’s definitely a game, though. It was such an interesting idea that I just had to make it.”
One of BitSummit’s charms is that it offers a space for everyone from Devolver Digital to Wataru Nakano. Intrigued as I am with tiny, oddball games that stretch the definition of the medium, I was also here for some solid storytelling and visuals. In Below, released late last year, I found it.
Capybara Games is the sort that Wolfgang would call “not indie” — 26 members based in Toronto with a number of hits already under their belts. Nevertheless, the makers of Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP have brought their trademark visuals and inventive storytelling to this latest venture.
Talking to creative director Kris Piotrowski, he calls it “a solitary journey through the subterranean underworld of a forbidden isle. A combination of Zelda-is adventure game with roguelike elements.”
That “forbidden isle” bit is an important one — on Saturday morning Kris was on stage giving a talk about world design, and his expertise shows here. The player character is very much meant to be in the world, rather than the point about which the world revolves. Accordingly, the island is dark, full of noises of creatures you can’t and won’t see. On your journey down you pass the ruined camps of former adventurers and strive to continue their journey.
This is where the “roguelike” part comes in. The world is structured with procedurally generated areas linking “handcrafted” rooms, which are used especially for exploration and storytelling. The environmental design is a large driver of the story, Kris tells me, allowing the player to organically explore and discover the reason the island exists. “There is a reason, and there’s something down there.”
One inspired touch links the roguelike and story elements. With each character death, the player starts again in the shoes of the next wanderer to land on the island. You’ll come across evidence of their journey, and pick up the lantern which is both a plot device and progress marker as players descend deeper into the cold dark.
While my character in Below was alone, I wasn’t. Fresh from our interview for another article, I was joined by developer Dave Hoffman for our short play through. As a freelance indie developer living in Japan, they’re well-placed to offer a perspective on the indie problem. Characteristically, they reach for a definition from (after a brief twitter confirmation) developer Dan Marshall: “Indie is when you can just decide to go fuck off to the beach any day you want.”
Still, Dave is aware of the difficulties of definition. “It’s like trying to define a chair,” they say. In the end, though, they settle on the experience of making the game itself, rather than money or direction. “When you are making something that almost no-one will like but that is still successful to you. I think that’s when you’re truly indie. When your level of success would be a failure to a larger company.”
BitSummit has certainly seen success — the sheer scale of this year’s event is testament to that. And while organiser Ben Judd tells me they’re always trying to keep a good balance between competing interests, the idea that it’s already grown too much was certainly out there when I discussed it with others. As the event becomes more and more Japan’s second centre of gaming gravity alongside the Tokyo Game Show, hopefully Ben and the others can maintain the balance that makes BitSummit the indie event it is today.