But what does Skyrim, one of the biggest (in all senses of the word) games of the past decade have to do with a slab of meat hopping around platforms and Indie Gaming? Well, for the most part I have found myself drawn to games made by smaller developers lately, and it is generally for one core reason. Considering that I'm a writer, you can probably guess what that is: the story. And not just the story within the game's universe, sometimes the story of the game and its construction and your experience with it is one that can be equally compelling. I have been an avid fan of the Humble Indie Bundle, and have come across several gems that way. I've also found indie groups developing the kinds of games that I have traditionally liked and miss on major platforms. Turn-based RPGs, point and click adventures, space-trading sims. Good Role Playing Games in particular are something I have just not found in a long time. Skyrim is a lot of fun, no doubt, and with such an enormous world and so many quests there's always something new to see or do. Well, new for a given value of new. Sheogorath help me but if I have to kill another damn draugr I think I'm going to dragon shout.
And that's the problem - I enjoy gaming, but the common criticism of epic sandbox games like Skyrim and Fallout is that for all the quests to complete and enthralling locations to explore, there is a missing ingredient. That ingredient is usually referred to simply as 'heart'. When you have a thousand people working for years on getting the rocks to look like rocks, and you have a map that sprawls over a few dozen square miles, you can easily lose perspective and with it, the sense of intimacy and risk that's in a good story. There are hundreds of NPCs and countless quests (limitless, technically, thanks to the Radiant Quest system), but a plethora of "kill and plunder everything" quests is no match for one complex, moving story. I have lost many companions in Skyrim, usually because they are complete idiots who keep standing between my arrows and evil skeletons, but since they have about five lines of dialogue each I haven't really cared. Accidentally shooting Lydia right off a mountain was a bit of a surprise, but it wasn't anything like the gutting feeling of watching Aerith die at the hands of my sworn enemy who was also trying to destroy the planet. Slaying a world eating dragon probably would have felt a lot more worthwhile if there was anybody in the world I had spent a few dozen hours hanging out with and growing to know and love. For now, I'd rather be Skyborn than Dragonborn.
Gaming isn't everyone's goblet of blood, but it is to me the crossroads of media, transcending passive observation with active participation. It's more than a film, more than a novel, more than a choose your own adventure book. This idea is brought up in the movie Indie Game, and the developers followed and interviewed truly believe they are making art. Who am I to argue? What they create is more than a prepackaged experience, more than an on-rails shooter or a slick, yet somewhat hollow adventure. They are crafting the kinds of things that set their imagination on fire when they were children, and to be able to do that to a cynical, grumpy adult with a cane is quite remarkable. I don't think this is mere nostalgia, there really is a fundamental difference in the approach of games made by passionate gamers and games made by mega corporations. Not merely the stereotypical idea that soulless corporations don't understand anything ever, but I think a small team can really infuse some life and personality into a game that an enormous and expensive development process may not be able to.
There is something of a resurgence in the indie game market. Once upon a time, pretty much anybody with a little knowledge and a desktop computer (such as the famed BBC Micro) could code their own games. Companies like Codemasters started in a garage, best-sellers were written in bedrooms. Even galaxy-spanning epics like Elite were written by teams of one or two people working at home. That was when computing power was easily making its way to the hands of everyday people, a Gutenberg-Bible moment, before closed-source consoles and then the prohibitive expense of 3D graphics essentially closed off the gaming world to the layman. Then came another reformation, in the form of enormous home computing power and simple tools that mean pretty much anybody can create and, crucially, distribute their own games. The Internet, like the printing press before it, has knocked down many of the barriers between Us and Them, melding the customer with the creator.
So for all the fancy 3D graphics, the intricate dungeons and the spectacular lighting effects, I can't help but feel a bit dissatisfied in my vampiric power. Like Louis in Interview With The Vampire, I felt hollow, eating without tasting, playing without experiencing, watching the world change but never really feeling changed by it. It took a back to basics approach, delving into 16-bit style RPGs and quirky platformers to rekindle my love of gaming, and it was not merely the mechanics that warmed my cold, dead heart. Now here it is, your moment of zen: