Going it Alone

Going it Alone
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters

Anna Anthropy | 5 Aug 2008 13:00
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They provide the diversity of voices that a hit-driven industry can't afford to offer. The big studios' ability to invent is tempered by the need to turn a profit, and as the investments grow larger, with AAA budgets now in the tens of millions of dollars, there is greater pressure to appeal to the widest possible audience. The developers of free software are under no such obligations, and the games they craft are their own visions, unbidden. What resources do they need when their only return is satisfaction?

As more non-professionals become involved in the craft of game creation, programmers are creating tools intended for developers without conventional training. Inform, the text adventure language in which The Baron was written, is the work of a British poet named Graham Nelson. The first public version of Inform was released in 1993 and looks very much like a traditional programming language. Coders adapted to it easily, but it was totally impenetrable for those without programming experience.

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Nelson felt it should be as easy to write a piece of interactive fiction as it is to write a short story. To this end, he released Inform 7 in 2006, which looks very different from previous iterations. Inform 7 uses "natural language" programming: A line of "code" reads like any other sentence in the English language. Since text games require no assets beyond the words themselves, the text adventure is the cheapest and most widely accessible avenue for non-professionals to create games. Thanks to Nelson's efforts, aspiring interactive fiction writers now have a printing press of their very own.

Inform 7 isn't an isolated example, either. Programmers are creating new platforms to tell the stories that aren't being told by mainstream videogame developers: Chris Jones' Adventure Game Studio, Enterbrain's RPG Maker (which documentary filmmaker Danny Ledonne used to create his controversial Super Columbine Massacre RPG!) and Nicklas Nygren's Knytt Stories (an avenue for amateur game developers to craft their own platform adventures) are bringing development to the masses. Likewise, Dutch professor Mark Overmars created a program called Game Maker to help him teach his game design class; now the program has become an inexpensive toolset for developers with no coding background. "Cactus," the 22-year-old Jonatan Söderström, uses Game Maker to assemble his prodigious catalogue of abstract and experimental games, the graphics and sound of which he often draws and composes himself. He's not a unique case.

In fact, these toolsets facilitate the ability of a lone developer to craft a game single-handedly, in a way we haven't really seen since the medium's infancy. We are approaching an Age of the Auteur: As the big studios rack diminishing technological returns for ways to make shooting space demons more compelling, multi-talented hobbyist developers will be creating singular games that will push the medium beyond the small space to which it has been confined. We will identify these authors with their games in a way that has not been possible with hundred-person teams, a way that will more closely resemble how we think about writers and their bodies of work.

When videogames have learned to speak in all of our voices, we'll know our medium has found its place.

Anna Anthropy is the Associate Editor of The Gamer's Quarter. Her latest game, Calamity Annie, is available at auntiepixelante.com.

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