As both a means of communication and diversion, the printed word is pretty well established. It’s been over five centuries since the invention of the printing press – more than enough time for the printed word to permeate every aspect of modern life. The debate on whether novels can have value beyond mere entertainment has already run its course, and few parents would argue that reading is detrimental to their children’s moral development. It’s only taken five centuries, but print has finally been universally recognized for what it is: a widespread, accessible source of diverse, relevant and (occasionally) insightful information.
It’s possible for videogames to be all those things, too, but they don’t have the benefit of a 500-year head start. Instead, the medium seems to labor against a culture constantly on the lookout for something new to fear. Even more perilously, the means to create and distribute games have traditionally been limited to major corporations. While anyone with a typewriter, a pair of scissors and access to a photocopier can print and publish their own esoterica, the implements to create even the most amateur videogame were once out of reach to all but the most devoted bedroom developers.
Contemplate the typical Big Studio fare we’ve been fed so far: It’s a field dominated by dwarves killing dragons and space marines killing demons. Granted, there are many games about shooting demons in space that I enjoy and even consider important. But demon-shooting is a single theme, a tiny blip in the vast cosmos of what clever people could do with a new and largely unrefined medium. If we want videogames to be relevant to our lives – and I certainly do – the medium is going to have to push beyond the endless retelling of the same story by the same privileged authors.
I want to play different games, but more than that, I want to hear different voices. Consider a game not about the fantasy violence of the archetypical masculine space soldier, but about real violence; a game which places the player in the role of a father who is forced to recognize the cycle of abuse in which he has become trapped, and must take action to break it. A game that might be described thus:
…a provocation, both in form and in content: in form, because it requires the player to choose not only actions but also an ethical philosophy; in content, because it asks what moral options remain for a person who recognizes himself as monstrous.
That game is The Baron, and it was not, needless to say, published by a Big Studio like EA or Ubisoft – it was written by a Dutch philosopher named Victor Gijsbers. The story is told in plain text, in the style of interactive fiction Infocom popularized in the 80s. The game is not an adventure, but it begins with the premise of one : a fantasy in which the protagonist sees himself as the hero that belies a more sinister reality. Gijsbers wrote and scripted the game himself using a free toolset called Inform, and distributes the game for free over the internet.
The proliferation of high-speed internet access means that self-publishing is a more viable option than ever for game creators. There are lots of independent game developers trying to make a living off of their craft – I’m occasionally one of them – but there’s a growing number of people who, like Gijsbers, create free games simply to make their voices heard. These are people for whom game development is not a primary profession; whose background is not in computer science or 3-D modeling; who build games in their spare time out of a curiosity and love for the medium and a desire to make the games that no one else will. Hobbyist game developers, self-published authors. Videogame zinesters.
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.
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.