what and why: underground games

Image license: CCbySA 2.0, Edited, Source

You might (or might not) have noticed that the arcane cache uses the term „underground games“ to describe the games that are reviewed here. When I began to review games here half a year ago, I wanted to shed light onto some games that caught my attention as they looked interesting, and that were out of sight for basically all the normal audience; most of them I noticed while promoting my own stuff at various places.

„Indie game“ is a broad category. According to who you ask, it might include hobbyist productions and some of the best selling games of all time alike. Nearly a third of the steam revenues is generated by „indie games“. Some of the „successful“ games might have been made by enthusiasts, but it would be naïve to assume that most of these in a economical sense „successful“ operations aren’t designed and planned around the requirements of the market from scratch. This orientation on the market feeds back into the production of the games – as pointed out in this article, the „big indie“ shots tend to develop for selected genres and cooperate with external publishers that are in need to invest their money into projects that deliver a reliable return. If more money is involved, the room for experimentation, for weird, raw, or abrasive content, and the space for artistic creativity is reduced. A similar dynamic exists for crowdfunded games where developers have to align with the demands of the „backers“.

This problem is inherent to the capitalist system which tends to turn everything into a commodity. Indie game developers aren’t to blame for participating in this structure more than any other group (be it medics, carpenters, or social workers whose work is also commodified and who thus have to follow the rules of the market to survive) and it is understandable that indie developers want to live from something that they have chosen and enjoy to do. I’m sure most of them struggle and invest a lot into their products and most of the commercial games I enjoyed in the last few years were indie games made by (semi-)professionals. But the capitalist system the indie market is a part of has to be overcome (not only because it affects video games in a catastrophic way, but the whole world), and the image of the „selfmade“ indie game developer is a highly problematic one.

I felt that I would need a term that would describe what I was out for: Good games that were primarily made for the sake of creating a good game, implementing ideas that their developers had in mind without giving much remark to the question if this could be sold. I thought the term „underground games“, following the terminology of „underground movies“, „underground music“, and „underground literature“, fitting to create a delimitation from the economically orientated indie market. Note that the borders here are blurry; there are games where I can’t tell whether they were produced to be sold or whether they were made because somebody wanted to make them. Additionally, developers sometimes produce for the market, sometimes for the sake of just doing it. Playing, reviewing, or creating such games surely won’t put an end to capitalism – but it is a small step to create rooms to enable an existence that isn’t subject to capitalist rules (while, of course, realistically still influenced by them).

On the other hand, a frustrating number of games are in prototypical state, not a small amount of them don’t run or are basically on the status of „Hello World“-programs. Of those that feature actual gameplay, many are made sluggishly or suffer from a heavy lack of polish. I’m far from being a perfectionist, a nitpicker or anything like this, but most of these games are bad, not because their creators tried and failed, but because they either never had much motivation or lost it along the way. Maybe they even lost their spirit after they had noticed that the audience couldn’t find their game within the big pile of tech demos, unrealized concepts, and asset flips that has buried their game.

In the result, the productions that I call Underground Games are suffocated from two sides. Countless of barely fleshed out games create a incomprehensible maze, but the places that should give orientation are largely occupied by enterprises (or by people who are, to make their living of their work, forced to behave like enterprises) that often utilize means unavailable to or rejected by Underground Developers, leaving them nearly no room to engross attention. After I checked and partly reviewed my initial findings, searching for games became fast the most time devouring (and sometimes frustrating) part of running this blog.

Eventually I always found great games (they exist!), and I’m planning to go on with this blog. But even the players that are interested in these kind of video game (those exist as well!) do have a hard time finding them even when they actively search for them. And we, who create this kind of game have trouble to find each another. Mutual aid, giving feedback, inspiring and learning from each other – all of this is limited or impossible since the now relevant hubs that replaced the existing spaces for Underground Gaming are either a) overcrowded by low effort products and marketeers or b) usually not designed around the idea that users spread content they created, but to turn users into content.

If we – the game developers who are not commercially orientated – want to change this, we need to emancipate from „indie gaming“ and create or revive own communal structures; I believe that the first step towards this direction is to create a definition of what that can be used as an anchor-point for developers and interested players alike. „Underground games“ – the term that came to my mind – might not be the best, but it is the best I came up with while still being free to take. If you have a better idea, step into the exchange and let us know. I plan to attempt a definition that is clear enough to be limited to the kind of games that I review here. The term must be resilient against attempts to subordinate it to the logic of the market, but also still open enough to be attractive for both developers and players who long for a kind of gaming that offers space for creativity and eludes the rules of the markets.


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