"Indie" vs "AAA" is not helpful

Oliver Oliver • Published 6 months ago

Back in the days of old, only large studios could produce and publish games. Huge companies like Atari, Sega, Capcom. It was simply infeasible to make something that would be as successful on your own. Today that's no longer the case. Increasingly rapidly, ever since the boom of 2009, a whole new era of games has entered the scene.

Games like Fez, Braid, Limbo, Minecraft, and so many others, were quick to captivate our hearts. It was like a breath of fresh air suddenly seeing games being released by small or solo developers. Games that were personal, that had character and charm, juxtaposed the factory-esque publishings of a corporate structure with the sole intent of making a quick buck.

We suddenly needed a way to differentiate between these two seemingly very different types of games, and so we dubbed these games created by passionate teams “indie” (short for “independent”), which aligns with the same term we use for film. These are undeniably works of art, often made without the intent of batch producing a product to please the masses; instead focusing on the expression of the artist behind them, telling a tale that resonates with us.

I used to label such games “indie” due to the fact they were independently-funded. In my mind, indie games are made without the financial backing of a large publisher, and instead rely on the out-of-pocket expenditure of the artist behind them, pouring their heart and soul in a project they want to create. By contrast, I labelled studios that had the investment of such publishers “AAA”, whose focus generally aligns with profit and not truly appreciative of the art form itself.

However that's not strictly speaking true.

In modern times, the term “AAA” refers to studios that have the budget and scale to produce very complex games with thought out stories and high quality graphics, due to the sheer size of the teams involved. Such companies have the capability to push technology forward by cramming as much detail as possible, including assets like large open world maps, 8K textures, and the unwaivering ability to transform my GPU into molten lava. Because of this, it's often said that “indie” studios (studios that do not operate on such large scales) are graphically very simplistic by comparison. Often 2D, many 3D counterparts seem to be stuck 5 years in the past, with no option but to concede that high quality assets are simply beyond the range of possibilities with tight deadlines and low man-hours. Minecraft being a very notable example; though the art style of Minecraft is completely intended and deliberate to evoke reminiscence of days gone by.

But here lies the dilemma. As the video game medium continues to expand, thanks to the rise of digital storefronts, the labels “AAA” and “indie” plant expectations in our minds. The tendency for some “indie” games to appear less polished often leads our brains to generalize, assuming that all “indie” games share this characteristic.

Thus some people recoil at indie games, much the same way as indie films, fearing what they may find ahead. With the expectation built up in their heads that “indie = less funded, produced by smaller teams, and must therefore invariably be terrible” - when oftentimes I find the opposite to be true. Games created without a corporate safety net, games that tell a story and connect me with the artist such as Firewatch, resonate more with me than many “AAA” titles that often get a lick of paint and republished as if it were a brand new game, only to discover it's the same heap of dogshit I played before (I'm looking at you, Call of Duty.) Yeah okay sure Ghost dies boohoo (sorry, spoilers), but no first person shooter - however emotional it tries to be - has ever made me feel how I felt for the Nomai in Outer Wilds. A story so interwoven and beautiful, I felt as if I personally knew them and the ending literally made me cry.

Of course, the same could be said in reverse. Of this I am particularly guilty. Due to my tendency to prefer the narratives told by passionate developers, I find myself favouring more toward the underdog and investing my emotions rather than anticipate the next release of a major popular title. I must admit, I do really like Halo, and by no measure could it be considered indie as it has the financial backing of both Microsoft and Sony coupled with the strength of a large team behind it.

However, that's kind of my point. The labels “indie” and “AAA” tell you nothing about the true quality of a game nor does it give you an accurate representation of how the game will feel when you dive into it. There are good “indie” games, there are bad “indie” games. There are good “AAA” games, and there are recycled pieces of garbage too. Basically, games are just as good or bad as they are, and I believe we should all start judging games based on their own merits. Base it on the reputation of the developer, the story it tells you, the soundtrack and visuals it has to offer.

Don't base it on a presupposition of a single label. Doing so narrows your world from finding truly revolutionary games, limiting your search space of the medium. Games are more than just entertainment - they are works of art that deserve to be appreciated for their unique qualities. So, let's challenge ourselves to break free from the constraints of labels and embrace the diverse and imaginative worlds that gaming has to offer.

Treat games as the art forms they are, and you might just discover a masterpiece that defies all expectations.