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Are Smaller, Simpler Games a Waste of Time?

Games with a big budget and a team of hundreds are the big pulling point of the games industry, for obvious reasons. If a large amount of people spends three to five years making something then, more often than not, we’re going to end up with a fantastic product and an interesting piece of art. However, with every Foo Fighters record, there’s a Courtney Barnett record. By that I mean that with every big budget production there’s often a smaller one that slips under the radar and is pleasantly surprising when you come across it. I’m a musician by trade, I’m sure you get the point. I see a fair amount of people give smaller and indie titles grief for being what is essentially a “cutesy waste of time“ and I don’t really think that that’s the case at all.

Like the prospectors of old, sifting through Steam's "Indie" section can often land you with pure, solid gold.

Smaller games are, by nature, less of a spectacle than their AAA cousins. They’re less of a flash mob and more of a slow dance at the prom, but that doesn’t mean that they’re worth any less. To continue pulling out the music references, a show at the o2 arena will always leave you breathless but a 200 person show at a basement venue is always more intimate and engaging in a different way. It’s an entirely different experience within the same overall theme and the same is true with video games. Undertale is a great recent example of this, in which a smaller game took a large group of people by storm by way of its simple, focussed concept: “What if you could have an RPG in which you can talk your way out of situations and resolve things peacefully?“ I landed a lot of perk points into charisma in Fallout 4 but at the end of the day, my explosive, bullet-spraying tommy gun always ends up drowning out my good intentions with well, fire and screaming. Undertale gives me a really well written alternative within the same loose genre. Are Fallout 4 and Undertale comparable? Not instantly. Different experiences for, for the most part, different people. Do I love Undertale and Fallout 4? I certainly do.

In games like Undertale and Super Meat Boy, it’s entirely possible that the “nostalgia“ element comes into play. Many gamers these days are too old to have actually grown up with 8 or 16 bit titles but some of us can remember touching a “retro“ system at some point in our lives. There’s something about the innocence of those games that just sticks out. The debate as to whether or not the “nostalgia“ genre is good or not could go on for hours, however it does certainly seem to sell. One could argue that the fact that “retro“ styled titles still shift units today is a testament to the fact that the old formulas work with nostalgia actually having very little to do with it. Look at Shovel Knight, an example of a retro styled game done right. Shovel Knight perfectly captured the nature of games like Super Mario Bros and Castlevania and it prospered as a result. I know people who enjoyed the title without ever having expressed an interest in anything released to consoles like the NES or SNES. The formula still works, don’t fix what isn’t broken, eh? The fact that even new gamers these days can sit and enjoy Super Mario Bros or Sonic the Hedgehog is testament to the fact that a number of older games have aged really well and still have something to offer today.

Undertale, a beautiful game that made me, a manly manly man, feel things.

Are you familiar with RPG maker? Of course you are. Many of us messed around with RPG maker 2003 or XP or whatever when we were younger, so in some way we already feel connected to games of that type. Yes, our games weren’t as polished as full releases, but the games we made were fun nonetheless. Don’t knock it till you try it and all that.

This uh.... this is a good start, right? This is how you make games? I'm pretty confident that this is how this works...

Older and simpler games are all well and good but sometimes you want the open world expanses of games like the Witcher 3 or Just Cause 3 to destroy and rebuild as you see fit. Nothing quite compares to standing on top of a jet, barrelling at terminal velocity towards an enemy fuel station and jumping away at the last second, leaving your computer try and render the aftermath. Nothing quite beats travelling to a city that takes 10 minutes to walk to and seeing it populated with people, being part of a living and breathing world that you influence to whatever ends you choose. Nothing quite beats clambering to the top of the tallest structure in the world space and gazing across the vast expanse in front of you, knowing that all is yours for the taking. This feeling of almost playing as a God disguised as a mortal, the knowledge that your decisions affect lives albeit digital ones. In many smaller, simpler games you just don’t get that feeling. Is this a bad thing? Of course not. These sprawling epics are the games that get the heart racing. They bring out the explorers in us, the adrenaline junkies in us. We can’t all explore new lands and we certainly can’t all straddle a jet. These are the games that offer the contrast to the beautiful simplicity of smaller games. Sometimes you just don’t want focus, you want organised chaos. This juxtaposition is what makes our game libraries dynamic, ready for any occasion.

Don't mind me. Just standing on a parody of the Hollywood sign. I stole a helicopter to get here. Slightly sociopathic childhood fantasy achieved. Thanks, video game!

At the end of the day, the beauty of art is that it’s subjective. Not everyone wants to play a game where you’re a speck of dust in the greater universe, in the same way that not everyone wants to play a game where the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Games are a form of escapism and when it comes down to it, wherever you feel like escaping to, there’s probably a game that will allow you to get there. Are smaller, simpler games a waste of time? Of course not. People who enjoy simplicity in video games are just looking for a different way to escape or a different kind of art to explore, and that’s totally fine. Of course it is. Whatever you want to do, there’s a game for you. That’s what makes this art form beautiful. Interactive storytelling is the next logical step in the telling of stories and we live in a world where different authors can tell vastly differing stories in a way that no-one has been able to do up to this point. At the end of it, gaming is the future of storytelling and it looks damn good from where I’m sitting.


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