The first formalists: indie games and the signification of genre

With the Humble Indie Bundle V still at large, it’s difficult to avoid the praises slung at the various games on sale. Names such as Braid and Limbo have become synonymous with the independent scene, and are used to mark a progression towards Artistic (with a capital A) video games. More often than not, the highlighted games are used to indicate a movement towards meaning and symbolism that is formalist in approach and minimalist in design. But are these games engineering an actual progression, or are their mechanics inspired by a careful, purposeful glance towards the past?

Indie games, typified (for better or worse) by the aforementioned Braid and Limbo, do not operate under the delusion that they exist in a vacuum. The mechanics are obvious to anyone who has played a single video game in their life; games such as Super Meat Boy give direct homages to their predecessors, a trick that remains largely ignored within insular games made by higher budgets and larger teams. This acknowledgement of the genre’s history is important to independent games–it allows them to add or subtract certain elements that aid in the progression of the game as well as the creation of meaningful content. Braid’s basic platforming is supplemented by the ability to move back and forth in time; this mechanic is also integral to the backwards-looking structure of the plot. Similarly, Limbo uses the platformer genre’s literal pratfalls to gently indicate larger meaning: the player’s constant and gruesome deaths take a pedagogical role, as noted by G. Williams. I would add to his conclusion that Limbo also uses the game’s underlying need for forward movement as a catalyst for events caused by the protagonist but ultimately beyond his control, intimating a fundamental question of guilt and responsibility on behalf of the player.

While these mechanics are not particularly surprising or new, what is novel about them is their heightened role in the narrative: without them, the games–in both idea and execution–would not exist. In this way, many of the indie games used to espouse artistic development are formalist to the core. The medium (the mechanics, the genre, etc.) is a powerful force in the creation and signification of the message. Instead of relying on media that is not exclusive to video games, our very first formalists are able to use the tenets of genre and form to manufacture plot points and, yes, feelings within the player. Such a feat is especially important to some of the games present in the Humble Bundle, as other artistic means are not necessarily their strong suit.

Whether you enjoy the games or not, this is a strain of thought worth paying attention to.

What prevents me from providing my wholesale support is the following: while the platformer genre is one of my favorites, why cast limits on this newly developed approach? Thus far the games I’ve mentioned are almost wholly minimalist, expounding upon a single element to craft a game that is played over hours. In their present form they try our patience, threatening to expel our continued interest as we undergo the same trials we have in the levels before it.

Fortunately, formalist developers do not need minimalism to survive, as the connection between the two is not indicative of a dearth of imaginative freedom in video games but rather of the limited resources used to create games such as Limbo and Dear Esther. It’s not difficult to imagine a game where the mechanics are both many and meaningful, nor is it impossible that one does not already exist. If I were pressed, I would (prematurely, to be sure) point to one of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, whose paradoxically idyllic setting is made possible only through its underlying mechanics.

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2 Responses to The first formalists: indie games and the signification of genre

  1. I think the developers of these indie projects, particularly Braid’s creator, Jonathan Blow, are very aware of this issue. Braid, of course, was specifically designed with this minimalism in mind, not because of technical limitations in incorporating more mechanics, but because Blow himself has a particular taste for this minimalism and its seemingly inherent coherence. However, at the 2008 Montreal International Game Summit, Blow specifically called for larger-scale games to adopt this formalistic approach (, which he designates as an adherence to and exploration of a videogame’s “dynamical meaning,” in contrast to “story meaning.” To use his example, he wants to see the focus on dynamical meaning without story elevated from small indie titles like Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation to something as enormous in production as Metal Gear Solid 4.

    • Trent says:

      Thanks for the input!

      I like the term dynamical meaning, and I think that Blow’s intuition of this idea led to Braid’s greatest strengths. He fuses the two expressions of meaning in Braid with varying results; it makes me wonder how he would incorporate the princess/bomb theme without the use of text.

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