As video games have become big business, they’ve come to mirror the troubling aspects more commonly realized in the film industry. Increasingly, it’s all about the blockbuster franchise (Grand Theft Auto V generated over $815 million dollars in the first 24 hours of its release in 2013), and major gaming studios and publishers turn out sequel after sequel (do we really need another Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed?). Because of the homogeny at the top, much of the industry’s creativity of late has come from tiny indie developers. Indie Game Revolution at EMP showcases a rotating collection of 20 of the best offerings from the indie gaming scene in recent years in an interactive exhibit that’s both informative and engrossingly entertaining.
Admittedly, expectations for Indie Game Revolution were low after the EMP’s last video game exhibit—the Smithsonian’s The Art of Video Games exhibit in 2013. To be blunt, The Art of Video Games was the worst museum exhibit I’ve ever seen. It was essentially just a collection of dry history videos on screens in cabinets. It displayed an utter lack of understanding of what video games are all about. The interactivity was nearly non-existent. (I mean, who would want to play video games at a video game exhibit? Oh… everyone? Everyone.) Not only was it cold, detached, cursory, and unfeeling, it was insufferably boring. It seemed crafted by people who had never picked up a controller before. Thankfully, Indie Game Revolution offers the polar opposite experience.
First and foremost, visitors can actually play all the games at Indie Game Revolution. Each game features an accompanying screen giving the basics of the game in a few brief sentences and includes info on how many people made the game (ranging from a lone creator to modest teams of 15). The selection on display captures some of the key elements of what makes indie gaming special. Limitations can often breed creativity, and that’s certainly the case here. Without the budgets, staff, and graphical capability of AAA studios, these creators find other ways to stand out.
One option is to focus on the storytelling. Gone Home places players in their old home—one that’s mysteriously empty—and forces them to wander rooms in an attempt to piece together the narrative though scattered clues. (It’s hard to describe too much without giving it away, but Gone Home is probably the best storytelling I’ve experienced in any entertainment medium over the past few years. Play it.)
Another option is to embrace graphical inferiority and tap into a retro aesthetic. Games like the platformer throwback Shovel Knight essentially just take what gamers loved from Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) era to create a new adventure. (There’s a certain irony to Nintendo being Indie Game Revolution’s sponsor, considering Nintendo has long been the worst major console at supporting and giving a platform to indie developers.) Old styles can also be twisted into new formats. Sentris may appear to be some sort of circular Tetris, but it’s actually a puzzle game constructed around song structure, where players almost subconsciously learn about music theory.
Another aspect highlighted by Indie Game Revolution is the variety of ways to play that these games offer. A title like the point-and-click adventure Broken Age functions as well on its iPad touch screen as it would on a PC (and probably better than it does on PlayStation 4). The title Tenya Wanga Teens delivers a retro arcade experience that can only be experienced with its array of dozens of circular buttons that change colors to make players stay sharp.
The exhibit’s design is top notch, making wandering between games feel like walking though a colorful pixelated wonderland. The walls feature great breakdowns of essential aspects of the indie gaming world (digital distribution, crowdfunding, sound design, game development in the Puget sound, etc.) that are highly informative for novices without ever feeling dense. Like The Art of Video Games there are video displays, but instead of tedious overviews of gaming’s past, they feature interviews with the people who made the games. They express stories are personal and teem jubilant passion for the medium.
Indie Game Revolution gets it right. The exhibit captures the sense of innovative creativity, casual simplicity, and adolescent spirit of video games. Visitors could literally spend hours taking their turns at each title on display (and hopefully finding a few favorite to purchase when they get back home). Yes, it’s informative. But more importantly, it’s fun.
Indie Game Revolution
Now on Display, EMP, $18–$22