The world of indie video games

Such an apparently nerdy article needs a premise. I was never that into videogames.

During my teenage years I played with very few games, only the classics, like Monkey’s Island, Dink Smallwood and Baldur’s Gate. Afterwards, I made an exception for Don’t Starve because of post-burtonian illustration style that literally conquered me.
I admit, I’m fascinated with the potential of videogames but I always snubbed the game industry’s focus on graphic rather than giving the user a truly unique experience. I’ve always dreamt about games that aren’t simply interactive movies’ simulation, but real worlds with their own laws a user can immerse himself into.

It all began with the release of Subbania of Ektomarch. It is a game made in html5 (+ JavaScript), basically a really simple, classic platform, in which a Nazi submarine is lost in some kind of underwater hell.
I was truly impressed by the awfully disturbing atmosphere, hightlighted through a good sound design and dialogues between surrealism and existentialism and the use of white pixelated graphic on a black background drawing Heinz Edelmann-like creatures really fascinated me.
I ate it up in a few days…

At the time I didn’t believe games like these could exist. I was surprised that it was possible to build this sense of anxiety and mystery in such a simple way (as far as structure and design go). This inspired me to search for similar games, obviously. And that’s how I ran into that little universe of RPG Makers and its strange children.

Trending in early 2000 RPG Maker is a software that creates videogames with action rpg structure in a really simple way. This software allowed to create video games on a large scale without detailed knowledge of coding, bringing to life a small indie amateur universe and particularly atypicals videogames.
The most striking case is Yume Nikki which is also the first game I ran into at the beginning of my search.
Yume Nikki (that can be translated as Diary of Dreams) is a is a 32-bit freeware created in 2004 by a mysterious figure nicknamed Kikiyama. We don’t know his real identity and he disappeared from the web after the latest release of his game in 2007.

This is not a video game, but literally an emotional experience.

There isn’t a plot, an action plan, a real purpose which leaves the user in a state of disorientation.
The protagonist is Madotsuki, a little girl who apparently lives alone in a room where there are only a bed, a balcony, a video game console and a door that she doesn’t want to open. This door opens only once she’s asleep, allowing her to explore the dream world.
One finds himself wandering through dark surreal worlds. They are often creepy, sometimes maze-like and sometimes ripetitive, empty or populated by deformed creatures and made of obscure, unconscious elements, at times a distortion of reality. To the point that some of the most qualified interpretations of the game are about a possible protagonist’s trauma caused by rape.

And yet, it’s not possible to put into words this game experience, if you want to understand it you have to loose yourself into it, postponing the judgment and making yourself docile for it.
It is a little trip into the unreal and to the unconscious of a person. Infact, Madotsuki means “window on the chest”. This trip has an end that questions ours own actions.
I admit, this game captivated me, fascinated me, tormented me, disturbed me, sometimes obsessed me, and I basically consider it a masterpiece, an expression of art.

This discovery brought me to continue my search inside the RPG Maker’s world in the indie video games category. I started with a fangame inspired by Yume Nikki (some of these are .flow and Yume 2kki) and classics like Ib, Space Funeral, Corpse Party, Witch House, I’m scared of girls and OFF.
These video games have a complex and interesting narrative structure, where the anxiety and sense of mistery emotionally invest the user (like in IB), where you can find a whole universe with its own laws (like in OFF) and some brilliant resolutions (like Space Funeral). I would recommend these games- engaging experiences of collision with others’ immagination- but none of them compares to the masterpiece that is the first  Yume Nikki is- none of them qualifies as art.

I had almost lost all hopes when I ran into an extraordinary artist, John Clowder. He is known on web as revolverwinds and myformerselves. He is a collage-maker, illustrator and creator of Middens and Gingiva (these video games also contains beautiful watercolors by Shaina Nordlund).

In short, Middens is about the Nomad of Time journey through an X-zone named Rift which he aims to purify with the company of a talking revolver that offers to lead him in exchange for an inextricable bond.

 

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Instead Gingiva‘s protagonist is the eponymous woman whose head has been replaced by a wind-up key. She was considered defective and harmful to Holy Mother Most High production unit. Gingiva is locked into a cell where a denture, living inside the walls, kidnaps her in order to escape the system and to reach a far away border, so that they could meet the mysterious Magistrate.

I think this is enough to realize the nonsense of these two video games, but it’s a nonsense aimed to express thoughts about the real and the surreal, bringing the user to a constant state of surprise. The two stories are ideally connected and they share a similar visually destabilized system. Clowder is a visionary who alternates pixellated, lysergic acid flavored, collage art and illustrations that look like medieval alchemy tables mashed with cyberpunk imaginary (with references to the unforgettable Codex Seraphinianus). Clowder is not limited to the image’s appearance but he works on sound and sountrack with an enigmatic style and puts aphorisms filled with existentialism inside his creatures.
While Middens is an infinite game without an actual structure (you can explore its vast world searching a meaning, chat with its inhabitants, choose to battle in exchange for a “nothing” for each murder), Gingiva focuses on a really entangling plot with social and spiritual themes, with a Dada style that makes us strike back to attachs like 80s fashion with a sad clown.
Both revolve around the Rift, a mixture of cultures, societies, rejected or worthless world’s ruins which gradually enlarges itself swallowing everything similiarly to this kind of art made of assembled scraps and pearls of wisdom hidden among nonsensical quotes.
Naturally, these two games are not suitable for all. But in this huge dystopic collage you will find no ordinary idea and this will be obvious to anyone choosing to play these games.

Like any masterpiece, it contains an imperfect form and, like in any masterpiece, it is this imperfection that shows the genius.

As the conclusion to this little excursus on a “minor art form”, here are some links:

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