Monday, July 26, 2010

Why Are So Many Indie Darlings 2D Platformers?

Earlier today (at the time of writing), an interesting Twitter exchange took place between Trent Polack and Manveer Heir regarding Limbo. With an intro like that, I realize this could easily veer into navel-gazing Twitter wankery. But trust me, this is going somewhere. (And hopefully their Twitter conversation can be understood, if you go looking. Twitter is sort of weird in that it's really difficult to reproduce any significant exchange. In that way, I guess it's kind of like chatting in a pub or at a meetup.)

I'm also probably going to be putting words in both their mouths, so don't take what's below as a real representation of what these guys actually think. I've heard both perspectives more or less echoed elsewhere, they just conveniently brought it up today. Okay, enough prelude.

Trent raises the titular question, "Limbo's presentation and atmosphere and visual style are all remarkable, but haven't I played this game like a dozen times in recent years?" Continuing, "2d platformers are like the lowest common denominator of video game upon which indie devs seem to project their neat artistic ideas & vision."

Manveer responded with, "Design and ideas go through phases and right now this is our "platformer" phase. Like there was a punk rock phase for music." And, "Distilling a well crafted experience that trumps most other AAA games as 'another indie platformer' is a hugely reductive argument."

They're both valid perspectives. But what really interested me was that fundamental question, "Why are so many indie darlings 2D platformers?" I'm not using 'indie darling' pejoratively, and I'm going to sidestep splitting hairs about what is and isn't "indie." Suffice to say, edge cases aside, I think there's a common set of games we can agree on. As for why there are so many 2D platformers, there are at least two significant reasons. One is purely pragmatic, the other more related to the medium itself.

On the pragmatic side, 2D platformers are relatively easy to develop. A great deal of the indie game community is made up of individual creators or very small teams. Shipping any game with a chance of financial viability (whether or not it's a primary objective, bills still have to be paid) is a significant undertaking, let alone doing it by yourself or with a 3 or 4 other people. Opting to creating a 2D platformer removes a significant amount of risk for what almost certainly begins as a very risky proposition.

To do otherwise requires resources that many indies don't have access to. Simply, Narbacular Drop wasn't Portal or to be more timely, Tag: The Power of Paint wasn't Portal 2. Transforming those experiences from things that were merely fun to something more substantive requires the resources and experience of Valve. Shadow of the Colossus takes a single aspect of games, the boss battle, as uses that to create a beautiful, haunting experience. But that required Sony's financial backing and one of the most visionary creators in the entire industry. That Game Company has been achieving similar successes, but they've also got Sony bankrolling their operation.

This is a solvable problem though and it has, and will continue, to get better with time. The larger challenge, I think, is that of game literacy. Few people can "read" games as well as they can film or books. Being literate in different media isn't just a matter of being able to comprehend a simple description/depiction of events, it's being able understand symbolism, metaphor, what a piece is "really about." Tom Armitage talks about this a bit; read/listen to what he says because it's smart.

A big challenge here for games is so many games are merely defined in terms of success or failure that seeing any greater message beyond that is difficult for many players. So many games are built to be "fun" and nothing but, and creating something that's more (and communicating this) is similarly difficult for creators. And of all the types of games out there, 2D platformers may be the type that both players and creators are most literate in.

2D platformers are well understood mechanically. We've had a chance to internalize their structure since Super Mario Bros. There is a formula and a set of rules, and with that, comes the ability to either leverage or disrupt those rules for the purpose of saying something. Many other types of games are still so amorphous that an aesthetic, meaningful rule decision is indistinguishable from just another feature to make the game better/more fun.

In some ways, 2D platformers are as close to a tabula rasa for games (no pun intended) as we can get. As long as a few simple things are in place to make something appear as a platformer, almost anything else can be included without the thing feeling alienating or confusing. Other styles of game have more strict sets of expectations (e.g. think about what makes an arcade fighter or an RTS). If too many of those expected elements are absent, the message becomes harder to read.

2D platformers are also very playable, largely due to the above. This means players of many stripes can play these games and engage with these experiences without requiring specific skills or genre familiarity. Making a game a first-person shooter immediately puts it out of the hands of many. At least for now, the number of people that want more than just fun from their games isn't colossal. It's probably in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Now if someone made a deeply aesthetic flight simulator, the number of people actually interested and able to play that game would be tiny. Almost anyone can play a 2D platformer and we want as many people as we can get thinking about games as more than just "fun."

I don't disagree with Trent, I'd love to see other styles of game have the tone of Limbo, the richness of metaphor and mechanics of Braid. But I also realize that while I can get a lot out of Democracy 2 and see some of the interesting things it says, most people see an impossible flurry of graphs and charts. For a lot of people, 2D platformers work. And we can build 2D platformers reliably, leaving more freedom to worry about the mechanics and the message.

I'd be worried if some of the best minds in this scene were getting comfortable, or if new folks were just aping what's already out there, but I don't think it's anywhere close to stagnant yet. Part of the reason why I'm looking forward to Jason Rohrer's Diamond Trust of London is I imagine it will have some interesting things to say about the blood diamond trade, but will do so through a strategy game.

I'm looking forward to seeing how more types of games can present substantive meaning. But we also need as many game literate folks seeking out more than just fun as possible. If the easiest way to get them on side is with a 2D platformer, then I'm more than happy to keep side scrolling. At least for now.

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Blogger zach said...

This was a great read, I'm reccomending it to everyone I know. I think our community spends a bit too much time worrying about the "genre" of mechanics (platformer, fps, etc) instead of worrying about the "genre" of the underlying text. Braid and Limbo may have been conventional in play mechanics, but the subjects they've tackled have been completely underexplored.

July 26, 2010 at 11:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I wish they'd stop making interesting games as platformers! I CANnot play them at ALL... sigh.

July 26, 2010 at 11:56 AM  
Blogger JPLC said...

You raise some good points, but I still find it somewhat dishearteneing that the indie space just keeps cranking out 2D platformers. There are quite a few places to go in the realm of 2D that would still be relatively simple, and may allow for a tad more creative flexibility.

For example, what of games akin to SNES era RPGs? Sure, an RPG will take a bit more work than a platformer, but with proper focus and scale, I think an indie team or person could pull it off (it doesn't have to be a grand sweeping epic after all). It's true that the RPG Maker communities have been doing this for years, but there have always been problems with legalities in those cases, so it never really took off in the limelight. Or is it that less people were fans of SNES era RPGs than I thought? If so, that makes me a sad panda.

July 26, 2010 at 3:51 PM  
Blogger Brendan Keogh said...

Great read.

Historically, with film genres, you tend to see three different phases in the genre's lifespan. The more experimental early years where the rules are properties of the genre are yet to be set in stone; the later years where the true leaders of the genre have emerged and confidently produce new works that fit within the genre yet are stunning works on their own right; and the self-reflective years where the genre has more or less died out and has come back kind of like genre movies about a genre.

I'm sure there are far superior academic terms to what I am trying to say but the point is that I think the platform game is one of the first true videogame genres to survive long enough to evolve to maturity. We have gotten the basic rules and properties of the genre honed so well that now we can focus primarily on the aesthetics and themes we wrap around it.

I see all these stunning 2D platormers less as a sign of stagnation and more a sign of maturity of the medium.

July 26, 2010 at 4:30 PM  
Blogger Melany Fulgham said...

I think it is the broad appeal. Anyone can pick up a platformer and figure it out. It is one of the most accessable types of games there is.

July 26, 2010 at 7:08 PM  
Blogger Trent Polack said...

I'm going to avoid writing the kind of lengthy reply I am wont to do, but some words:

I don't think being a 2D game and having jumping necessarily make a game a strict "platformer." When I look at BIT.TRIP Runner, which came out earlier this year, I see an absolutely marvelous and original game that has its own aesthetic style and mechanics set that uniquely define the game that it is. It's absolutely brilliant. One of the ways that I look at games is from an, at times, overly mechanical perspective: a game is its mechanics. And while Limbo has a brilliant atmospheric and aesthetic style, it started fading for me after the first third of the game and becoming unnecessarily concrete in its presentation of the world. That's okay, that's its choice, but when that childlike, almost Lord of the Flies-esque (credit to Charles Pratt for calling this out, but I absolutely agree) atmosphere faded, my enjoyment of the game was reliant entirely on the systems and mechanics in place. And it was, at that point, that I felt an intense sense of: man, I've done this before. That's not to say that Limbo as a holistic experience is poor -- far from it, but a game which chooses that "lowest common denominator" (I guess I'm quoting myself here) of game systems becomes entirely dependent on its style and atmosphere for its substance.

When I think about the most artistically-leaning games -- the games that are commonly cited as "art games" -- I generally think of Jason Rohrer's work with Passage and Gravitation. And what defines these games aside from their aesthetic qualities is that the systems and mechanics are, actually, what define them as works. They explore a very unique space, yes, but they explore this space from every possible direction that a game can: visually, aurally, and mechanically.

And that's what I'd like to see more of these incredibly well-executed indie games do: explore these same themes as systemically deep as you explore the visual style and atmospheric tone. You don't need a AAA budget to create a systemically rich game that explores the same themes as your brilliant art and tone.

Now, granted, I'm taking this argument to an extreme for the purpose of making a point, but I'm okay with that.

July 26, 2010 at 8:37 PM  
Blogger Mr Durand Pierre said...

Great analysis, my good man! Personally, I love platformers, so I don't mind this current trend, though I could see it eventually getting worrisome. There's just something about the simplicity of running and jumping that I find appealing. Though games like Myst were simpler yet (and equally appealing, imo). Strategy games just require a higher degree of entry, which is not to say the audience isn't there.

July 26, 2010 at 10:30 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Zach Definitely. While I think it's important (as Trent well notes below) that a game's mechanics support its message, utilizing familiar mechanics to present a interesting, unfamiliar message is not problematic at all.

@fallingawkwardly Doh, that's unfortunate =( One of the disadvantages of platformers is their challenge usually has a significant dexterity component. And for some folks, through no fault of their own, that's not workable. Flower probably wins the award for most accessible game ever and it would be interesting to see more experimentation in that regard.

July 26, 2010 at 11:28 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@JPLC I think part of the problem with 16-bit RPGs is the mechanics are not particularly compelling. I too love many RPGs of that era, but it's the stories that are compelling. The actual gameplay is a relatively weary mini-game you have to complete to get back to the parts you care about.

We could just keep the story bits, but then we're basically be making an adventure game without puzzles.

I'm curious as to what you'd think an SNES-esque RPG with "indie" sensibilities would look like. I'm not saying it couldn't or shouldn't happen, I'm just having trouble visualizing it.

July 26, 2010 at 11:33 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Brendan Agreed. I was going to make a comparison to other media, but wasn't totally confident on such an evolution being accurate. Thanks for adding that.

@Melany Totally. The feedback loop is very tight, the goals are self-presenting and the failure states are obvious. Braid pulled a very clever move by adding the time rewind, the trial & error needed to solve the more puzzle-ish challenges was made vastly more tolerable.

July 26, 2010 at 11:36 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Trent Thanks for the thoughts and I appreciate you tolerating the words I crammed in your mouth. I wholly agree with your sentiments. The only complication here is I think a great many players still aren't literate enough to understand the "procedural rhetoric" of a game's mechanics and dynamics.

As game developers, we're probably a lot more literate than anyone aside from a handful for critics and enthusiasts.

Many people playing Gravitation would probably say "You catch a ball, jump around and grab stars that turn into ice you have to melt." Unpacking the metaphor about the conflict between family and creative obligations certainly doesn't come naturally.

(And this again emphasizes why good writing about games, not just reviews, is really important. It helps players understand a pretty foreign concept.)

I see games like Limbo as a good way to help people think about games as more than just "fun." Even if it's "fun and beautiful," it's easier to move from that to "fun, beautiful and meaningful."

Again, I totally understand and appreciate what you're saying. I think we'll get there too, we just need a few more folks brought up to speed first.

July 26, 2010 at 11:53 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Mr Durand Pierre It is kind of interesting that, for a few years, there were Myst-like games aplenty. But they didn't really transition into 3D, at least not without having combat or other dexterity-based challenges added.

I like to imagine an excellent, purely exploration game could be made though. Heh, maybe that's what Journey will end up being.

July 26, 2010 at 11:55 PM  
Blogger JPLC said...


Well one possible indie "SNES" RPG could be something along the lines of a mix between Earthbound and Majora's Mask (hear me out). Earthbound had some fantastic quirky dialogue, and Majora's Mask had a community in which nearly each person was developed and had a routine. So someone could make a game that is scaled down -- maybe to about the size of a small town or a block (or even a single household) -- and populate it with developed characters with good dialogue and daily routines. The game would involve talking to these characters, hearing their problems, and trying to solve them (various mini-games would probably be the method of problem solving). Something like Yakuza 3, even, minus the combat.

Then again, that does sound more adventur-ish (or even sandbox-ish) than RPG-ish, but I hope the essence of what I'm trying to say comes through. And hell, if one were to include combat, there are still plenty of places to go in terms of effective RPG combat systems. We're not limited to purely aping past games after all.

I suppose I'm ultimately just surprised that we don't see much of 16 bit style RPG indie games. I think RPGs are very effective at establishing a sense of place and for fleshing out NPCs, especially in populated spaces (towns, villages, etc). There are many more ways to interact with a world than just jumping around (no offense to platformers intended).

July 27, 2010 at 6:59 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@JPLC Ah ha, something like the "one city block" RPG Warren Spector has talked about. Something like that would be interesting for sure, but still quite challenging to make, I'd think. Yakuza 3 is a good comparable, but that's a big undertaking still. Especially for a small team.

Still, I agree that's it a little odd someone hasn't at least taken a swing at that. Hopefully someone will.

July 28, 2010 at 11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Long live the platformer!

Having grown up with 8bit consoles where every other game was a platformer of some sort and a 'mis-spent' youth in random arcades playing a similar style of product I doubt the platformer isn’t anything new by no means.
Just your audience has changed and games are more mainstream, everyone thinks they know how to play them so the challenge there is to offer something slightly different.

As for today’s marketplace, the handful of 'indie' (hated phrase for me!) licenses earning said creative notoriety or failing that, 'mass market' appeal, is something almost entirely hard to achieve unless you research a demographic or understand what might sell on it's designated platform; and even then you won't have got it right even though everyone knows how to play them.

So anything different, stylistically or ascetically – bring it on!

More 'risk and reward', 'spin a good yarn', onwards and upwards!

July 29, 2010 at 4:21 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@googlywaa The more weirdness on all fronts, the better. There's definitely a chance of same-y stagnancy, but given the diversity of offerings we keep seeing, I think we'll be alright.

July 29, 2010 at 10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In 2D u'r more in control of the environment to tell your story.
No one will accept a 3D world without free movement in all directions. Imagine the amount of things yo have to create 'just' to get the situation visualilized.

2D can tell the mood without the big recources. it's a bit more like reading a good story with some pictures and less immersive.

u do more watching than beeing into the situation. so for me gives me more room for imagination.

August 2, 2010 at 3:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too am bad at 2D platformers, so I never get to experience most of these indie darlings. There's nothing that takes the romance and mystery out of Braid more than having to retry the same sequence 20 times.

Actually, the same is true for shooters and 3rd person action games. It's hard to connect with Niko's story when the cops keep catching and killing you.

August 2, 2010 at 10:36 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Patrick There was a good post over at critical damage about that, more or less. The difference between something that tries to represent versus something that tries to recreate. We've a lot more forgiving of the former than the latter, as you note.

@robyrt That's part of what makes games such a weird thing, eh? You can't ever fail while watching a movie or reading a book (I guess you can fail to understand it, but that's a bit different). Challenge of part of what makes different, but it's definitely the case that it can be frustrating for some. But maybe that's okay. I mean, I don't care for opera (at all), but plenty of other folks do. I'm not sure there's anything wrong with opera.

I'm not sure. But games are a weird, different thing, no question.

August 2, 2010 at 3:35 PM  
Blogger John Scott Tynes said...

2D games at least have the potential to be more accessible. When Roger Ebert was having his games-aren't-art spasm, a lot of people cited Shadow of the Colossus is a great example of games as art. That may be, but I would never hand a controller to Roger Ebert and ask him to play that game. It'd be a disaster. The basics of dual-stick 3D gameplay are an advanced skill most people don't have.

Even platformers suffer from this. Braid is brilliant but I wouldn't expect a casual player to leap into it with joy.

August 6, 2010 at 12:53 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@John Yeah, there's definitely a spectrum there. 2D platformers may be accessible for a lot of gamers, but there's plenty of folks that fall even outside that classification, as you note. If I had to pick a single game that nearly anyone can play and enjoy, it would probably be Flower.

August 7, 2010 at 6:26 PM  
Blogger Mr Durand Pierre said...

Oddly enough, as a relatively seasoned gamer I found Flower rather cumbersome to control. Perhaps a case of forgetting everything you know about game controls? Platformers are like second nature to me and up until now assumed that was the case for most everyone. Thank god the internet is here to prove me wrong!

August 7, 2010 at 6:55 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Mr Durand Pierre Huh, interesting. Certainly Flower doesn't provide the exact controls some games too but as a simple point of entry, it seems to work for a lot of folks. But yeah, it's not made for experts. Drive a Ferrari for a while and I'm sure going to a Taurus doesn't feel great.

August 8, 2010 at 3:31 PM  
Blogger Christof said...

@JPLC @Nels
Regarding 16bit era-rpgs with an indie-edge, I think we already have a prime example: The Colombine Massacre RPG.
While it's highly controversial for a lot of reasons, it does just what you were talking about: It takes the familiar mechanics of a genre and carries them to completely new places. It does not even subvert them:
For example, it uses the compulsive searching for objects (like, burning down every bush in Zelda) to let the player discover texts, images etc. with a documentary character they might otherwise not overlook. And, like Kieron Gillen pointed out back in the day, the game does comment on the violence of the actual events by taking out every challenge (and thus satisfaction) of the "battles" and thus rendering the endless grinding and slaughtering not only the opposite of fun, but entirely bleak and pointless.

While I'm not saying that all - or even one - future game should follow this lead, the game still stands as a an (albeit not very subtle) attempt to use well-known mechanics to adress and express something very unusual for video games.

And as to what you said about the mix of Majora's Mask and Earthbound: I could very well imagine a game like this; Michael Abott (aka Brainy Gamer) arguably would, too. You might enjoy his posts about "Mother 3" and how the game succesfully evokes the community-spirit of an entire village. Comming from a village myself, I always hoped that some developers would pursue this idea further (a village would make for a much more logical self-contained space than a city block, IMHO).

August 9, 2010 at 1:03 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Christof Ah yes, that's an interesting example. Although it does highlight some of issues with game literacy too. Many people when exposed to SCM RPG don't see the message and just assume it's a crappy, tasteless game. Hell, initially I felt the same way until I read more about it. Although that might always be an issue with such subject matter. I'd love to see someone use those trappings with slightly less controversial content.

And definitely, a village makes self-contains better than a city block. I liked Michael's Mother 3 pieces a lot and I'd be elated to see someone take that structure even further as well.

August 9, 2010 at 7:05 AM  
Blogger Michal said...

Excellent post... thank you! ^_^

Just thought I would mention that what I have seen just as much, or maybe more, in the indie scene are shmups. They're a dime a dozen, and are probably even easier to make than platformers, but I'm not sure.

August 9, 2010 at 4:29 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Michal Ah yes, shumps are an interesting case. I'd say there a little bit different in that they're often engineered specifically to be exclusive. In many circles, the harder the shump, the better. Which is certainly not a flaw, but also not a quality some seek out.

Some folks, myself included, don't dig on the bullet hell. I'd say that subset is larger than those that don't do platformers. I'd be very curious to see someone build an expressive bullet hell game, but I fear the bar for just playing one is so high, I'd have a hard time parsing the message. But if someone did pull it off, it could be very interesting.

August 9, 2010 at 9:57 PM  

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