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.