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Indie Games: Influences

Published 13 June 2021 at Yours, Kewbish. 2848 words. Subscribe via RSS.


Introduction

This is a continuation of my last post: if you’re interested, I discussed some of the tools and engines I used over my indie game dev journey back then. In it, I reminisced on the process of finding new gamemaking tools to try out, mostly drawing from memories of the little experiments I used to work with. I will also confess that I was mistaken in that post: I do actually have the original files for a good number of old projects. The other day, I was looking through my backups and archives from a couple years ago, and found a few interesting folders. Here’s a look at what eleven-year-old me thought was peak indie game development:

archives/
├─ aninfinitebath.zip/
├─ bleedingpenguins.zip/
├─ botanicpiano.zip/
├─ closer.zip/
├─ ohmagosh.zip/

These are some of my mid-Unity-phase games, put together a couple years ago sometime before the end of 2018. I’ll expand a bit more on the actual projects in a bit, but just looking through the old files’s brought me right back to developing each of the experiences. Back then, I had no idea what I actually wanted to aim for in terms of game mechanics, genre, or style, so I focused on copying my ideal aesthetic.

That ‘ideal aesthetic’ was developed over many an hour trawling through itch.io, a digital marketplace focusing on sharing and selling indie games of all genres. I really liked the vibe of the site as a kid - there was just something about the simple theming and easily discoverable games1. When I started looking for places to share my games (after all, I very much was validated by watching download counts tick very slowly up over time), I went straight to customizing my profile and uploading little HTML5 games to itch.io. I spent a while learning CSS to fine-tune my landing pages there, and I think it’s made a clear impact in the aesthetic that continues to influence my design decisions to this day. Game jams and development communities centered on the site also gave me a starting point and many sources of inspiration throughout the process of trying to learn how to develop - in short, it was a pretty interesting environment.

In this post, I’d like to reflect on some of my past projects and other aspects of my game dev journey, such as the various influences that somehow combined to build what I’ll continue to call my ‘aesthetic’ for games. I can’t seem to find a better word for the phenomenon, but I mean the general feel, artistic style, production quality, and story types that featured in games that I came to love and admire.

Itch.io Inspiration

I’ve already mentioned the impact of itch.io on my sources of inspiration, but I can’t highlight enough how much of an influence it had over what I chose to create. I remember somewhat illegally joining their Discord (by illegally, I mean age-wise, but let’s hope I don’t get my account suspended for not following TOS), and subscribing to the daily progress updates. Each day, I’d look forward to the @DailyDev ping that rolled in sometime in the morning, and watch the channels get flooded with cute screenshots and GIFs of fascinating mechanics in progress. I generally lurked in the server, never interacting unless I really wanted to post a couple screenshots of art or request feedback when I was ‘launching’ a game. However, just being able to see the amazing work and concepts that were also being created in parallel with my projects was a healthy motivation boost. I think having this initial community that I could sort of pseudo-participate in was a very fun experience, and I can’t thank the whole itch.io community enough for fostering that space.

Itch.io also introduced me to the thriving community of game jams, and the often unpolished, though wonderful, experiences that would come out of them. For the uninitiated, game jams are short events, usually under a tight time crunch, where developers and artists gather to create a game based on a hidden theme. Some of the bigger ones that you might have heard of are Global Game Jam and Ludum Dare - I’d advise going through some of the event galleries for meetups and game showcases: the end results are super creative and surprising. Itch.io had its own online game jam functionality, and the list of jams hosted on the site is only growing. This page highlights all the jams happening at any one time - just today, I can see at least forty or fifty jams running, and I didn’t even scroll that far down the page. Larger jams often stemmed out of, or would host, their own Discord communities, which gave eleven-year-old me extra content to feast on. Looking through project galleries was hugely inspiring - seeing the efforts of just a couple people over just a few hours was oddly motivating.

Though I never really got into the whole game jam lifestyle, I did like to look through past jams and projects for their themes. At this point in time, I had no original ideas, really, and was just trying to emulate all the cool projects I’d seen online. I’d piece together different game mechanics or slap together a slightly more creative story, and call it a day. As you’ll see later on, I focused not on making full releasable games, but on smaller scenes and cute experiments, which were mostly an excuse to make new Unity projects and spend much too long on custom pixel art again. That means I was constantly looking for new ideas to feed my tiny games, and the more frequently running game jams were a godsend for sparking new schemes. I particularly had a thing for the Weekly Game Jams, which put out new themes each week. I also liked drawing on other people’s interpretations of these prompts later when developing my own games, since I never stuck to the strict weekly schedule or even formally entered in any jams, as far as I can remember. The nice thing about these jams, especially the week-long shorter ones, was that there was no pressure to polish (or even present, since I didn’t officially participate) anything that came out of those experiences. That incessant stream of new thoughts and potential games was incredibly fun to think about as a kid, and I used to be constantly dreaming about new things to make. I think there’s something interesting to consider with these tight creative feedback loops and constant states of tinkering - a continuous imaginative cycle of producing new things for the sake of honing my skills and just having fun with the process.

Experiments and Examples

Back then, I liked making proof of concepts, toying around with environments and game mechanics, instead of worrying about gameplay. This helped me learn how to work through design problems, and piece together how to create simple interactive environments. Having a system of just picking up new ideas and working on them as long as I wanted before moving on to the next idea in my backlog allowed me create a pace of continual creative thinking, and remain motivated to even work on development. While no major games came out of this cycle, I think my brain likes these smaller experiences more, and having smaller ‘investments’ to have to make with each game let me develop my aesthetic and refine my ideas well.

Let’s go through a quick summary of some of the games I mentioned earlier, as well as some I just very vividly remember putting together. I discussed in my last blog post that I had a couple tool ‘phases’, in which I would fall into a rabbit hole of endlessly exploring on specific engine, and then jump to dabbling with the next. I can’t really remember anything I made in GameMaker, I only put together a couple platformers in GDevelop, and I can’t access my Roblox anymore, so I’ll go into some of the work I put together in two main tools: Bitsy and Unity.

Bitsy is a minimalist, retro-ish game engine that focuses on story- and rudimentary interaction- based games. I made a bunch of games in Bitsy, mostly because the boilerplate required was absolutely nothing, and it was a quick way to capture whatever questionable narrative I wanted to express. After a couple exploration games (I think I really had a thing for trying to do super scaled-down pixel art back then), I worked on a couple ‘proper’ games. One of my favourites was based off a play on words between Caesar, the individual who was brutally murdered by his closest confidants, to the salad, which I don’t think involves any violence. Eleven-year-old me thought it would be funny to create a whole Ancient Rome-esque world, in which the main character played a spy out to poison Caesar, with, well, a salad. The player would wander round a bunch of rooms, looking for the right rotten tomatoes (it had not yet dawned on me that the presence of tomatos would make it closer to a Greek salad) and toxic lettuce to finish off the poor general. I remember getting very carried away with the art, meticulously painting together little salad bowls and baker NPCs selling their loaves that the player would buy to make croutons out of. It was a very amusing little game, and I’m honestly sort of proud that I went all in on the pun. I think the last thing I tried to make in Bitsy was an elaborate network of rooms that would each depict a phase in the main character’s life, all connected to form their entire life story, but it got a bit too complicated, so I scrapped it.

Unity was where I made the majority of my games after my Bitsy adventures, though I suppose a better word for what came out of my tinkering would be ‘experiments’. Even just looking at the things I worked on in 2018 (that I archived, I remember working on plenty more projects that never went past the player controller script or so and were therefore not saved properly), I had a pretty interesting streak of ideas:

Conclusion

I don’t think I’ve even really figured out what my full aesthetic is, but if I had to sum it up in a couple phrases, it’d be:

I could go on forever, diving into all the old hidden archives I have, but I think it might be a bit more interesting to focus on the takeaways I’ve learned from this whole nostalgic look back. First, I find it really interesting that I was drawn to such simple and relatively unengaging experiences to build, and I think the fact that I had a severely limited programming ability was a major factor. I’ve noted that game dev kind of helped me learn how to learn to develop on my own, and properly learning how to develop lead to me being able to create quote-unquote better games. As well, it’s fascinating how my game dev focus also shifted over the years as I hopped between tools, and how my style and preferred game type changed with each engine. With GDevelop, an engine suited well to event-based games (and with a built-in platformer tutorial), I fell back to making platformers and action games. On the other hand, Bitsy was built for worldbuilding and storylines, which I focused on when using the tool. Unity’s relative difficulty in getting started and learning curve lead to smaller experiences with which I tried to work on learning how the engine worked. And finally, I’d also like to reflect on the tight creation loops and the steady stream of games I was putting out back then. I think the whole game jam community and the influences I was surrounding myself with digitally helped to push me towards a system of tiny projects, made and finished quickly, which also benefited my creative thinking, and later, my development skills.

Moving forward, while it’d certainly be fun to get back into game jams, I think their rather time-crunch-y nature doesn’t make them a good fit for what I like to do (also a reason that the couple weekend hackathons I’ve done were more stressful and unenjoyable than the two-month long one I’ve participated in). Something I’d like to bring back into my life, however, is the ‘creation state’ that I was in when I was younger. I really liked being able to constantly work on something and dive back into tinkering with little systems whenever I wanted, and I think I’ll be shifting around my current projects to reflect that. Whether it be CTF problems2, personalized CLI tools, or even reinstating my weekly writing habits, I’d like to return to that creative state, and with summer coming up, it’ll be the perfect opportunity to dive into whatever I’d like to tackle.


  1. I specifically remember spending way too much time at school clicking through the randomizer, which you could fine-tune to narrow down tags and platform types. There was something very magical about the way it managed to spit out highly appealing games every couple clicks, though I suppose that’s also a testament to the quality of the games hosted there. itch.io also has a very nice tagging system, which I recall tabbing through as well. The pixel art, 2D, casual, and cute tags were the ones I frequented the most, which I guess exposes my entire taste right there. ↩︎

  2. I’ve also been getting back into attempting some picoGym problems, as well as taking a look at some crypto resources, namely Cryptohack and Cryptopals. They’re pretty challenging, but it’s fun to properly learn the basics and familiarize myself with common attacks and such. ↩︎

- Yours, Kewbish


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