The museum’s selection of 25 indie games is bound to invite nitpicking from die-hard players: How do you define an indie? When did indies first start and what sets them apart from other kinds of gaming? Which games not included in the exhibit should remain a part of discussions surrounding the medium’s history? And so on.
Yet despite those potential quibbles, “Indie Essentials” provides a sophisticated overview of gaming from numerous angles. Anyone outside of the echo chamber of the indie community will discover a vivid world of possibilities that define the modern gaming experience. Unlike any other art form, the interactive dimensions offer a range of different experiences.
The oldest game in the exhibit, “Alien Hominid,” dates back to 2002 and presents a fairly traditional 2-D side-scrolling experience with bright, cartoonish graphics. However, museum visitors also will discover “Spelunky,” a similar 2-D platformer released in 2009 that actually generates its levels randomly in real time based on the way players interact with it.
Other mainstays in the exhibit include the aforementioned “Braid,” the hilariously frustrating "QWOP" and the mobile game “World of Goo.” Then there’s the addictive block-based building game “Minecraft,” one of the most popular indie games in recent years, which curators have positioned in a large size projected on one of the museum’s walls to reflect its impact.
But the truly exciting possibilities of indie gaming take fuller advantage of modern technology. In another room, the eerie interactive fairy tale “The Path” (in which players engage with a gothic riff on “Little Red Riding Hood”) appropriately dominates the space, showing how 3-D interactive storytelling can create unique atmospheric encounters. “Dear Esther,” a similarly experiential narrative, sits nearby. A sort of new-age “Myst,” "Esther" is a creepy beachside tale finds players assuming a first-person perspective and gradually exploring an isolated setting that eventually turns into a ghost story.
While it’s difficult to play through these slow-moving games in their entirety at the museum, it only takes a few minutes to understand how their unique environments congeal over the course of a player's experience.
A couple of games in the exhibit haven't yet been released to the public. Among them, "Quadrilateral Cowboy" is a knockout. Ostensibly putting the player in the role of hacker, the first-person 3-D puzzle game finds users drifting through a wide variety of malleable environments that generates a sense of mystery and excitement about the very idea of accessing digital spaces. Visually, "Quadrilateral Cowboy" resembles first-person shooters, but its immersive qualities have no direct relationship with anything that has been done before in this format.
That's a trait shared by many of the games in the exhibit. Stretching across various formats and gaming dynamics, collectively they make it virtually impossible to discuss video games in any fixed terms. The role-playing game "Dog Eat Dog," which requires players to download a PDF file, revolves around "colonialism and its consequences" as players take on the roles of Occupation forces and natives in the Pacific Ocean. The brilliant interactive poem "Today I Die" (which readers are encouraged to experience here) is a Flash-based project that takes no more than a few minutes to play through. Such concise games demonstrate that the long-form, hyper-detailed nature of mainstream gaming is only one of innumerable formats that the medium can take.
Impossible to canonize, indie gaming is an amorphous beast of artistic ingenuity. Marrying technology with creativity, at its best it has more in common with the avant-garde than any commercial paradigm: By definition, it requires game designers to continue trying new things. The exhibit speaks to these tantalizing prospects by demonstrating that no matter how great the art form gets, the opportunities for further innovation are endless.