About 20 years ago, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens presented one of the first public exhibitions of video games, placing the violent first-person shooter “Doom” next to the point-and-click island adventure game “Myst.”
Today, a new exhibit at the museum paints a far more vivid picture of the video games landscape.
“Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games” (which opens this weekend and continues through March 2, 2014) surveys the thriving community of independent game designers that has assembled over a dozen years. Featuring a wide variety of formats that illustrate the endless range of possibilities that define contemporary video games made outside the commercial realm, the exhibit makes a strong case for video games as the most significant postmodern art form to undergo major evolution during the 21st century.
While often discussed in terms of its relationship to cinema, gaming has reached a point where it has no organic connection to any single precedent. It’s an art form on its own terms.
This is old news to some people. Gamers who have kept up with these changes may have already encountered several of the titles in the museum’s exhibit, which was arranged by the museum’s associate digital media curator Jason Eppink with organizers of the IndieCade East festival, a festival of independent games that most recently last took place at the museum in February of this year.
Around half the games featured in the exhibit were previously featured at IndieCade, where they won awards. Others were selected based on widespread acclaim for their impact on discussions about the medium’s expansive possibilities.
“I think painting had an era where there was a lot of exciting stuff happening with it,” said IndieCade East Chair Aaron Isaksen at the museum earlier this week. “Now is that kind of time for games.”
IndieCade CEO Stephanie Barish echoed the sentiment. “The outside world is starting to recognize how meaningful and important these games are,” she said. “We’re a very young industry. The distinctions between things like blockbusters and independents are just starting to emerge. But we’re trying to be part of helping people understand that there is an independent movement. That’s something this exhibit is fantastic for doing.”
The timing of the exhibit is especially serendipitous, arriving when mainstream gaming is especially ubiquitous. This year’s most popular release, Rockstar Games’ “Grand Theft Auto V,” made $800 million in worldwide sales during the first day of its release.
While far fewer gamers may know about acclaimed indies like “Flower,” in which gamers play as a piece of pollen on a journey to full bloom, and “Braid,” a side-scrolling puzzle adventure that allows the player to move backward in time, they’re well-positioned to discover them.
“I know we’re not competing with the triple-A titles, because their distribution channels are very different,” said Eppink, who got involved with the indie scene when he started developing mobile games in 2002. “They’re huge companies with massive marketing budgets delivering a specific type of product. But there’s a lot of room for other types of products. It’s OK if these games don’t sell as many products as ‘Grand Theft Auto.’”
However, he added that the experience that some players may have with a mainstream game could work to the advantage of the indie scene. “As more people play games like ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ and they want something new, they start looking on the fringes, and they find these sort of games that are being created,” he said. “So I’m perfectly happy to have ‘Grand Theft Auto’ be a blockbuster and create more players.”
Indeed, playing through the startlingly vast world of “Grand Theft Auto V” — as I have over the past several months, and remain slightly less than halfway done with the main storyline, without exploring much outside of it — provides a distinct immersion into the incredible possibilities of mass market gaming today. The so-called “sandbox” (the space in which the game takes place), the fictional city of Los Santos, is twice as large as the setting of the previous game. It can often take 10 or 15 minutes to travel between various locations, while the story unfolds in a vast novelistic fashion spread across the experience of three criminals from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
Though it has always involved certain crass elements, “Grand Theft Auto” does provide a global showcase for gaming unlike any other. One might complain about the moral ramifications of a series that encourages players to partake in criminal antics, but the reality is that the context of the gaming experience makes all the difference: Forcing your character to do something bad doesn’t mean you have to identify with it. This player-character relationship is unique to the gaming process — but it takes on far subtler dimensions in the countless sophisticated indie games that have been produced outside of marketplace constraints.
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.