Lately, I’ve been reading a fabulous book called Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present. I thought I knew a lot about comics, but, as I learned after just skimming this thing, my knowledge is almost totally myopic–that is, I know something about the D.C. and Marvel superhero comics of the 80s and 90s…but there’s a whole world of much more interesting comics that I didn’t even know existed. Yes, I was of course aware of R. Crumb and so on, but had no idea that such incredible work was being done with comics in France, Italy, Spain, and Britain. Furthermore, although I was familiar with the term “manga” and Japanese comics, I have an all new appreciation for it after reading this book.
Until now, whenever I heard about “underground” or “indie” comics, I thought “cheap, wannabe comics.” You know–those comics that tried hard to be good knockoffs of Marvel or D.C., but just weren’t up to snuff. I also imagined obscene comics that wouldn’t have appealed to me anyway. I had little appreciation that these underground comics were, in fact, radically pushing the boundaries of the medium and using it to explore diverse genres. In short, this book has enlightened me to a whole new world of comics–comics by writers and artists who weren’t rejected by the mainstream industry, but rather rejected it, for the sake of elevating the medium to new heights.
Naturally, I have thought about whether we can find parallels to the underground comics movements and the indie gaming scene. Again, I think the typical gamer thinks of indie gaming like I did with indie comics before my enlightenment–yeah, these games might have a fun gag or two, but there’s a reason why they’re indie–they’re cheap, imitative, or just too crappy to have interested a “real” publisher. Even as someone respectful of indie games (and who has met and been impressed by many indie game developers!), browsing the “indie” category seems, at best, an exercise in finding the diamond in the rough, and, at worst, an activity likely to contaminate your computer with a virus or two.
Compared to making an indie game, making an indie comic seems infinitely easier. Most obvious is the lack of coding required. You just need a writer and an artist (sometimes one person does both). You also need, of course, to get the thing printed somehow, but that’s a fairly straightforward process. In fact, the only real obstacle I see is the usual difficulty of getting anyone beyond your immediate friends and family to pay the project any mind, but, clearly, indie games have the same problem. However, in any case, I feel comfortable saying that making a “commercial quality” indie comic is a great deal easier and more affordable than making a “commercial quality” videogame. By “commercial quality,” I mean a comic that is “just as good” as anything D.C. or Marvel puts out, or a game that wouldn’t seem out of place alongside, at least, a big-budget game from a decade ago.
However, what is most interesting, to me, at least, about an indie game is not so much that it does or doesn’t look like a typical commercial release, but rather that it poses problems that no one had thought yet to pose to or via the medium. In other words, it is trivial to produce something “unpublishable,” but a different matter to produce something “unplayable,” in the sense that what is created is an artifact rather than a product. In other words, such a game would not be something that we play, ultimately dismissing as “mere” entertainment, but instead something that resists any and all effort to reduce to mere entertainment, continuously forcing us to either acknowledge the affordances and limitations of the medium (perhaps via self-referentiality or other postmodern techniques)…but the image is playing through a game, seeing a “game over” screen, and recognizing that, yes, the game is over. It is over because now you see something as an arbitrary set of rules, a game, that before you read as natural or inevitable.
The inevitable example in comics is Maus. I can’t imagine anyone dismissing these books as mere entertainment or “just a comic book.” Indeed, I think many of us would be angered by the very assertion.
Where is the indie gaming equivalent of Maus?
Electronic Arts, under the initially promising leadership of Trip Hawkins, posed the question of whether a computer game could make you cry. I always assume the comparison here is to a film like Ole Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows. Perhaps a game could jerk a tear. But could a game tear a jerk away from his own desires long enough to cry out against the injustice in the world, the evil in men’s hearts, and the pacification of a medium that would slavishly obey any whim to avoid a whimper.