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Game On: Indie games have been the saving grace of 2020

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 11, 2020

“Among Us” is an online social deduction game and breakaway indie success. Players maintain a space station while determining who’s the imposter responsible for murdering their fellow crewmates.  (InnerSloth)
“Among Us” is an online social deduction game and breakaway indie success. Players maintain a space station while determining who’s the imposter responsible for murdering their fellow crewmates. (InnerSloth)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

“Far Cry 6,” “Halo Infinite” and “Deathloop.” These are just a few of the big-budget games we’ll be playing in 2021 instead of this year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the video game industry’s workflow. AAA titles are created by hundreds of developers across several years, racking up budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. They’re ambitious cinematic masterpieces, often considered the crème de la crème of the video game market today.

The Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5 will hit store shelves in less than a week – Nov. 10 and 12, respectively. These machines are touted to be powerhouses tailor-made for massive, realistic-looking games, but options will initially be few and far between. Suffice to say, the big-name launch titles for both consoles don’t impress me much.

In the past few months, it’s been indie titles that have made for surprising and refreshing success stories. Yes, “The Last of Us Part II,” “Doom Eternal” and “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” all made their splashes this year, but the publicity for each was brief and predictable. Meanwhile, games like “Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout” and “Among Us” seemingly materialized out of nowhere to momentarily rob the spotlight from big-name developers.

They didn’t do it with flashy graphics or bombastic stories – rather, they gained attention because they’re fun and unique. “Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout” presented a curveball to the battle royale craze, flipping the oversaturated genre on its head with bright visuals and acrobatic gameplay in lieu of the typical “loot and shoot” formula. “Among Us” was a sleeper success, initially releasing in 2018 but exploding in popularity in August thanks to Twitch streamers enjoying its social deduction gameplay akin to the live party game “Mafia.”

I mention livestream viewership because it’s become an increasingly accurate way of measuring peoples’ interest in games. “The Last of Us Part II” may have been the most anticipated release of 2020, peaking at 500,000 Twitch viewers upon its release June 19, but fell to a peak of just 20,000 viewers by the end of the month. Meanwhile, “Among Us” hit its stride in September with an average viewership of 200,000 – today that average sits around 150,000 viewers.

I’m not making the argument that “Among Us” is somehow a superior title to “The Last of Us Part II,” which was a success by all measures. Like others of its kind, it elicited strong initial reactions but offered little incentive for gamers to return to it. By contrast, a straightforward game like “Among Us” presents near-infinite replayability and social opportunities, accordingly enjoying high rates of player retention compared to story-based single-player games.

There’s something to be said for video games that are straightforward to play, yet addictive in design – you can know a game like the back of your hand and still have a good time playing it. In the attempt to make games a more immersive, cinematic experience, developers lost sight of this concept for many years. Now more than ever, indie game devs are churning out titles that eschew realism in favor of simple fun, and I’m all for it.

Some of my favorites from this year include “Streets of Rage 4,” “West of Dead” and “Deep Rock Galactic.” The latter two feature procedural level generation, meaning you play through different stages each and every time – sure, the environments might not be as meticulously detailed as a big-budget game, but it guarantees players can never predict level layouts.

I’ve also found there to be plenty of indie titles from previous years to sink my teeth into, such as “Celeste,” the best platformer I’ve played in years, even rivaling my love for “Sonic Mania” with its precise controls and beautiful pixel art. “Untitled Goose Game” was a uniquely hilarious diversion, putting players into the role of a goose who terrorizes the inhabitants of an English village with petty shenanigans.

Perhaps the best thing about all the above games is their low graphical intensity. You don’t have to break the bank upgrading your PC or buying a brand new console to enjoy these excellent and innovative games. Furthermore, buying an indie game is the video game equivalent of supporting small businesses – a choice more important than ever during this difficult year.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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