DISCLAIMER: The writer of this review also writes for VICE’s gaming section in a freelance capacity. Whilst the book was sent as a review copy by the publisher, the review is independent of this working relationship and with no expectation to review. In truth the writer is an English graduate and fancied doing something about books for a change. There will be more book reviews on this site with which the writer has had contact with the author and the same applies that no special treatment will be given to the author, the work or the review.
Six years ago I tried to find books on video games for when I was studying at college before going to university. What I found was demonising half-studies in to the violent behaviour of children from playing games, mostly Rockstar’s. Now they are everywhere and are anything from non-fiction explorations to coffee table magazines and shared office building foyer selections.
VICE Gaming editor Mike Diver has entered the space with Indie Games – The Complete Introduction to Indie Gaming, but this isn’t your normal timeline based descriptions of events and releases. I’m sure there’ll be people out there who just know Indie Gaming from the documentary and this book is a great way to show the people who don’t know or just lump gaming in to one big pot on the differences and achievements of “Indie” what it’s all about.
Let’s face it, the word is somewhat confused in our modern digital distribution context and Mike tackles that straight away in his introduction. The distribution options that have helped games such as Steam and Xbox Live are explained and deliberated upon, followed by insight from many indie developers and journalists. The first chapter alone has comments from Leigh Alexander and David Braben OBE, and covers the evolution of the market to the present day including Braid, Minecraft and the pitfalls of fame that the aforementioned documentary highlighted.
The cast is actually a very big thing here as you do get a very wide spectrum of people from very different ends of the games industry. Developers like Mike Bithell (Bithell Games), Sean Murray (Hello Games) and Dan Pinchbeck (The Chinese Room) are joined by many contemporaries from the indie game development world including mobile platforms and people from the “business” side of the industry like ID@Xbox director Chris Charla and his Sony counterpart, Shahid Ahmad, along with quotes from journalists such as the aforementioned Leigh Alexander, Simon Parkin and Andy Robertson.
Mike’s position as editor of VICE’s gaming content has afforded him a great position in being able to present a coherent picture, a state of the union if you will, of Indie Games without straying in to jargon, or hyperbole. Instead of tackling the games by genre, by history or by prominence, the book moves through ideas and concepts, allowing many games to be touched upon and included without any kind of elevation over others. Each chapter tackles a different piece of the Indie puzzle from “Primal Fears” to “The Future of Indie” with enough historical nuggets to provide context and enough comments to allow the reader, regardless of gaming experience, to understand what the discussion is about.
The book is well presented physically in hardback with a clean, almost magazine like presentation with well space fonts and paragraphs interspersed between screenshots and art from the games in question. This is obviously intended for the more casual fan of video games or someone who would like Indie gaming to be explained, presumably to someone who only knows video games as that FIFA or Minecraft thing. So whilst its 120 pages are easy to digest and includes interesting insight and examples from the world of indie gaming, it isn’t a long form academic study or historical document. It is more of a coaching guide to the scene, possibly even a tick list of things that you probably should have played or at least watched someone play.
And everything here is mentioned from Elite Dangerous to Limbo, Super Meat Boy to Octodad: Dadliest Catch, FTL (Faster Than Light) to Monument Valley, Five Nights at Freddy’s to 80 Days and many more. It certainly gives you a glimpse in to the varied and eclectic world of indie gaming. It’s not just the fun either, as Mike explores the notion of games as catharsis with things such as That Dragon, Cancer and Depression Quest in the “Emotional Resonance” chapter. What it does throughout though with its prose is not presume any knowledge level of the reader, being equally interesting and informative without being critical or convoluted.
To call this a coffee table book would be slightly ingenuous because, whilst you’ll be able to find it positioned in stores like WH Smith’s with specialist magazines, it doesn’t have any ambition to sit there and be a casual reading for guests. It probably isn’t for the well informed gamer either, except those who want to embellish their wheelhouse of knowledge. What it is good for is for giving to a friend, a family member or a partner and saying “THIS. Read this, this is what I play, what I like, what I enjoy and why I enjoy it.”
At the same time it isn’t going to be a deep academic exploration or, if you are well versed with gaming, give you much that you probably don’t already know. It’s a nice, shiny book with great artwork from awesome games but it isn’t going to rock your world with groundbreaking information. In that way, this book isn’t intended for you. It isn’t intended for me either. It is a great way to look at collected Indie game artwork in one place though, as some of these games are indeed very pretty or very well composed in order to tell the stories or experiences they mean to. And the book does allow that visual element and wide scope of indie gaming design its own platform without fear of cross promotion woes or console exclusivity.
Indie gaming, without being negligent to its mass marketed million dollar produced “AAA” cousin, is an exploration in experience, in creativity and in pushing the limits of what can be achieved in that experience rather than just technological achievement or bombastic set pieces. There is a lot to be had across a lot of different mediums and with the advent of YouTube and the marketing publicity gaming videos generate, you could easily spend hundreds of pounds on titles you might play for minutes. But there are some that rise the crowded space above and exemplify the market and the investment and enthusiasm of fans, gamers and critics alike. Mike Diver’s book is a great way to tell other people that there’s more to gaming than whatever gun-toting explosion fest is advertised at half time on Super Sunday, to tell them what others already know and that there are interesting things regardless of your level of interest and dedication to be enjoyed and celebrated.
Mike Diver’s Indie Games: The Complete Introduction to Indie Gaming, published by Michael O’Mara Books, is available online from Amazon, Waterstones and other retailers, as well as in select WHSmith stores, priced at £17.99 RRP.