What is a indie game, In any event? Looking at the nominees Game Rewards 2022, I’m not sure anyone can definitively tell you that. Among the tastes of God of War Ragnarok and Ring of Elden sitting a few independent darlings of the past year. A label that started as a way to recognize small developers who create games outside of traditional industry trappings has become a commodity by this industry. Maybe it’s time to rethink how we define an indie game.
The big business of small games — The biggest and most talked about TGA category is, of course, Game of the Year. This year, the list of nominees mainly includes AAA hits like Ring of Elden, God of War Ragnarokand Forbidden Horizon West. The game on the list that stands out the most from the crowd is Wander.
Unlike the other games on the list, which are big, sprawling adventures with big budgets behind them, Wander has a fairly simple premise. You play as a cat exploring a sparsely populated post-human world. The game’s unique platforming earned it critical acclaim and instant indie darling status.
The editor behind Wander is Annapurna Interactive, a game publishing subsidiary of film company Annapurna Pictures founded in 2016. If there is a “big” independent, then it would be found at Annapurna Interactive. The company has a history of producing some of the most beloved “indie” games ever since it started publishing.
The nature of the awards show means only a few indie games will rise above the crowd for recognition. But so often, the chosen handful represents a relatively small slice of the indie scene that seems most palatable to the mainstream industry, which indie games initially sought to break away from.
Beyond video games, the term “indie” is loaded. Indie rock and indie film suggest a certain underdog quality, that something breaks the mold and comes out of the system. However, today, it is above all stylistic terms, loaded with prestige but owned mostly by big-name actors, musicians and companies. The “true” indie scenes still exist, but they bear surprisingly little resemblance to the mainstream idea of an indie.
The chosen few — 2022’s indie darlings in gaming seem to be Wander and Immortality. Both have reputations as outsiders and mold breakers while having more mainstream connections than indie branding would imply. Wander was released by one of the biggest independent companies in the industry, while also getting money from Sony for being a console exclusive. Immortality thrives on author Sam Barlow’s stellar reputation as one of the industry’s greatest creators.
Indie games and smaller creators getting more attention and more money from big names in the industry can be a good thing, there seems to be a ceiling on how many indies can get the credit they deserve.
Many of the most compelling games of 2022 were indie games. The tastes of sleeper citizen, Signalis, Sephony, I was an exocolonist teenager, and more all deliver flawless experiences for gamers who feel innovative. Some of them received nominations, albeit in much smaller categories.
The line between indie games and AA has become blurred, creating a dilemma for the industry as a whole. When is a game too big to be indie? Is indie an aesthetic, a budget, a number of developers? It is unclear.
The love for games that get nominated is welcome, but The Game Awards is largely a space that primarily recognizes AAA experiences. As good as Forbidden Horizon West and God of War Ragnarok perhaps, they are also very similar sequels to their predecessors. There is little innovation, they play it safe. Still, they’re picking up the nominations. When you give two or three games a place in almost every category of the awards, then there becomes little space to recognize anything outside the norm.
Beyond the confines of the Best Indie and Best Debut Indie categories, the TGA 2022 nominees include only a sparse representation of indie experiences. Games for Impact has several too, but often these games receive their only nomination in this category. What game can have so much impact without earning a nomination elsewhere?
As is too often the case with price categories dedicated to a smaller subset of an industry, rather than feeling like a dedicated place to grab attention, it feels like a relegation of the rest of the conversation.
The Game Awards will be broadcast live from Los Angeles on December 8.