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Punk and Indie Games

May 20th, 2009 | Posted by Matthew Gallant in Link-out

By the mid 1970′s, Rock & Roll sounded nothing like the energetic blues-inspired pop songs after which the genre was named. The soundscape was now made up of concept albums, rock operas, synthesizers and 30 minute ballads. The music was elaborate and pretentious, carefully constructed by trained musicians and backed by symphony orchestras.

Then a bunch of angry teenagers yelled into their mics, strangled their guitars and killed rock and roll forever. They were fast and cheap and young and refused to compromise. Punk music made people remember what they had loved about rock in the 50′s and 60′s; the raw energy, the excitement, the emotion, the counterculture.

The game industry today shares many qualities with the bloated, elaborate, high-concept music industry of the 70′s. Budgets are skyrocketing, endless sequels are the norm, and team sizes range in the hundreds. At the same time, many of us pine for the kind of games we grew up with, the ones that made us fall in love with the medium in the first place. As Greg Costikyan put it:

You love games. You sometimes despair at the conventional game market. You look to the fringes — to indie games, to tabletop, to serious games and game for change, to anything outside of the industry mainstream — to try to recapture the sense of wonder and bliss that games once wrought in you.

Are indie games then the new punk? Are they tearing down an establishment that’s long in the tooth and has forgotten what it’s really all about? They certainly share the DIY attitude and a predilection for lo-fi technology. Jesper Juul argues:

Indie video games are like punk rock, short, low production costs, wrestling our art from the claws of big corporations.

Japanese designer Suda 51 has also called for more “punk games”, albeit with a fairly unique definition of what that means.

Suda said that a truly punk game will strike a chord with gamers the same way the Sex Pistols, Joy Division or Nirvana impacted his view of music. “We need to create that kind of game… I’d like to ask publishers to help us and support us [to make more punk games],” he said.

However, Greg Costikyan pokes holes in these comparisons:

The punk aesthetic is relentlessly anti-intellectual. …[However,] the Ramones themselves proved remarkably articulate and intelligent. And the punk revolution was equally fuelled by art-house poseurs, like the Talking Heads, who treated the anti-intellectual pose ironically. …But really. The East Village, 1973, is not gaming in 2008. And Jonathan Blow, say, is not Joey Ramone, despite a certain similarity in Brechtian cool.

I don’t think there’s one right answer to this question. Punk and indie games are similar in some ways and dissimilar in others, and it’s disingenuous to draw out the connection farther than reality. However, I can’t help but find a certain measure of excitement in the comparison.

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19 Responses

  • This seems like it would be a good opening paragraph or outline of a longer paper. Is there more coming?

  • I think Costikyan is pretty right on. A designer like Cactus might be considered sort of punk in his attitudes towards game design, while most indie games are more along the lines of deconstructionist exercises.

    We always forget that these movements happen across all fields at once, and don’t necessarily carry over to mediums that emerge later. Fluxus happened and rippled through not just art and music, but literature, design and architecture as well. I think that we shouldn’t be so concerned with periodization, and just let things happen.

  • Really enjoyable read. I suppose I’m hopelessly biased though, seeing as the first friend I ever had who was a game programmer lived in an almost empty stark white room with his shit in boxes, drawings on the walls, and eight computers from Goodwill running animations simultaneously… at the ripe age of 16. Born to be DIY.

  • Alan says:

    I think one of the main problems here is defining “punk”.

    The “Crank” movies were described to me recently as “punk cinema hitting the mainstream”. I could certainly see that – Crank is similar to a lot of low-budget assualt-on-the-senses stuff I’ve played – things that push your boundaries of taste and morals, without being intellectual enough to discuss it.

    That would seem to be what fueled punk music – reckless pushing of boundaries, not waiting for them to be discussed, just plowing through them and seeing what happens.

    If that’s the case then, from a cultural perspective, we’ve made “punk” games for years. In fact, we’re ahead of the music industry, as not only have we sold punk for profit, we’ve turned on it and killed it ourselves – just look at the critical response to Postal 2.

    From an industry perspective there’s perhaps a little more opportunity to rally against things – companies like Denki, for example, who challenge the notions of high budgets and long development times.

    Alas, at the end of the day, as soon as you evoke The Sex Pistols in an argument of Punk Aesthetics, you’ve shot yourself in the foot. The Sex Pistols were what “Punk” anything was really all about – making a big stink for no reason in order to make big pots of cash. Which we’ve done in spades already (see: Manhunt, GTA, Madworld, etc).

  • Also, I should note that DIY punks, the kind of punk that a techno-libertarian programmer type is most likely to be, are decidedly *not* anti-intellectual. Unless reading Marx and Adorno is for dummies (in which case some games academics are in trouble).

    Though, to Costik’s credit, the punks he is talking about in particular were a bunch of dumb m-f’ers.

  • I suppose the next step in becoming punk would be to establish a proclivity toward destruction, especially of the self. I’ve seen glimmers, but few arthouse games have much (or any) relation to the brash and obnoxious. Instead, a fair amount of arthouse games have more of an emo feel.

    I’d put Rohrer next to the Smiths or Joy Division pretty easily, but I’m not sure who I’d place with the Dead Kennedys or Misfits.

    • Rohrer is simultaneously super DIY and super life-affirming. I don’t think he’s got a destructive bone in his eight-foot-tall, smiling body.

    • Wow that link is a pretty wonderful example of the banalities you can make with knowledge of about two lines of code in Flash.

      • I have no doubt that it took more effort than that (though the code part obviously wasn’t that intensive). What I meant by linking it was that it conveys a very different atmosphere and emotion than the sadder, quieter feel of games like Passage, Today I Die, or Majesty of Colors.

        • Oh no it gave me a very different feeling than any game I’ve played. I’d say my primary feeling was bemusement, though. Having done the film school thing, I’ve got a shoulder chip against throwing video clips inside games.

          The blog crawling idea was really awesome though, the drawing and text was actually a lot like a really cool student game I saw last year (that took a lot more than one person to design); I wish it were a little more painful, though. I was listening to metal while playing it and I don’t think a single sound effect raised itself above the din of Monotonix.

  • I was recently trying to talk about Braid with someone who didn’t get it and ended up using a music analogy. Frustrated at his narrow-mindedness, I said there was simply no way I could explain how Braid needs to be interpreted in a way that’s different from traditional games any more than I could explain to my 70 year grandmother why punk can be just as good as jazz (Maybe if I had joined the debate team in high school…). She is simply not culturally capable of understanding or appreciating punk. A lot of gamers are the same way, and lash out at games like Flower, Braid, The Path – Games that challenge their notions of what good game mechanics are.

    I find it fascinating that “Those damn kids and their jazz/rock/punk/rap music!” has now become “Those pretentious newcomers and their art games!”

    This also nicely ties in to our recent podcast on genre. We talk about film and literature genre as it applies to games all the time, but it’s nice to be reminded that music also has genres that can be just as relevant. I wonder what games, if any, could be considered to have Classical qualities?

  • Alan says:

    I feel, for the most part, that cross-genre comparisons lead to us thinking of games in terms of other genres, which we shouldn’t be doing.

    However …

    In terms of classical music, that’s easy: Pac-Man, Space Invaders et al. They have the same shared authorship of todays games (even if the sharing leans more to the player than the creator), they have the same structures of interaction (sometimes, arguably, better structures) yet they are created with stripped-down tools and the purest of intent.

    Failing that, I’d say sports and playground games, since they were created purely with physical tools in an age when we couldn’t create computer games, just as classical music was created using actual instruments before recording was possible.

    • Talking about genres in the games medium is going to necessarily rely on individual understandings of genres. For example: To me, classical music is defined by being technically difficult while generally refusing to rock, so that might be more of a cribbage or bridge to me.

  • I think it’s worth remembering that as bloated, elaborate and pretentious as their work was Pink Floyd still made some outstanding albums.

    • No disrespect intended toward Pink Floyd, Genesis, Supertramp or other similar bands. I’m a big fan of them all. However, I think they failed to capture the same raw excitement that Chuck Berry and Little Richard created decades earlier, and that punk brought that energy back.