2017: The Year Independent & AA Reigned Supreme

The term indie has lost most of its original, intentional charm. Like with music in the mid-2000’s — what originally started as a novel way to define bands and artists, be it of the rock or maybe the pop variety, whom weren’t under the control of The Big Five (a simple name referring to the labels with the biggest monopoly on the music industry) — the term quickly became synonymous with the most simplest of categorizing a particular release. Bordering on blanket-terms and perhaps (unknowingly) sentencing games to this bland conformity of identity for the sake of easily grasping what’s so interesting with said game/studio in the first place. People still use it and perhaps with all the best intentions in mind. It’s a means to further draw to light the massive — likely alarming — gulf of appeal and intrigue that’s been garnered between the independent community/culture and of AAA development.

Sure, companies like Nintendo may be an exception to the rule I might be implying here: that in 2017, independent developers/studios — to steer ourselves, for the love of God, away from the simple “indie” moniker — reigned supreme. Sony too, some may argue, can stand alongside their oldest rivals as being an exception, though in my personally humble-if-blunt opinion, what Sony Interactive Entertainment have given us (and will give us in 2018) conjures a completely different worrying precedent for games all conforming to the same hopeful ideal. The Last of Us Part II, God of War, Days Gone, Detroit: Become Human…I see ambition, I see a need to tell stories, I just don’t see much joy in the gameplay or aesthetic departments to be frank. But hey (because I have to reiterate)…opinions! The PS4 has of course had some well-good games on its system this year and once again Sony’s console has been used just as much as one’s PC or the newly-acquired Nintendo Switch. Same can’t be said for Xbox One…again…sadly.

Cuphead Review Screenshot 3
But 2017 has been a strange ole’ year hasn’t it? Phenomenal, but strange. Hard as it’s been — as it always is — to come to face the stone-cold, factual inevitability that studios of varying sizes and employment, creating games of many a genre, style, direction and tone…just might have beaten out experiences (or should that be “services”) built and manufactured by developers ten/twenty/fifty-times the size and budget. Again, Nintendo have proven once more that size doesn’t always matter and that they can still surprise and delight even the wisest, most cleverest (aka egotistical) but above all else, most downtrodden and [bordering on] depressed, of us. Only to repeat that process in the same year again…and again.

Because for all the controversy around microtransactions, loot boxes, DLC and the supposed decline of single-player experiences (because nobody plays single-player games anymore, huh?); of AAA products coming out unplayable, unfinished, unappealing and undignified, independent developers have once more risen amidst the BS and the PR-scripted excuses. I’d say we’re ten years into this sizeable transition that has now become but a standard of the industry and while the revolution may have already been televised, archived and repeated to fill the empty gaps in your TV listings, it’s still quite amazing just how much these games have shone and put their rivals to shame. You ask me which games stand out in 2017 and I’ll give you those without flashy marketing or strings of buzzwords. I’ll list off names that popped up almost out of nowhere; names whose passion lies in genuine hard-work and not some pretentious attempt to be, and only be, an emotional story; names whose intention isn’t some virtuous pandering to some socio-political flavour of the month or fear that the angry mob will come and ruin their lives/career should they refuse to conform.

Last year we were treated to such titles like Pony Island, The Witness, Firewatch, Hyper Light Drifter, Superhot, Livelock, Seraph…and lest we forget our GOTY, Owlboy. In 2017 that diverse and vibrant portfolio of genres, ideas and designs only grows evermore: Cuphead, Hollow Knight, What Remains of Edith Finch, Night in the Woods, Linelight, Nex Machina, Golf Story, A Hat in Time, The Sexy Brutale and even those who, like Owlboy, went all the way and warranted the consensus of perfection with the likes of Divinity: Original Sin II…and so much more. Platformers, shooters, puzzlers, RPG’s, adventures, sport sim’s…and some quirky deviations alongside.

The balance, as much the perception, has now permanently shifted. Gone are the days where independent games are merely scoffed as just “another Metroidvania”, “another roguelike”, “another uber-pixellated, nostalgia-glazed trip down memory lane.” Yes, there will be (and has been) these instances, some even turning out as bad — bordering on atrocious — releases this year, just like any other. Just as there’s been the litter of survival/crafting games, and more prominently, the advent (or rising popularity) of differing multiplayer-focused experiences. The hero-shooter, the asynchronous survival-horror, the battle royale-esque craze. All of which receiving almightily-contrasting levels of popularity, hype, bandwagoning and utter abandonment — all falling, once again, under the excusable banner of “taste”.

But would we see this same diversity and intriguing posthumous analysis from the biggest names? If people weren’t attuned to the reality already, then 2017 has readdressed and reaffirmed the green-soaked elephant in the room that is this industry’s financial agenda. That’s not to say that smaller studios — AA studios, as has become a better-suited terminology for developers that seem to fit snugly in-between — aren’t hoping for a positive financial result and admittedly it is a shame when we hear news of what have been critically-acclaimed titles, not quite meeting a studio’s expectations. But even with a game like Nex Machina failing to sell well — with Housemarque finally admitting that it’s time to move on from these tried-and-tested genres — how many smaller games have been hit by the same level of bad publicity akin to anything EA, Activision or Warner Bros have tried (and mostly failed) spinning in some redeemably positive light?

If video game enthusiasts weren’t already distrustful of these companies and their insipidly monetary priorities, they most definitely are now. Sure, we have a responsibility to always have the door slightly ajar, to offer an opportunity for these larger developers/studios to genuinely impress and entertain us, and to not completely cut them off, no matter the catch or resulting BS that comes our way. But personally…honestly…it’s these AA studios (perhaps AA is a better-suited term, you think?) whom I will likely associate with genuine intrigue and innovation. Whom I will happily offer time — and perhaps money — towards. Even if the year does give us titles from series and studios with such lofty reputation, is it in anyway strange for us to, just maybe, consider the possibility that these smaller developers have now claimed the majority share in this $100 billion industry. Perhaps not in monetary value, but more importantly, in creative value.

Golf Story Review Screenshot 2
It’s these developers, these studios — and sometimes, publishers themselves — that my attention is increasingly gravitating towards. Only on occasion drifting back to big names like Nintendo or Sega or Sony, when the exception to the rule is evident. Said rule being: AAA just doesn’t excite me as it once did. Because it’s these games adorning this article’s header and more than likely being celebrated among the best of 2017, where my excitement (no trust me, I can get excited about something…once in a while), my curiosity, my longing to know more, is stemming from going into 2018. It’s these games too that I look at, maybe initially with less-than-keen interest; deciding to look into and end up coming out with heightened views. Independent development has only continued to grow more productive, interesting and relevant in an industry that now rivals music and even movies so far as gross income.

While video games may well have their own Big Three/Four/Five companies with which everyone will associate with this medium (for better or worse), would it be foolish to proclaim that going into 2018 AA is the new AAA? 2017 has undoubtedly been the year of the independent developer, the indie if you insist, though how much of it has been claimed solely by such a community remains to be seen. But even with the big names still giving us something to shout about — the reinvention of some series and the return-to-form of established subsidiaries/studios having gone through a rough patch — you needn’t refer to the weekly banquet that is #screenshotsaturday to note just how dominant this corner of the industry has become. Because it’s not just a corner now, is it? No, it’s more a grand, lustrous swathe of content that, even now, continues to amaze and excite. That’s something AAA sorely needs but once again has not quite universally achieved. In 2017, it’s independents and AA that reigned supreme.