Square Enix finds a home for refreshingly strange indie games
There are too many games; too many titles coming from small teams of developers that many are lost like shoes in a crowd. That’s according to Phil Elliott, head of indie development for Square Enix Collective – the Japanese studio’s indie incubation wing.
“The biggest challenge is the sheer number of games being made and released,” he tells me. “If we look at how mobile development evolved, it feels as though there are some similarities, and to that end having a good game is not necessarily enough to guarantee success.”
According to Elliott, the tools of modern game development have made it possible for anyone with ideas and talent to build something, but this same democratisation is leading to a state where interesting games are drowned out among the noise. Publish a game now and even if you have something exceptional, the rate of releases makes it hard to keep your head above the bellowing of similarly sized projects. The methods of curation currently available via Steam and other platforms are struggling to work with the growing trawl of indies.
To cut through some of the noise, Square Enix’s Collective programme is lending the company’s name as a means to buoy smaller titles. The project started as as feedback platform, but has evolved to encompass guidance for marketing, investment and publication. At a recent showcase I was able to have some hands-on playtime with the Collective’s latest batch – and among a few forgettable titles, there were some striking, refreshingly weird ideas at work.
Tokyo Dark, for example, is a neo-noir horror that mixes the gameplay of anime-style visual novels with that of point-and-click adventure. The game, developed by Japanese-based studio Cherrymochi, centres on protagonist Detective Itō’s search for her missing partner. In an RPG twist, decisions you make along the way will affect various stats, such as professionalism, sanity and investigation ability. Take a drink on the job, for example, and you’ll lose professionalism (but feel like a proper noir detective).
“We’re inspired by both classic ‘weird fiction’ like HP Lovecraft and modern works from Laird Barron”
What could easily be chalked up as a boilerplate point-and-click adventure with some anime dressing is held up by grotesque situations, unsettling characters and an atmospheric soundscape of raindrops and industrial drones. The studio’s creative director, Jon Williams, tells me his team took inspiration from David Fincher films and the work of manga artist Junji Ito. “House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski is [also] a huge influence,” he adds. “We’re inspired by both classic ‘weird fiction’ like HP Lovecraft and modern works from Laird Barron.”
Horror tropes inform much of Cherrymochi’s story, but Williams explains that the game also pulls from real-world Japan – Tokyo Dark’s environments are drawn from specific places in that titular metropolis, and the narrative covers topics such as the Japanese JK business, a shady industry built around arranging dates for paying customers with adolescent girls.
“These are often difficult subjects to tackle in games, which [tend to] focus on a loop or action mechanic,” notes Williams. “Ludonarrative dissonance can be a big issue; it’s hard to take seriously questions about a character’s mental state after you’ve killed a whole room of ‘enemies’. Because Tokyo Dark is quite a slow-paced game based on exploration and interactive narrative, it gives us more freedom to tackle these types of issues.”
The second game that caught my eye at the showcase was Forgotton Anne, by Danish studio ThroughLine Games. Like Tokyo Dark, it pulls on anime aesthetics and adventure-game mechanics, but the result is a polar opposite in terms of atmosphere – nodding towards a Studio Ghibli-style story of a girl in a fantastical world of magical characters.
“Ghibli is definitely an inspiration, but since then I have also sought out a lot of other works from other animation masters in Japan,” says the studio’s head Alfred Nguyen. “In particular I would also mention Satoshi Kon, who has made some very fabulous works that deal a lot with psychological themes.”
The game starts with Anne, alone in a strange complex, inhabited by sentient scarfs and lamps. As the blurb describes it, these are “creatures composed of mislaid objects longing to be remembered again”. A situation that could otherwise run the risk of becoming twee is given a welcome injection of absurdity by Anne’s interactions with these living objects, treated like co-workers and terrorist attackers. Nguyen tells me that game sets out to tackle, at least in part, modern consumerism “and what it means to progress so rapidly as a society, with people barely being able to keep up with all the technology and noise”.
“Growing up in Denmark, but within a foreign culture, I felt I had to deal with expectations on both sides”
The game, which plays out much like a puzzle adventure with some light platforming thrown in, is also born from Nguyen’s personal experience of growing up within two different cultures. “I grew up as a refugee child,” he explains. “My parents are both refugees from the Vietnam War, and so growing up in Denmark, but within a foreign culture, I felt I had to deal with expectations on both sides; my past, inheritance, heritage, but also this culture I am currently in.”
I didn’t get far enough in the game to see how these themes are woven into Forgotton Anne, but Nguyen says he’s interested in what it means to break from a pattern, whether it has come from cultural heritage or the society around you. He also thinks games are a powerful medium for exploring these ideas, thanks to their inherent interactivity. “Change in people occurs the strongest when there’s direct experience; when you’re acting, and with games you interact,” he says.
Changes in approach to curating
Aside from Forgotton Anne and Tokyo Dark, Square Enix Collective is also helping to publish four-player multiplayer title Oh My Godheads, which plays like a game of capture the flag, but with giant religious iconography. Couch co-op is having a bit of a moment right now, with games such as Overcooked and Rocket League, and Oh My Godheads is suitably silly for playing with friends while you wait for the pizza to cook. Each “godhead” also comes with specific drawbacks – such as exploding after a few seconds, or covering whoever is holding it in smoke – adding variety to the fray.
Also under the Collective’s wing is the 3D brawler Deadbeat Heroes, which looks like a cell-shaded love letter to 1960s-era comic books but is held back by over-busy screens and muddled actions that stop the beat-’em-up action from flowing.
Square Enix isn’t the only major studio to take an interest in incubating titles from smaller teams, but on the evidence of its latest batch, its mode of support for indies could be a strong way to sift the cut-and-thrust from the cut-and-paste.
“The industry’s challenge is how this unprecedented range of indie games can be curated, in a way that allows the most talented teams to thrive”
“There are so few barriers to being able to make a game now, and enough ways to launch – and this is tremendously exciting,” reiterates Elliott. “Almost anybody, anywhere, can take an idea and build it into something exciting, if they have the time and the talent. It’s the biggest opportunity for games to represent the kind of range of emotions, experiences and perspectives in the way that film, TV, literature, theatre and other art forms do… but that also presents the problem of visibility per game.
“The industry’s challenge is how this unprecedented range of indie games can be curated, in a way that allows the most talented teams to thrive,” he adds, noting: “It will be an interesting few years, I think.”