Insomnia | Commentary

The Myth of Independence

By Alex Kierkegaard / August 2, 2011

Independent. I am so sick of that word. I reach for my revolver when I hear the word "quirky". Or "edgy". Those words are now becoming labels that are slapped on products to sell them. Anyone who makes a film that is the film they want to make ... is independent.

Jim Jarmusch


Let us resolve this issue once and for all. The bums themselves have been farcically unable to provide us with an adequate definition of what they mean by "independence" — and they've had enough time! almost a decade! — so I think it's time someone stepped in and showed them how it's done.

We'll start with Derek Yu, whose site is among the chief ones involved in harboring all these scammers, generating hype for their wretchedly botched works and perpetuating this myth. He insists, for example, that his Spelunky was "independently made". But bear with me for a moment and take a look at its code. What you'd discover if you did this is that at least 50% of it, if not indeed even more (70 or 80% would not be at all far-fetched), was not written by Yu at all, but by Mark Overmars, Sandy Duncan, James North-Hearn, Michel Cassius and Spencer Hyman, among perhaps also others — ALL OF WHOM HAVE NEVER HAD ANY CONTACT WITH DEREK YU WHATSOEVER. I am of course referring to YoYo Games, the developer of Game Maker, who were in fact Yu's (unacknowledged) collaborators in his Spelunky project. Collaborators with whom Yu has had no contact, and over whose work he's never had any control. So we see that, while Yu is pleased to call Shinji Mikami and Cliff Bleszinski "not independent", these designers are at least communicating with the people who are shaping their games' fucking engines, and directing their efforts, requesting changes, etc., whereas Derek fucking Yu is forced to take entire chunks of his code wholesale from the prepackaged, flash-frozen, corporate supermarket stall (and moreover its CHEAPO BUM DISCOUNT SECTION, not the UPSCALE ORGANIC CUSTOMIZED-TO-ORDER SECTION from which proper designers are shopping for their middleware), without the slightest creative control over them. So I ask you, dear reader, who is more independent here, the "indie" scammer or the master craftsmen?

We see, then, that the scammers' claims of "complete artistic control" are utterly bogus — obviously so in the case of Yu and Spelunky, but also — and I know most will find this hard to swallow, but they should because it's the truth — in the case of anyone who uses any piece of software to create his game apart from machine language.

The idea, then, is that the only way to be truly independent (i.e. to not have to compromise with anyone on anything) is to make the game entirely by yourself — but REALLY by yourself, starting with 1s and 0s. If you employ the aid of even a language like, say, C++ you are still compromising with the people who wrote the language (— since, as every real programmer will tell you, any higher-level language than Assembly automatically restricts your code's possibility space; and the higher the language the greater the restrictions — at the level of Game Maker you barely have any choices left, which is why so many games developed with it play so extremely alike). Moreover, even then you are not truly independent, if, for example, you happen to be living with your parents — who by that fact alone become your financial backers, and whose limited resources limit your independence to pursue your vision. Even the simple fact of your parents requiring you to go to school every day, and spend some time on your homework afterwards — time which, IF YOU WERE TRULY INDEPENDENT, you'd have rather invested into your game project (developing, for example, a proper engine for it, so as not to be forced to copy-paste the same one everyone else is copy-pasting) — limits your independence. If, then, you are working entirely alone, on a budget of say $300 a month, unable to use anything other than machine language because you are not willing to compromise with anyone on anything, while your dream is to make the next Deus Ex — you are basically fucked. The only way to continue down that road would be to try to renegotiate your contract with your parents to give you, say, one million bucks a month instead of 300, and if your parents are not billionaires you simply remain fucked (by THEM, that is, because they could not or did not want to support you in your vision). Even in that case then, you are still being restricted by your financial backers; you can't "realize your dream", you need to compromise with your parents and the hard facts of life and instead make, oh I don't know, yet another poor Doukutsu Monogatari clone?

Bottom line is that, to be truly "independent", you'd have to live in a fucking VACUUM; you'd have to remove yourself from the universe and inhabit AN ALTERNATE FUCKING DIMENSION.

The other choice would be to come back down to earth and begin fucking COLLABORATING with OTHER HUMAN BEINGS (which is what you were already doing with your parents, or your friends, or your girlfriend, or your aunt (who suddenly decided to give you $1000 to finish your game, but whom in order to please you had to make a green-blood version of it), or whoever was close to you during all those years you spent down in your fucking basement — only now you've finally decided to become honest and acknowledge this fact, and the effect of all those people on the final form of the game you'll end up producing).

So basically, what happens when you begin collaborating with others, is that, as in any alliance, a POWER STRUCTURE is inexorably, unavoidably, automatically erected, in which every person joining up acquires a certain percentage of influence proportional to the level of the value of his contribution to the combined effort. Even if it's just two scruffy-looking dudes in their smelly basement, who are hallucinating that they are somehow "independent" (i.e. exist each in a vacuum of his own, which makes it kind of hard to understand how they can even communicate, let alone collaborate), these two dudes are still going to have TO MAKE SOME FUCKING COMPROMISES, which means that NEITHER OF THEM WILL TRULY BE CAPABLE OF "FULLY REALIZING" HIS STUPID FUCKING VISION. Even the slightest, tiniest concession is still a concession, and the moment you have made it you must acknowledge that you are no longer independent.

So, it goes without saying, that in a collaborative effort involving hundreds of individuals, a few of whom have contributed SEVERAL MILLION FUCKING DOLLARS to the combined effort — without which dollars most of those people would hardly know each other's fucking NAMES, let alone have decided to commit a couple of years of their lives to work 60-hour-weeks together — it goes without saying that the people who are RISKING ENTIRE FORTUNES on this venture are going to have a BIG FUCKING SLICE of the "say" in what goes in every decision. They won't have ALL the decision-making power of course (especially if they've joined forces with a big-name director, who CAN and WILL often walk out if the compromises he is asked to make are beyond whatever standard he is prepared to accept), but they will certainly have the lion's share of it, and that is how it SHOULD be. If I were investing 30 million on a fucking game you better believe I'd be firing any little bitch who even dared LOOK at me the wrong way, let alone disagree with any DIRECT ORDER I gave him. I mean what do the bums want? Not only are they lazy, ignorant and talentless, but they'd also like utter strangers to shower them with millions which they wouldn't even KNOW HOW TO FUCKING EVEN BEGIN TO SPEND, let alone properly and efficiently utilize!

And, again, it goes without saying that some low-level flunky artist or programmer or fucking QA person in such a project will have very little say — BECAUSE HE IS DISPOSABLE. If he were as experienced and talented as, say, a Mikami, he WOULDN'T BE disposable. And again, it's not that the flunky may not contribute; he CAN contribute, and if he has what it takes he may shoot up to one day have as much bargaining power as a Mikami, BUT HE CANNOT BE TREATED AS A FUCKING EQUAL IN SUCH A MASSIVE COLLABORATIVE EFFORT WHICH INCLUDES SUCH HUGE AMOUNTS OF TALENT AND RISK-TAKING CAPITAL. Besides which, as I've already explained, even if he WERE treated as an equal HE'D STILL HAVE TO MAKE COMPROMISES LIKE EVERYONE FUCKING ELSE.

So, basically, the idea of "independence", in the metaphysical-superlative sense that the scammers are using it, is absurd, a fucking myth. EVEN A MICHELANGELO did not work "independently" — he was heavily dependent on, and his work was shaped profoundly by, the wishes of his financial backers, as well as the contributions of all those who created the tools with which he worked. And if even a painter finds it PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE to be truly independent, HOW MUCH MORE SO A VIDEOGAME DEVELOPER, WHOSE CHOSEN ARTFORM LIES LIGHT-YEARS ABOVE PAINTING IN TERMS OF COMPLEXITY AND REQUIRED RESOURCES. What happens here basically is that, as I've already explained at length in my Genealogy, if you plot a graph of the various artforms vs. number of people involved, what you will see is that, as the artforms advance, from cave paintings to videogames, the number of people required to produce the typical work shoots up exponentially — because THAT'S how much effort it takes to keep ratcheting up immersion. I mean can you imagine someone saying "I want to make a movie all by myself"? Can you imagine him setting up the cameras, then running around to play all the different parts, putting on wigs, etc., speaking through his nose for the female characters, holding the sound boom for himself, etc., then running behind the camera again and moving it around all the while changing costumes? This shit would be like a Benny Hill skit lol. The idea of a single person making an entire movie in order to be "independent" is absurd, utterly laughable, and movies are a much lower artform, and therefore a far less demanding one resource-wise than videogames. So from this angle too we see that the "indie" movement is deeply reactionary and retrogressive.

But let's return to Derek Yu for a moment to shoot down in advance one of the excuses with which he and the other conspirators are bound to try and come back at us. If they say "But Derek Yu CHOSE to use Game Maker, together with all its faults and limitations — he didn't compromise", the answer is "But the dudes who joined Eidos to make Deus Ex 3, together with all the responsibilities and duties that such a move entails, CHOSE to join Eidos and make Deus Ex 3 — no one held A GUN to their fucking heads and force them to do so". They INDEPENDENTLY made that move OF THEIR OWN FREE WILL, after considering all the options open to them in order to pursue their artistic vision, just as Derek Yu did with picking Game Maker instead of writing his own engine. As long as THERE ARE NO GUNS INVOLVED, it is understood that everyone is taking his decisions, and making his moves, BECAUSE THEY WANT TO DO THEM AND TO MAKE THEM.

What the scammers are basically doing here — and it's such a cold-blooded, such a devious ploy, that if they'd devised it consciously we'd have no choice but to prostrate ourselves before them and worship their divine wickedness — is TAKING IT FOR GRANTED that whoever joins a proper development team CANNOT POSSIBLY BE REALIZING HIS ARTISTIC VISION THROUGH IT. (A presupposition that works along the same lines of thinking, and is being employed for the same reasons, as the one I'll be exploding in an upcoming essay, that whoever wins a game cannot be possibly enjoying himself.)

Comes the counter-argument: "And what about some devs who work in big companies, and who whine that they don't have as much artistic control over the whole work as they'd like?"

Whining is never a good idea; it comes from weakness (which is why babies, and especially human babies, are such experts on it). You either work with your partners (whom, by the way, YOU chose) to exert the maximum of influence they will allow you depending on how valuable they judge your contribution to be compared to theirs, or you become a fucking MAN and fucking QUIT. The moment you begin whining you've already lost the game — and placed yourself in EVEN WORSE negotiating position come the next compromise. In short, only the failures whine, i.e. people who WOULD LIKE TO FORCE THEIR COLLABORATORS TO GIVE THEM MORE INFLUENCE OVER THE DIRECTION OF THE PROJECT THAN THE VALUE OF THEIR CONTRIBUTION ENTITLES THEM TO. Devs who whine therefore are never a black mark against the company their whining is directed; their whining is a black mark against THEM AND ONLY THEM. The dudes who set up the company have agreed between themselves on a way of working which YOU EXPLICITLY WHOLEHEARTEDLY ACCEPTED WHEN YOU JOINED THEM, and the final judge of the effectiveness of this policy or set of policies is not DISGRUNTLED EX-COLLABORATORS — let alone wannabes sitting on the sidelines and secretly hoping to be one day allowed in! — but THE JUDGEMENT OF HISTORY ON THE ARTWORKS THEY PRODUCE. So you've got a problem with Rockstar making you work 80-hour weeks and throwing your stupid, ignorant suggestions in the wastebasket? Be a man and fucking quit, start your own company, make something as revolutionary as GTA III, and THEN we might take a look at YOUR idea of how a videogame company should be run — BUT NOT FUCKING BEFORE. God forbid we paid attention to the ideas of every little coding monkey, or allowed them to play the judge on the working methods of the people who've built this industry into the towering creative monster that it is today, etc. etc.

So, to start bringing this lengthy, drawn-out indictment finally to a close, id Software and Platinum Games both describe themselves on their respective websites as INDEPENDENT GAME DEVELOPERS (it's true, look it up) — and as I've plainly shown deserve that label as much as any other person or group of persons working on games WITHOUT HAVING ANYONE HOLD A GUN TO THEIR HEADS. That Derek Yu then chooses to ignore Bayonetta, Vanquish and Doom 4 on the frontpage of his so-called "Independent Gaming" Source is simply part of his devilish ploy to STEAL the "independent" label from the rest of the industry and reserve it for his own and his friends' laughably abortive attempts at game design — just as Rohrer, Blow and the rest of them attempted to steal the "art" label from the rest of the industry, until I stepped in and took it back from them. All allegations, meanwhile, that proper developers are not fulfilling their artistic visions and/or not enjoying themselves are merely the pitiable chatter of lonely, talentless, lazy and uncooperative creatures whose deepest instinct is revenge; for not only are proper developers obviously having a ball, collaborating and socializing on a daily basis with hundreds of other equally hard-working and talented individuals (and, what's more, in a pleasant, healthy, face-to-face environment, whether it be corporate HQ or the local bar or pizza joint — not in filthy bedrooms and basements through Skype with the disembodied heads of other lonely, anti-social neckbeards), but they are also creating masterpieces that will stand the test of time, and making lasting friendships and entire fortunes to boot.

In short, THERE ARE NO "INDIE" GAMES — there are only shooting, fighting, racing, platform, adventure, strategy, tactics, rhythm games and the like — videogames can only be meaningfully categorized BY GENRE (and the genres themselves are defined entirely based on mechanics and nothing but mechanics — as we'll be seeing in yet another upcoming essay), and any other scheme of categorization can be proclaimed immediately, without even examining it, AS A FRAUD, an attempt to REMOVE some games from competition with their peers for nefarious ulterior motives.

Which brings us to the only tenable, logically consistent definition of the term "indie", which I've already given in my upcoming "Dictionary of the Subhuman Language" (and which, by the way, is valid for all artforms), and which I append here for the instruction of everyone who's been taken in by this elaborate scam:

Indie
An artist who, in the secret consciousness of his inferiority, is fearful of having his work measured against that of the masters in his field, and who therefore invents this non-existent category in order to hide in it.

How clear, how straight-forward, how obvious, how self-evident is that definition then, compared to all the pathetically wretched attempts of the scammers to concoct one themselves — all of which can be basically summarised in a couple of sentences, AND REFUTED WITH A COUPLE OF SIMPLE AND WIDELY-KNOWN (YET SYSTEMATICALLY HUSHED-UP) HARD FACTS:

"It's indie if the dev team is not too large" — which would RULE OUT Flower, Limbo, Braid, Super Meat Boy et al., each of whose staff rolls EXCEEDS ONE HUNDRED FUCKING PEOPLE (again, it's true, look it the fuck up), and INCLUDE the entire corporate output of the industry up to and including the 16-bit era (and much of the 32-bit), whose typical staff roll was five to ten people. So The Legend of Zelda an indie game? Sonic the Hedgehog an indie game? Sure thing, buddy! Or as an Insomnia reader recently put it, "In little over a decade, the indie scene has gone from making revolutionary games like Doom and Quake to mediocre retro platformers like Limbo and Super Meat Boy" (— which as we've seen was to be expected, since you can't possibly CONTINUE to revolutionize such a demanding artform (i.e. keep increasing its immersion in leaps and bounds) without staffing your dev team with ever-increasing numbers of cutting-edge designers, programmers, artists, musicians, playtesters, and so on).

"It's indie if it's self-published" — which would again RULE OUT Flow, Flower, Braid, Limbo, Everyday Shooter, Super Meat Boy, and countless others, and INCLUDE practically From Software's entire catalog, as well as Acquire's, Spike's, Arc System Works', et al, not to mention Cave's shooters and an extensive part of the arcade scene, and finally Microsoft's, Sony's, Sega's, Capcom's, Konami's, etc. ENTIRE INTERNALLY DEVELOPED CATALOGS.

"It's indie if the devs were financially independent" (whatever that's supposed to mean) — which would again RULE OUT the usual suspects (i.e. Flower, Braid, Limbo, Super Meat Boy, Everyday Shooter, etc.), AS WELL AS ALL GAMES MADE BY PARENT-, RELATIVE- AND FRIEND-BACKED INDIVIDUALS, and would moreover require A FUCKING IRS-BACKED FINANCIAL AUDIT FOR ANY PERSON OR GROUP OF PERSONS WISHING TO USE THE TERM "INDIE", necessitating that they demonstrate no financial dependence (either from banks, private persons or loan sharks (the latter of which would be beyond the scope of IRS and therefore require the additional hiring of private detective companies)), and INCLUDE the internally-developed titles of companies like FUCKING NINTENDO, which has been sitting on A FAT FUCKING PILE OF CASH for much of its history.

And THAT'S IT with the scammers' absurd and blatantly self-contradictory attempts at a definition, which brings us to their REAL, INTERNALLY-USED definition, which we can finally discern BY READING BETWEEN THE LINES OF THEIR FAKE ONES, and which I am now going to present to the world as the fruit of much labor in the art of psychological analysis and interpretation:

"It's indie if it's made by Derek Yu and his friends."

Only pay heed that the game should also be at least somewhat shitty, if not altogether terrible, otherwise Yu and his goons will feel threatened by it and refuse to include it. (An alternative definition, since we are on the subject, suggested at one time by a poster on the Something Awful forums, would be "It's indie if you post about it more than you develop it" — which would certainly exclude all real developers, and is actually a pretty accurate alternative option, so if people end up balking at adopting my definition I would be willing to go with it.)

The entire definition debacle, however, does not stop EVEN HERE — for we've so far been examining only THE FIRST LEVEL of the "indie" scam, which, if plotted properly on graph paper, looks kind of like an INVERTED PYRAMID SCHEME, with each successive layer burrowing DEEPER AND DEEPER INTO INANITY, ABSURDITY, COMPULSIVE LYING, ENVY, HATRED AND RESENTMENT. I am referring, of course, to the "TRU INDIE" movement, which holds that Derek Yu and his goons are not "indie" at all, since, after all, THEIR GAMES ARE AT LEAST SOMEWHAT PLAYABLE. This "tru indie" movement, then, champions the works of a group of people EVEN MORE OBSCURE, TALENTLESS, IGNORANT, LAZY AND UTTERLY WORTHLESS than Yu, Blow, Mak, Chen and co., and, as I am told, is headed up by a cabal of fat-ugly-bearded transsexuals!, whose games are so utterly, hair-pullingly, controller-throwingly, screen-bustingly ATROCIOUS, that, if anyone ever bothered to review them, they'd score less than a Commodore 64 game's loading screen! The deeply reactionary nature of the "indie" scam, then, is finally revealed here in its full maliciousness, for the only rationale for the adoption of the "tru indie" label is to counter the contemptibly meager amount of sucess that Yu and co. have managed to achieve with their despicably hateful shenanigans. For if the "indie" scam was born out of envy and resentment, the "tru indie" scam was born out of envy and resentment of the envious and resentful!, and so on and so forth for every succeeding layer of this insanely elaborate and masterfully orchestrated twenty-first century inverted pyramid scheme...

But I've neglected to demolish the last weapon, the very last-ditch resort, the one the scammers (and the scammer-scammers, the "tru scam scammers") turn to after all their other lies have been taken away from them and destroyed, the one that goes "BUT INDEPENDENT AND INDIE ARE NOT THE SAME THING!" — at which point you finally realize with a sigh of weariness and resignation that you've been sorely mistaken all this time, and that the creatures you've been attempting to converse with WERE NEVER REALLY ACTUALLY HUMAN BEINGS...

...

But let us take a step back from all this pitiable chatter to whose level I have demeaned myself by lowering myself today to examine and refute, and consider what a gross presumption it is to claim to have created a game truly "independently". "We Create Worlds", was the motto of those inimitable master craftsmen who set up Origin Systems — and they harnessed and employed not only their own talents, but also all of past mankind's to create them. To create a world alone, on the other hand, truly independently — who could be capable of such a feat? Certainly only a god — and not even any of those our ancestors spoke to us of...

Nietzsche: "Let us remove supreme goodness from the concept of God; it is unworthy of a god. Let us also remove supreme wisdom: it is the vanity of philosophers that is to be blamed for this mad notion of God as a monster of wisdom: he had to be as like them as possible. No! God the supreme power — that suffices! Everything follows from it, "the world" follows from it!"