“Those Filthy Hippies”
The Hipster movement is nothing new, but the name certainly does change among generations. Beatnik, Hippy, Punk. Having a culture that actively pushes against the mainstream is important to have, not because having a contentious disdain for the status quo is generally a healthy lifestyle, but because it leads to new styles of art being actively developed in protest of the status quo.
The general counterculture cycle is this: something becomes mainstream -> counterculture goes against the mainstream -> new art style develops -> art style becomes popularized -> style becomes mainstream.
Most new art styles are evolutions of but also direct responses to the previous art styles. The more that the mainstream leans towards something, the more there is a pull in the opposite direction from this counterculture.
We can go into the psychology behind why this happens, but I’ll keep it to a minimum to stay on point. Younger generations wanting to make a voice for themselves, go against what the older generation’s idea of what trendy is. It’s the rebellious teen mentality. Someone trying to create an image for themselves that goes against the image that their parents try to impart on them… Except that it’s not just your parents but the culture that they live in, expression-wise.
Counterculture and Evolution in Interactive Mediums
But the long lead-in is required when talking about expanse in the gaming medium. With widely popular games continuously topping the charts (the mainstream) there is a healthy dissent against them. In response, there has been a growing culture of games focused on more than just empty calorie thrills.
The counterculture is the indie scene, but has been starting to expand into a healthy indie market thanks to Steam and the online stores of the major platforms.
The focus of the counterculture is less-reliance on set-pieces and high poly count, but more focus on a solid narrative or distilling mechanics to their base so experiences don’t get watered down by too many poorly executed nobs and levers to handle.
Five Nights at Freddy’s distills the suspense and anxiety from survival horror by understanding that “waiting to be found” is much more heart-attack inducing than the chase.
In a scary movie, when the person being chased is waiting under the bed, behind the door of a closet, behind some boxes in a warehouse, is when the tension builds. This happens because 1) you don’t have a frame of reference to when and where the thing chasing you is and 2) the character doesn’t get to dictate where they can go anymore. They reside themselves to a single location in the slim chance that “maybe the thing will just turn around and leave me alone.” (Stabby stabby)
Well, in Five Nights, you get to experience the fun of just sitting in fear and spastically keeping the homicidal animatronics by your office door. No moving through the halls if they see you because there is no escape. Just the distillation of terror by removing mechanics that don’t induce feat-based tension.
To the Moon is a distillation of story-driven games. You can move around the environment, but there is little to no interaction with environment.
What keeps you engaged and enthralled is the heart-wringingly sentimental story of a man on the cusp of dying and two scientists trying to give him the memory of being an astronaut.
A strong narrative, an interesting story, and great interactions between the scientists leaves you not wanting to turn the game off and seeing this man’s wishes fulfilled. Just because you have an interesting story means that you need heavy gameplay between the story to get the story across. Being an interactive medium is enough for the story to be told in this way and at the pace of the player.
You can say that the indie scene is the place where you go for interesting new mechanics, but it’s also where you can see the most expansion in the ideas of what games can become. Not every game needs a love-interest, zombies, family-ties, and guns for shootan’ thangs. You can have memorable games with less than this. Portal shattered the expectation long ago, but tried and tested military shooters and continuing franchises are just so easy that it’s almost implausible for big companies to stop. At least there will always be spaces for new mechanics to develop, new philosophies born, even if the indie scene becomes mainstream in the future.