There’s a lot of definitions of “what is an Indie game,” or “Indie developer,” for me the characteristic that sets Indie apart is that if you were to ask them what the structure of their workgroup is they would tell you who is doing what. They give you names not departments and everybody really does everything. Art, code, sound, in the case of Fez, sometimes various assistants in the case of Hyper Light Drifter, but the vibe is the same, she does this, he does that, we all do this one thing because it sucks and nobody wants to do it. I’m drawn to Indie because if I was going to make a game I would want to do it as part of a small team of less than 10 or so people, and I think I would need to have constraints.
“Constraints” sounds like a bad word, but really it forces an artist to focus, they are obstacles to be worked with not fought with. Derek Yu talks about this in his book “Spelunky” a lot. He pitched competitive multiplayer to Microsoft as an XBLA exclusive feature as part of a hook to get them on board, only to cut the feature because it was just going to take to much time. The result was a more focused game, they had time to flesh out other aspects of the game more fully. And then there is the opposite example of Fez, where the constraint of time gave us a map that Phil Fish even saw as the weak point of the game, but people were asking for it.
The product of this struggle is an experience closely tied to the personality of the developer. I am sure that an interview with anyone that works on Assassin’s Creed would explain the personal touches that made it into any of the AC games, but you cannot play any popular Indie game and not feel like a little of the respect they demand has to do with how tied up the creators are. Even The Witness has me picturing Jonathan Blow all zen like alone and meditating, he wants me to attempt Tai Chi with my thinkers like he does, he wants me to put it down from time to time to stay calm because he does. Ed and Tommy want us to feel a little eratic playing SMB because they are a little erratic. Isaac is a little manic, Hyper Light is elusive, Fez is solid intelligence, hell even Doom 1 exudes the darkness conveyed through any interview its creators have given, they’re a little scary.
When the art is the vision of a small group, a pair, a single artist, its clarity keeps me coming back. Playing a AAA game makes me feel like I’m sitting in the back of an English 101 class at University, the prof doesn’t have enough time for me and there isn’t enough room to be comfortable, I will not be able to make this information my own because that isn’t how the course is designed.