One of the most powerful and useful tools in the independent game’s arsenal is also one of the least discussed — the power to tackle subjects that make people uncomfortable, that challenge our precious societal idols.
Where the majority of AAA games are constrained because of their massive budgets and the resultant need to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and because of the inherent risk in producing taboo or controversial art, independent games are at liberty to take more chances.
While it’s not necessarily true that indie games play for lower stakes — some of these projects’ success or failure mean the difference between solvency or bankruptcy for their creators) — they typically aren’t beholden to a conservative corporate structure that is intrinsically defined by a reluctance to gamble. And it’s not a stretch to say that the independent scene has more in common culturally with the individualism and flux of the art world than the cold strictures of the financial world.
That said, beyond the fact that independent games are more likely to broach taboo, there aren’t a lot of universal commonalities you can point to either in which subjects are most likely to become a focus or how they go about tackling them. One approach is the arguably the safest; as any stand-up comedian will tell you, one of the best ways to incite people to talk about something that makes them uncomfortable is to first make them laugh about it.
The subtle art of deflection
A lot of games take this principle to heart, either by using comedy as a doorway to a more serious discussion or by trying to reduce the gravitas around a taboo subject by exposing it to ridicule. Games like #ShowerWithYourDadSimulator2015 or #GoatSimulator expose ideas as diverse as homophobia and the 2014 Ukrainian revolution to parody, robbing them at least in the context of those games of some of their sting. As history teaches us, the best way to disarm a controversial topic of some of its forbidden nature is to shine a bright light on it for as long as possible, to drag it into the public consciousness. For a crass recent example of this, look at the 50 Shades novels and films and the spike in public conversation and consciousness around BDSM.
There are hybrid approaches as well that include elements of humor but don’t rely on them to mask their serious themes. In some ways the dissonance between the two casts the taboo subject matter in sharper relief; the cartoonish, childlike, sometimes silly art of #BindingOfIsaac makes the themes of child torture and domestic religious brutality more shocking and horrifying.
"Freedom lies in being bold."
Of course, there are a huge number of indie games that approach taboo in a straightforward, serious way, that clearly are designed as much to encourage a dialogue about an issue as to entertain; games like #ConsensualTortureSimulator, a game about sadism and masochism and hurting someone who wants to be hurt, or #AnalogueAHateStory, a visual novel that includes frank depictions of transhumanism, LGBT issues and misogyny.
Sometimes the best approach is a direct one, a frank, unfiltered look at an issue that humanizes the people it affects.
Of course, there are really appalling failures in this space too, games that either use presumed controversy as a naked commercial tool or that are just so painfully juvenile that, even if they were at some point well-intentioned, inevitably result in an awkward, desperate, embarrassing trash fire.
Last year’s Hatred jumps to mind, as does the woeful Super Columbine Massacre RPG! and most of the entries in the Postal series. Games like these don’t broach taboo so much as squeal about it and feebly try to pitch it in your face, and generally end up failing not only as games but in crass commercial terms as well, primarily because of the way they commit the cardinal sin of underestimating the market savvy of their intended audience.
But even these tragic missteps have value, in that they hopefully demonstrate for future developers how not to approach forbidden topics. And as a whole, the independent game space has been a boon for progress in expanding a culture of openness and tolerance, for that I heartily salute them.