Personal blog of Elijs 'X2Eliah' Dima

“Railsea” exemplifies what indie games are doing right

Yes, yes, I know that one of the above is a book (gasp) and the other is a massive non-cohesive accumulation of supremely different videogames with hardly anything in common. But bear with me folks, & I will try my mediocrestestest-est to try and wrangle a semi-logical argument on how the former is an example of many qualities that are generally found in the latter, and are responsible for the latter’s rather positive overall reception. Even though the former is something very much like the “AAA” (Or at the very least, just an “A”) level work of its respective industry, and thus hardly similar to gaming’s “indie”. Right then. Saddle your war-bears and let’s charge into the verbal warzone! FOR THE AMPERSAAAAAAAND!

The first thing that “Railsea” has going for it is, without question, a supremely off-beat setting. For a quick summary, it’s ostensibly a post-technological and ecological apocalypse planet, that’s criss-crossed, literally covered all over in train tracks, which are the new analogue of seas and oceans (since those are not present anywhere, it would seem). So deliciously steampunk in concept and unlike the shard of reality we’re stuck in. It is wholly unfamiliar, even when much of it is based on concepts that are known and almost subconsciously understandable to every reader, and therefore provides a somewhat alien perspective, and a framework in which a lot of everyday tropes can be shown in a new light.

And that concept of moving the setting in off-beat directions is a quite important aspect behind the success of contemporary “indie” games. For instance, consider the tree-world of Botanicula  – it’s somehow based in our reality, with the concepts of branches, twigs, leaves, nuts, seeds, insects and critters all being warped and changed just enough so they could gain wholly new qualities and overall purpose whilst retaining that link to their original selves. The world there just feels unique and weird, not only because it is so unlike our own, but also because it takes the familiar and uses it in unlikely ways. Or, how about the good old “World of Goo”? The game had a thoroughly unique world-setting – incidentally also, in a sense, post-apocalyptic (at least partially, with frequent themes and references to the concept) – that really gave the right character and style it needed to elevate itself over other construction-games. The setting was almost a parody of the real world, with it’s jabs at corporations, cosmetics industry, astronomers, global pollution, computer revolution and so much more – and that’s what really made it work, the fact that it was based on reality, but presented itself in a new and unfamiliar way.


Now, let’s tackle the idea of style. With the backing of Nikolai Borischev the cannon-equipped flame-retardant infantry grizzly (hired for protection), I’ll be so bold as to claim that “Railsea” does have a certain, definitive, recognizable style that is not mistakable with the majority of sci-fi, steampunk (or any x-punk) or fictional contemporary literature. Call it a signature authorial style, if you will. The driving force behind the necessity for a particular style is twofold. One, it provides a definite ‘feel’ to the work, not only distancing itself out of the competition’s grey mud, but also allowing for a common theme to be present in two or more works by the same author even when they have mutually unrelated settings, characters or themes throughout; & two, a signature style – if it is polished enough – allows for more eccentric structures & compositions to be utilized with a sense of purpose, of intention. Without that stylistic touch, a weird thing will just seem wrong, & with that stylistic aspect even gross transgressions (such as placing “&” instead of “and” in the entire book) can be not only forgiven, but even embraced.

Likewise, having a unique style seems to be almost a crucial necessity for “indie” games to separate themselves. For instance, the “Binding of Isaac” is at it’s core a pretty dull dungeon crawler with little plot and mechanically simplistic gameplay. What sets it apart is the style and presentation employed – an off-beat mix of cartoonishly amusing and monstrously unsettling, with a good extra slice of pretentious (I’m so sorry to all apologists – please take your complaints on this to Nikolai) quasi-religious analogism and meta-commentary on .. family values, I guess? Anyway, it does not have to be completely good on paper, it just needs to be distinct and unique, and consistent enough to qualify as a stylistic decision. Because such potentially unlikeable styles are non-mediocre and require a strong individual approach, most mainstream “AAA” games cannot pull them off consistently well, whereas “indie” games, more often than not being single-man or very-small-team enterprises, can exploit this individual approach to its fullest (which is also why stylistic aspects can be seen in literature so pervasively, as even the most high-end “AAA” works are still one/two persons’ creation). “Indie” games by virtue of being independent of publishers and million-dollar debts are able to take more abrasive, arguable stylistic choices that undoubtedly will alienate some gamers (just like “Railsea” auhor’s style alienates and seemingly offends a lot of readers). Such gaming, just like literature, is just so much more a personal (personalized) experience.


Whew, well, looks like we’re this far into the battle without too many casualties. Good work, fellow bearriders. But now we need to storm the frozen marshlands and tackle the idea of size. See, “Railsea” is technically not a short story – it reaches a full 445 pages of text. However, it feels short and brisk (and, honestly, compared to the nearly-thousand-page offerings of most Sci-Fi modern classics, not to mention trilogies and sagas, “Railsea” is on the short side), and my generals say that that’s what really matters here. It’s not lacking in content, and it is not a small piece over-polished with liquefied mega-money into an artistic oblivion (say hello to AAA gaming industry of current day), it is a concise work that does not overstay its welcome and uses the available narrative tools to deliver just the right amount of influence and data to the reader. It contains a good flow and is always mindful of pacing issues, not allowing the same thing drag on for too long (for the most part; if this were a book review, I would definitely point out at a certain place near the middle of story, but honestly one blemish does not defeat the overall point).

Likewise, “indie” games are relatively short affairs by necessity, that do not indulge in excessive standardization or over-creation of a single thing/aspect (graphics of modern mainstream games cost how much to develop for?), do not strive for endless amount of hi-detail content (which is not a bad thing in itself – I mean, Skyrim is pretty great). The bite-sized nature enforces a smaller price-point for the game, effectively lowering the admission fee, and it also allows more players to experience all that it has to offer in few sittings, while they are not yet bored of it / overexposed to it. And that’s what helps a lot of these games to retain a positive evaluation, as even when players are finished with them, they are either sated or still yearning for more – both are incentives to give good feedback on the game and good numerical ratings (which are undoubtedly more important than anything else slashsarcasm). It’s not that mainstream games aren’t short or focused – it’s that with indies, scarcity is enforced by tempo-financial constraints, whereas the AAA gaming scene almost by default requires the hundreds of millions of dollars per project to be spent on oodles of content (yay if its good) or frankly stupid amounts of super-fidelity extreme-high-poly graphics-work (boo all round), and with skilled developers, this scarcity can be turned and viewed as a strength, a design paradigm that shapes and improves the game itself.


Well then, here we are. The final boss-battle – us with our warbears against a vicious marsupial of elephantine proportions. … What an anti-climax this is going to be. I should have structured the point around differ- what’s that, mister cybertronic black bear? I should get on with it already? ALRIGHT FINE THEN yeesh.

The novel, that I’ve already named so often with railways and water bodies in its name, is very tightly focused. It does not bother to provide tons of backstory, it does not bother to characterize each random person encountered, and it doesn’t swap or kill off main characters like jawas in an imperial deathmatch arena. It takes one key aspect – the question of what lies beyond the railsea – and works on it. All action, all character progression, all events are tied around that factor, forming a tight narrative cluster and a sharpness not unlike that of a bear’s claw. That narrow scope helps to give a purpose to the work itself, a feeling of very intentional, crafted reading experience. The lack of bloat (unlike this article, and I am so very sorry) makes the entire work that much more memorable and distinct, and definitely eases the summarization of its contents. Simply put, the reader will remember the overall gist of “Railsea” far, far better than, say, the overall gist of the entire “Game of Thrones” opus.

And, yes, that’s another aspect that is somewhat prevalent in great many “indie” games. The acquisition of a single main idea – whether it be a main character, or a gameplay mechanic (such as time-reversing in “Braid”, which forms the basis of gameplay AND story AND meta-narrative), or world design, or unprecedented narration implementation (“Bastion”, for example) – and subsequent working of it into a core aspect of the entire game is the backbone of “indie” game design. Some of the greatest modern gaming works are founded on taking one key idea and running with it – for example, take the first Portal (yes yes not an indie game chill already, my bear-djutants say that the developers were an essentially indie student team that got taken onboard by valve and simply given much much more resources to work with without much publisher standardization enforcement).


Well then, that’s about it. This was a weird experimental mash of army bears, a work of literature that’s seemingly very criticized and a videogame industry subset whose only identifier – “indie” is completely meaningless. What a mess. Still, I hope that some of what I was trying to say did get through and rang true. It is, naturally, a stretch to create a close link between a videogame and a book, and even more of a stretch to hold one as an example of the other – but there is a foundation for that association: both kinds are, after all, creations. They are the products of pure inventiveness, creativity and skill of their respective makers, and on that basis they are able to (and as I’ve tried to argue, in fact do) exhibit common traits that hold water in essence, at least, if not form.


~X2-Eliah is not sure what the point of all the bear-related interjections even was in this article. JUST ASSUME IT WAS SOME KIND OF META-COMMENTARY ON VIDEOGAMES OR WHATEVER.

4 responses

  1. I’m usually quite apt at overlooking odd stylistic choices, but something about using an ampersand in place of ‘and’ drives me into a homicidal rage. It just feels like the perfect storm of pretentious, lazy and uncaring.

    The whole gist of Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire? “Everyone is a massive jerk to everyone else, for various interconnected reasons. Also, incest and rape.” I’ll trust you when you say Railsea has an even easier-to-remember one, but bear (DOI HOI HOI) in mind that I’m imagining, like, a three-word summary here. “Railway war bears”?

    Why the seemingly-random link to Wulf-World? Or, moreover, why no seemingly-random links to other cool internet places? I know that The Binding Of Isaac was covered by at least two other Cool Guys On The Internet.

    (disclaimer: yes, one of them is me.)

    18/06/2012 at 12:15

    • The whole gist in this case including the main lot details, twists and turns. Can you summarize all of the main things Daenerys, John, Robb, Arya, Cerse, Tyrion, etc have done through the books?

      Random link to Wulfworld simply because that Botanicula article was posted less than 24 hrs of this post’s writing and thus it was fresh in my mind when I used it as an example. Without that post, I wouldn’t probably have included that game as an example – whereas Isaac has been on Steam’s frontpage so often that it doesn’t really need a recent topic to describe it. Anyway, I have not decided on what kind of linking/referral policy to adopt here, so for now I’m just testing the waters of what seems to be a good/bad mix & frequency.

      Also, Railsea actually has no bears. I really don’t know why the hell I included all that nonsense.

      18/06/2012 at 12:21

      • Can you summarize all of the main things Daenerys, John, Robb, Arya, Cerse, Tyrion, etc have done through the books?

        “Everyone is a massive jerk to everyone else, for various interconnected reasons. Also, incest and rape.”

        18/06/2012 at 12:30

        • That should have been a blockquote. OH WELL. The joke still stands.

          18/06/2012 at 12:31

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