Bennett Foddy’s Getting Over It became an internet sensation, so when the Australian designer tells me the game has just one review on Metacritic, I’m stunned. But lo and behold, one of the biggest indie games of the last few years has basically never been reviewed. And partially because of that, it’s why Foddy believes YouTubers and streamers are the future for driving the discourse around niche, indie titles.
The change in media discourse and the gaming landscape is a running theme through my email chat with Foddy, maker of Getting Over It and the web hit QWOP. He’s a developer whose success has primarily been viral, and yet, the nature of that success didn’t translate to reviews.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Getting Over It never received coverage, but it does highlight a quirk in the legacy of broad-based media, and a transition towards niche content and creators servicing niches within that. “Last year there was an alarming trend of consolidation, when streamers went from playing a wide range of games to just playing Fortnite or Overwatch and a handful of other games,” Foddy said.
“It’s good to go deep on a game once in a while and really get to understand it, but it creates an enormous pressure for studios to focus all their efforts on trying to be one of the small handful of success stories — and that has a narrowing effect on the type of games that get made. But to my eye that trend seems to be easing and we’re back in a zone where streamers are engaging with the culture more broadly.”
As a creator of smaller titles that lack the marketing weight or push of a Destiny or a giant publisher, Foddy has a natural interest in the diversity of games, and a diversity in those consuming them.
"It’s looking like that breadth of interest and discourse is going to have to be driven by streamers and YouTubers, rather than traditional media outlets ... if only because there are too many games for a traditional broad-audience press outlet to make sense," he said.
"In the early '80s you could have a monthly magazine that wrote something about every commercially-released game… a magazine that did that now would need to be thousands of pages long, or be a website that was updated thousands of times per day. The future, at least the near future, has to be driven by players curating their own shortlist of critics or performers that are interested in the same kind of work that they are interested in."
Foddy - who did the art for Ape Out last year - has always had a different relationship with gaming and the industry around it, as a developer who openly brands his name and likeness into his games. The openness goes further than just a branding exercise: by being a cheeky, but welcome, presence in the game, it helps him when dealing with some of the more toxic or irate emails he might have received.
"The players can’t help but be aware of me as a presence in my games - hopefully a playful, rather than a hostile presence," Foddy said. "That means there’s a human relationship there which might not be there if I was more invisible in the work."
There's still a degree of genuine outrage, of course, and Foddy can't always determine the difference between someone having a go and a gamer who's taking the piss. "I think the only way to deal with that is to respond as though each of those interactions is coming from a playful, positive place."
Foddy, who originally left Australia for a job as a philosopher focusing on drug addiction, also works as an instructor for the NYU Game Center. We were chatting because Getting Over It is one of the newer games being exhibited at Game Masters, an exhibition at the National Film and Sound Archives (NFSA) that runs until March 9. Foddy's been interested in the archival for a while - he's spoken about teaching American students more about the history of European and English games, and in 2014 his keynote talk to Indiecade East focused on the history of indies, touching on the tools and mods developers used to become developers.
I asked Foddy what he thought about the NFSA's mission, and he said it was important for countries and creators outside of the United States and Japan. In his view, while Australia has never had a huge game industry, the efforts of local creators now surpasses the local music and film industry.
"If I can strike a parochial note for a moment - as an Australian and as a game designer - the economic output of Australian game designers now dwarfs that of Australian musicians and filmmakers," he said. "Australia punches well above its weight in games, culturally and economically, and that work absolutely deserves to be preserved."
The preservation of niche titles, then, is inextricably tied to how we talk about those games, as the media, creators, individuals and communities. How those conversations happen and where they happen has fragmented into a million different pieces across the internet, from Twitch chat to Twitter to Facebook groups to Discord channels, official forums, Steam friends and more.
Foddy, however, took a longer view of the change. While the decentralised nature of how gamers connect makes it even harder for smaller titles to break through the noise of everything, the overall gaming industry is now so large that every platform and subculture is large enough in and of itself that you can find success by targeting just one of those.
"It’s true that the culture is fragmented, but I feel like a lot of the separate subcultures and platforms are each as large as the entire industry was in the 1980s, so you can pick the perfect venue for your game idea and really tune it to match the audience and hardware," he said.
"In the case of Getting Over It, the perfect audience turned out to be people who watch streamers play games for entertainment, and who play games on PC with a mouse. That’s a niche inside of a niche, but it still amounted to millions of players."
Bennett Foddy's Getting Over It is part of the Game Masters exhibition at the National Film and Sound Archives, which runs until March 9. Tickets and more details about the show can be found here, and information on the NFSA's mission to archive Australian games can be read below.
The National Film and Sound Archive has announced this morning that it'll be adding locally-made video games to its collection of more than 3 million items. But given that the department hasn't archived video games before, and the difficulty of archiving games that require online authentication, or multiplayer games that require an always-online environment, I had to ask: how exactly does the national custodian plan to archive these games in the first place?Read more