The Incredible Vanishing Game Developer

I sat on this one too long and the moment’s passed. What else is new, right? I’ve never been good at being topical, or snappy, or brief, and it all works to my disadvantage. Especially now, with everything coming and going so fast.

I played Bandersnatch twice in a row, and then I was done. It was interesting, but not any more than metatext-heavy games which preceded it like Sam Barlow’s Her Story or Michael Lutz’s The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo. This Netflix game, created by Charlie Brooker of Black Mirror fame, was noted for having been written in the free, hyperlink-based interactive fiction tool, Twine. This was cause for both celebration and consternation. The former because, at long last, this tool that was so often maligned by hardcore gamers for appealing to “social justice warriors” who used it to make something other than “real games” finally got some mainstream recognition. The latter, because those very creators, so often dismissed and ridiculed, were now having the fruits of their labour exploited by a very wealthy man on a very large platform, and basically none of those original creators were anywhere to be found.

I say this partially to whine, but also to make a very important point. I’ve spent the majority of my writing career, such as it has been, focused mainly on games that mostly end up disappearing into the ether with hardly a whisper, let alone a bang. Most of the time, these games are made by young artists without much money, and who for one reason or another don’t really fit in with mainstream game development or hew to its sensibilities. Some of these people are amateurs curious about the expressive potential of the medium that accessible tools like Twine allow them to tap into without having to spend years and money learning how to code. Some are seasoned developers with considerable skills as programmers or designers, but relish the opportunity to realize a vision of their own rather than be relegated to the role of a disposable “code monkey”, making costly ephemera for the benefit of companies, shareholders and gamers who don’t value the work they put in.

If they are going to be making ephemera anyway, it might as well be something that means something to them.

That’s what Twine represented for a brief moment, about 5 years ago. There was a glut of creativity coming from unlikely people and places; individuals who were not Game Developers were casually making their own interactive fiction, and people who were Game Developers were bending the tool to see what it could do. Articles and books expounded upon this new wave of free, DIY amateur game design. A few people made their careers off the boom, but most hopeful young game-makers did not, and then the whole thing kind of deflated and faded away.

The whole Twine phenomenon took place on the tail end of the “Indie Boom”—an era in games culture that arguably took place between 2008, during the US economic recession, up to about 2014, when Gamergate coalesced into a reactionary movement. Independently-made games existed prior to this moment (and continue to exist), but suddenly large companies with marketplaces like Microsoft, Sony and Steam took in interest in a certain range of indie games being made by a certain kind of developer (“hip” young male creatives, generally-speaking). This led to the elevation of a handful of “boy genius” creators (Phil Fish, Jonathan Blow, Ed McMillan, Steve Gaynor, among others), who got to enjoy a certain degree of wealth and celebrity that wasn’t ultimately afforded to other sorts of creators, even those who did relatively well for themselves. Incidentally, Bandersnatch, which is loosely based on a real canceled game, also features as protagonist a Young Male Creative with entirely sidelined female characters, so in that sense I guess it’s accurate. 

But more importantly, perhaps, were the marketplaces themselves, which were suddenly stocked with all kinds of indie titles, to the point where they were almost impossible to navigate. The novelty of the whole thing indeed lead to windfall success for a few, but these marketplaces were populated by games that largely never turned a profit. The corporations that own these platforms licensed indie games for distribution using royalty contracts that were profoundly unfair, and have actually gotten worse for developers over time (as recently as last December, indie devs were expressing frustration with Steam’s new revenue sharing policy, which allows higher-earning devs to keep more of the profit, but demands a higher cut for lower-earners, which happens to be most devs.) If you’re thinking that this sounds very familiar to the rentier “gig economy” as we understand that now, that’s because it is.

Corporations (largely Microsoft, Sony and Valve) paid almost nothing for the labour behind these games, which is still often framed by games media and marketing as a labour of love performed by developers who are too passionate to be worried about money, and who didn’t complain about the grind if that’s what it took to become successful. But it would be a mistake to think that the games industry in particular was suffering during the recession, or that they could use it as an excuse for this case of primitive accumulation. Quite to the contrary, sales data from the time points to the games industry actually thriving while other sectors of the economy took a hit, and workers got hit worst of all. Instead of letting the industry have economic strife as an excuse, I think it’s instead useful to see this exercise as a form of digital enclosure, with the moneyed interests of the industry noticing an abundance of basically free labour happening right under their noses, some of which even produced hits! After fully taking advantage of that until the well ran dry, the novelty wore off, and the returns for developers got smaller and smaller until all but a few could afford to keep plying their craft and withstand the shitstorm as Gamergate spiraled out of control.

This brings me back to Bandersnatch. I want to feel like it’s nice that someone with a high enough public profile gave Twine a second sniff, and that for a lot of people who are unfamiliar with this sort of thing it was strange and compelling and revelatory. I don’t blame people outside of the weirdo artsy fringes of games for not knowing these things existed already, but I also think there is a very good reason why so much of it never got to see the light of day, either. Because the market apparently decided that there wasn’t a mass audience for it, until suddenly there was.

There are so many great, visionary developers and designers who make a few games and then either leave or become beholden to the IP that made them famous, but that they probably do not own. Osamu Sato, Keita Takahashi, Ed Annunziata, Rebecca Heineman, Mel Croucher, Kathy Sierra and Teresa Duncan all come to mind for me as people who made great, influential games, but who aren’t really known quantities in the industry anymore either because they left, were pushed out, or were only given the space to operate on its fringes. There are many more, probably hundreds, who made great alternative games once a upon a time (only a few short years ago) and then were never really seen or heard from again.

The games industry loves to eat its children. That’s because it’s not interested in creating anything lasting or meaningful, it’s interested in hit-seeking to line the pockets of shareholders and to buy Bobby Kotick another yacht. It’s a component of the entertainment industry very much in that way. I think about this while knowing that this friendly tool called Twine, that hobbyists and amateur game-makers used to craft their own little interactive stories, is now being used by Netflix to mine data from users, including mine, presumably for the benefit of advertisers, as Esquire reported in February. I think about this while Twine now makes a handful of people an awful lot of money while demonstrating its utility as a form of user surveillance, and almost every single person who legitimized it as a game-making software in the face of constant ridicule fades away into obscurity. I wonder, does the market approve of it now?