Freeware is freedom. Its resources are limited, but its only master is design. If a freeware game is bogged down by excessive content, then this is a product of its own vision, not consumers’ pocketbooks or executive greed. Freeware is the Cave Story that a man fawns over in his spare time for five years. It is Dwarf Fortress, challenging, rather than stymieing the potential of the human imagination. It is Cart Life, an empathetic artist‘s heartbreaking, yet hopeful, realism. These developers, nay artists, deserve to be paid for their work. But one of the reasons their work excels is they have made games that needed to be made rather than sold. They carried on, though they were never guaranteed a dime of support. There are so many component parts expected of modern games—music, art, writing, oh yeah and the “game” part—I’m surprised anything coherent ever gets done. A freeware game of substance is nothing short of a remarkable triumph of the human spirit.
Most commercial games would have greater impact (and would probably be more fun) if they took a fraction of the time to play through. I spent some time reviewing Triple A games, and in that span of time I reviewed some clunkers and some gems. My experiences, regardless of each game’s competence, all shared a common thread. As soon as I got whatever it was that the game wanted to say to me, its message was dampened,squashed even, by hours and hours of excessive content. I still play Triple A games (currently enjoying Final Fantasy XIII-2 in a terrible sort of way), but I don’t often write about them anymore or even play them all the way through. In general, commercial games are bogged down by more content than they need because that’s the standard.
The music industry’s loudness war is a similar phenomenon. Consumers expect music to maintain a consistent volume across an ever-increasing variety of devices, and publishers want their tracks to be just a bit louder and have just a bit more punch than the other songs on any given playlist. To keep up, sound engineers are forced to use more compression, so they can continue to boost volume and sell albums. As a result, music production, in general, has grown louder but less dynamic over the years. The commercial games industry’s equivalent of the loudness war is a sort of “hours war.” Commercial games are expensive because games are becoming more and more expensive to make. Since big-budget games are so expensive, players expect them to take up a certain, quantifiable amount of time. It rounds out to about a fifteen-twenty hour (or thereabouts) minimum time slot for a sixty-dollar price tag. But even that isn’t enough, really. According to consumers and critics, a game should ideally feel infinite and unlimited. In order for you to get your money’s worth, it should have the potential to take up more time than you have. Fortunately, the loudness war seems to be losing steam, but I’m not so optimistic about the hours war.
At first the idea seems strange, but the appeal of purchasing content we might never see is understandable. We’re just trying to stretch out the time that Electron Dance appropriately deemed “those honeymoon hours,” in which a game still feels like an exciting expedition into the unknown. Skyrim is one of those games that seems like it’s meant to be played forever. Isn’t it strange that we expect games that are meant to be played forever? It’s kind of exhausting to think about from a consumer’s point of view. And from a developer’s point of view, it must be pretty limiting in an “arrow to the knee” sort of way. Why should a game spend a ton of resources on wearing out its welcome instead of just ending and probably making a more meaningful impact? Skyrim fills its world with a staggering number of locales and NPCs. It takes a few minutes to remember where you are and where you should be going, about an hour to get your bearings in any given play session, about a day to make any discernible progress. Much of this time will be spent rifling through an inventory screen.
On the other hand, a strong argument can be made that games provide experiences that aren’t meant to be finished, as they allow us to continuously pursue expertise in a certain skill set. Playing Dwarf Fortress, a freeware title by two brilliant brothers, is sort of like pursuing fluency in an alien language. When you first look at the screen, you don’t see what you’re meant to see. After hours of patience and persistence (and access to the internet so you can get to the game’s wiki), the setting and its inhabitants gradually start to seep into the mind’s eye. Dwarf Fortress is another game that has the potential to be played (and possibly developed) forever. Nonetheless, it has a clear beginning and end. In fact, with its gigantic procedurally generated fantasy realms, it provides endless beginnings and endings. Because no matter how many clever strategies you implement, you will lose, and your fortress will fall. Dwarf Fortress is a phoenix of a game, with the capacity to enthrall over and over and over again, thrilling a player’s devoted imagination in fresh, wondrous ways with every rebirth. This game exists because two visionaries have devoted their lives to it. In a commercial setting, with a mandated development time and release date, it would have been an entirely different entity. By dismissing modern graphics, the developers have freed themselves to focus their attention on the game’s capacity for simulation. The result is a new standard for game mechanics and the transformation of keyboard characters into a sort of high art. Dwarf Fortress is an ever-evolving creature of artistic energy and technical prowess. It is a life’s great work.
It is worth saying that independent game development has already offered an answer to the time-sink problem by providing smaller, more thoughtful, titles at a lower price point. In addition, indie titles are practically given away periodically, bundled together and sold at a minimum as low as a few dollars. Similarly, mobile games offer an opposite end to the fifteen-hour minimum spectrum, but this development market has its own limiting burdens to bear. Mobile game developers are encouraged to provide instantly gratifying experiences that can be picked up and put down in a matter of seconds, so tons of people will throw a dollar their way. Of course, there’s always room for an explosion of innovative flair (like Sword & Sworcery EP) that transcends expectations.
It is important to purchase games, if one can afford to, because it is important to support those who make games for a living. Freeware compliments and enriches the commercial games industry, but it cannot displace it. However, it is also important to experience art for art’s sake, and freeware is just that. Paradoxically, it is both easier and more difficult for freeware to reach its audience. We inevitably engage with purchases differently than we do with something that simply presents itself to us. By spending money on something, we have already committed the time of our labor. To match this commitment, we feel an obligation to spend an adequate amount of leisure time before we dismiss this purchase and move on to something else. A freeware game, on the other hand, has a smaller window of time in which to prove itself. Without the prior monetary commitment, the player feels no obligation to enjoy it, so it is more easily dismissed. Sometimes it’s important to step back and remind ourselves that there are things worth paying attention to that won’t cost us anything more than a bit of our time. We are so unbelievably lucky.
(As for supporting developers, Bay 12 Games constantly works on Dwarf Fortress and accepts financial support. Newer versions of Cave Story are now available on multiple platforms. Cart Life has paid versions that contain additional content.)