Booting up Rise of the Dragon for the first time my parents and I huddled around our tiny new computer and spent hours just trying to get out of the first screen: a static, comic book style image of an apartment room where our avatar “Blade Hunter” was preparing himself for his task of saving the world from horrible death by mutation. Most of all I remember the death scenes – comic sequences where we took a drink from the water fountain and ended up mutated and dead, or shot in an alley, or otherwise eliminated, over and over again.
Now I log on to World of Warcraft – still cartoon graphics, but now 3D, beautifully realized, huge worlds where my avatar is no longer alone and thanks to the web we have whole communities of elves and trolls and gnomes running around killing each other. The progress the industry and the Web have made in just over ten years is absolutely breathtaking, as now games with the same quality of Rise of the Dragon can be produced by a teenager working on their computer in the basement, and developing tools that were once for the elite of design teams and companies are now accessible to the general web user. With the constant improvements in creation technology allowing for literally the “garage Kubrik” and digital media being, at least for the moment, just as much in the hands of the individual as the commercial studios, the future of digital works is yet to be determined.
My own interest in independent digital creation is focused on the adventure game genre, which in itself is now a fairly antiquated genre--adventure games are driven by story and puzzles, and generally contain no major violence, so naturally most publishers have abandoned them as unprofitable when presented to a general audience of attention span lacking teenage males. The number of adventure titles released by computer gaming companies has dwindled and even when projects are announced they are quickly cancelled with a few impressive exceptions such as the recent Sam and Max revival. However, the form is being kept alive in a fan maintained world of independently created computer games. Using fan created software tools that allow for the mimicking of classic game interfaces, fans are creating both sequels to classic games and their own orignal works. These intensive processes of creation are embarked upon not with the hope of financial reward, but for personal satisfaction and the opportunity to make something a popular success within a discriminating niche market.
In theory, people entering the realm of independent game design in this nature are limited in their storytelling only by their own imagination. On the website for one popular 2D adventure game design program, AGS or Adventure Game Studio, there are games listed that don't generally live up to that hope. Many are parodies, some clever, others are simply exercises in escaping a puzzle house [or castle, or island...]. But the occasional moments of brillance make up for the general lack of innovation. A fantasy story, A Tale of Two Kingdoms, bring's back the King's Quest era with an original, if slightly Tolkeinesque, fairy tale. Cirque du Zale starts with a story of a young man brought to save a fantasy princess--who starts a circus instead.
These are not the games you'll find reviewed in the latest Computer Games magazine. They owe their existence to digital distribution: the ability to freely make available large files of creative efforts without vying for shelf space. The closest parallel to these endeavors in pre-Internet society was the zine movement, when the photocopier allowed for the home "publication" and mailed distribution of fan writing and news to groups of subscribers. The digital distribution of these games seven suffers from some of the same limitations: they are unlikely to reach the attention of anyone who doesn't know where to look.