When people talk about Indie games, they often bring up Cave Story by Studio Pixel as a shining example of the art form, and they’re not wrong. Cave Story, however, is almost eight years old, and just about every nice thing that could be said about it has already been said. So why talk about it now?
Well, for starters, (though I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit this) I only got around to playing it for the first time last week, so it’s fresh in my mind. Additionally, Cave Story was recently revamped and re-released for Nintendo’s 3DS system; a rare instance of an Indie hit crossing over to mainstream markets. Most importantly, however, Cave Story still manages to be relevant after all this time, and offers a great starting place for the ongoing discussion about Independently made games, their relevance, and their potential for success.
The game has a level of polish, presentation and depth that outshines many other Indie games, even eight years after it’s release. The graphics, a pixel art throwback to the low-def games of the 80’s and early 90’s, manages to hit all the right nostalgic notes without feeling like a relic from the past. Its surprisingly affecting narrative displays a mastery of story telling in games that rivals the best examples from bigger studios. It’s soundtrack is so loved by fans that it’s inspired several remix projects. That’s impressive. What’s even more impressive, is that the game was developed entirely by one Japanese computer student as a “hobby”, with game development skills he picked up second-hand from a dorm mate. That student was Daisuke Amaya, better known to fans as “Pixel”.
A Man called “Pixel”
Over the course of five years, Pixel developed artwork, code, music, and a script in order to realize his vision. In 2004, his game was humbly released for free as Dōkutsu Monogatari. Before long English speaking fans had translated the games and western audiences soon discovered and fell in love with it. Cave Story, as it came to be called in the west earned critical praise from just about everyone who looked at it. It eventually received a slight graphical and musical update through a collaboration with NICALiS(A Warning for those reading at work or annoyed easily, the NICALiS site features loud music that will play automatically), and was made available for a larger audience on a variety of platforms including the Nintendo Wii for about $10.00.
Given all of the above, it can be easy to think of Cave Story as a sort of poster child for the Indie success story. Anyone who’s thought of making a game couldn’t be faulted for wanting to do half as well as Cave Story. For those hoping to follow in his footsteps, however, the trajectory of Daisuke Amaya’s career is instructive.
Given the international popularity and acclaim of Cave Story, it is surprising to learn that Amaya has only recently been able to justify a full-time career as a game developer. With a family to support, he was understandably worried about being able to make enough money to justify giving up a lucrative job as a programmer for a large scale printing company.
I’ve always felt that when an Indie developer is able to find enough of an audience and financial support to transition to full-time game development, that is the true hallmark of success. Reading through interview’s with Daisuke Amaya though causes me to wonder though. Is that really what success looks like?
When asked about his future plans as a video game developer in an interview with NICALiS’’ Tyrone Rodriguez, Amaya makes his priorities clear: “Family > Myself > Work > Hobbies”. In other interviews with Amaya, he’s made it plain that game development generally falls into that “hobbies” category. While it’s somewhat disquieting that one of the most universally applauded independent game developers sees his work as a hobby, part of me wonders if this might be the healthiest mindset when approaching game development, or any other creative work for that matter.
The video game industry, from the major studios all the way down to the one man shops like Studio Pixel, is infamous for its high levels of work related stress. Professional game developers consistently work long hours and tend to have relatively little job security due to the high risk inherent in creative work. The resulting frustration, exhaustion, and bitterness can often creep into the finished product, marring work that might otherwise be excellent.
In playing Cave Story it’s clear from start to finish that a lot of love and care went into crafting the experience. This feeling can only come from a labor of love. That feeling is all too often missing in video games, and that probably explains a lot about why Cave Story is so refreshing, and still wonderful after all this time.
While that’s not quite enough to completely destroy my faith in the possibility of art emerging from a nine to five professional environment, it certainly provides food for thought. Maybe our creative passions are best kept separate from the rigors and pressures of the business world? On the other hand, what might Amaya be capable of with more time and money to play with?
In the aforementioned interview Amaya ponders the idea of an unlimited budget and provides an inspired answer: “I have a habit of thinking what can be done within the limitations, so nothing comes to mind if you give me an unlimited budget.” The answer is both profound, and familiar. All of us at one time have probably been pushed to greater creative heights than we thought capable of in the face of severe limitations. The creativity in the face of constraint harnessed by Amaya, and artists like him, heroically embodies the artistic spirit, and should serve as an inspiration to gamers and developers for decades to come.
The original version of Cave Story for PC, is available for free.
Updated versions of Cave Story are available for PC and Mac via Steam, for the Nintendo Wii via the Wiiware store, and for the Nintendo DSi via the DSiWare store for about $10.00.
Cave Story 3D, featuring even more updated graphics (in 3D!), is available for the Nintendo 3DS at fine retailers everywhere for $39.99.
Sources and further reading
Fletcher, J.C.. “Interview: Cave Story’s salaryman designer, Daisuke ‘Pixel’ Amaya.” Joystiq.com. AOL inc., 11 may 2011. Web. 15 January 2012http://www.joystiq.com/2011/03/11/interview-cave-storys-salaryman-designer-daisuke-pixel-amay/
Parish, Jeremy. “GDC: Cave Story and the Triumph of Pragmatic Game Design.” 1up.com. IGN Entertainment Inc., 4 March 2011. Web. 15 January 2012
Chester, Nick. “Cave Story creator talks inspirations, sequel, and more.” Destructoid.com. Destructoid, 22 March 2010. Web. 15 January 2012.
Abbot, Michael. “The Cave Story story.” BrainyGamer.com. Brainy Gamer, 29 March 2010. Web. 15 January 2012.
Abbot, Michael. “A dark cave.” BrainyGamer.com. Brainy Gamer, 2 April 2010. Web. 15 January 2012.
Yu, Derek. “Cave Story Wii Coming to North America on March 22nd” TIGSource.com. TIGSource, 24 February 2010. Web. 15 January 2012.