Editor’s note: Can tiny indie games influence heavy hitters like Call of Duty and Gears of War? Brian thinks so — and he draws parallels to the underground rap artist DJ Screw to show just how it can be done. With so many wildly innovative ideas coming out of the indie scene today, I hope he’s right. -Brett
If you’re an owner of a current-generation console, you’re probably familiar with at least one underground game. What qualifies as an underground game? One that is either produced by an independent developer or made by a well-known developer that has a rabid fan base despite being unable to achieve mainstream success.
Many of us who frequent sites like Bitmob are “hardcore gamers,” so it’s likely that all of us are familiar with these underground games. During the past few years, beautifully crafted indie games like Braid and World of Goo have risen into the limelight, as have low-selling critical darlings such as Okami, released by publishing juggernauts such as Capcom. These underground games may have gained some attention due to favorable coverage from major video game publications, but for the most part, they’ve been unable to compete against industry titans like Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4.
Just because Okami and Braid couldn’t compete with these titles doesn’t mean that they’ve had zero influence on the video game industry, however. Sure, these titles may not spawn a dozen imitators like some of their mainstream counterparts, but they can influence future games in subtle ways that could turn out to be very important.
Before demonstrating how an underground game can perform such a feat, I’d to make a comparison with a different industry that has a thriving underground scene. You’ll probably be surprised at what this industry is, since most of America rarely hears about it (unless you browse obscure corners of the Web, or are near the epicenter of one of these underground movements). What industry am I referring to? A subset of the music industry known as underground rap.
When most Americans think of rap, they usually think of one of three things: dead legends like Tupac and Biggie, club rappers like Lil’ Wayne and Soulja Boy, or rappers that may or may not live the life they brag about such as 50 Cent and TI.
The are a variety of reasons why these rappers are so well known, but one of them is the amount of radio play and recognition by MTV and BET they receive. What most Americans don’t realize, however, is that there are many other relatively unheard of artists that are thriving — they just make their living in a different way. Even though some of these underground artists only have a small, hardcore following, they’re able to influence mainstream rap in major way.
There’s one movement in particular that’s a perfect example of how an independent artist can influence an entire industry: DJ Screw’s mission to “screw up” the world.
If you haven’t heard of the late DJ Screw (real name: Robert Earl Davis, Jr.), that’s probably because his movement originated in the South, which was ignored by the national media up until recently. While the national media was focusing most of its attention on the East and West coasts, there was a concurrent rap movement that began in Houston, Texas.
DJ Screw actually spent his rough early childhood years in L.A., but his family moved to Houston in an attempt to get away from the gang violence that plagued that area. The Southside neighborhood of Houston didn’t end up being much safer, but instead of getting into trouble, young Robert spent the majority of his time DJing.
DJ Screw on the turntables
One time while at home, Robert was messing around with his mom’s record collection, throwing albums from a variety of genres on the turntable. He scratched up several records in the process, but while doing so, he came up with a unique style where he slowed down the song and chopped up the beat. This alteration of popular songs led to his DJ name: DJ Screw.
DJ Screw’s Life Story
Robert began DJing at clubs and parties, but he also made several tapes of his own that he invited new artists to jump on. The only rap artists that were fairly well-known in Texas at that time were the Geto Boys (who gained some national attention through the movie Office Space). Other Houston artists (including the now famous Bun B of UGK) were being ignored by hip-hop record labels, which were mainly situated on the East and West coasts.
Instead of letting this unfair situation get to him, DJ Screw gave several new artists the opportunity to get on his tapes and rap. These “Screw Tapes” became so popular in Houston during the early ’90s that there would regularly be hundreds of people lined up at his apartment every night to buy his tapes. The Houston police, alerted to the cars and long lines, first assumed he was dealing drugs.
DJ Screw often made thousands of dollars a night and even had people driving from places as far as Chicago and Alabama to purchase his tapes. Even though this quiet man became a millionaire, he was never one to show off his wealth. He just focused on making people happy, promoting artists, and doing kind acts like letting a kid who had cancer get on one of his tapes.
Inside DJ Screw’s house
By the time Robert Earl Davis passed away in 2000, he’d gotten several artists’ careers off the ground that are now nationally famous, such as UGK (the group composed of Bun B and Pimp C), Lil’ Flip, and even Lil’ Wayne. Also, other currently famous artists, like Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Chamillionaire, and Paul Wall, would have never gotten any mainstream attention if it weren’t for another Houston DJ named Michael “5000″ Watts that blatantly copied DJ Screw’s style. Even artists from other regions, such as Memphis’ Three 6 Mafia and the San Francisco Bay area’s E-40, benefited from being on DJ Screw’s tapes.
These weren’t the only ways in which DJ Screw influenced mainstream rap, however. Besides making the South a major player in rap, he formed his own clique of amazing lyricists during the ’90s, some of which are doing well independently today. Many of these artists helped unify the city of Houston by putting an end to the north/south rivalry that plagued the city for so many years. These artists may not get national media attention, but they’re loved by the city of Houston (home to over 5 million people), and they have scatterings of fans across the U.S., Canada, and even countries as far away as Germany and Japan. Did I mention that some of these artists can draw crowds of 30,000 or more that can recite their lyrics word for word?
In addition, parts of Houston’s urban culture have been brought into the mainstream. The “syrup” that Lil’ Wayne often mentions was a part of Houston culture long before it was on MTV. Mike Jones’ mainstream hit “Still Tippin’” features slabs, 84s, and cars driving from lane to lane — stuff that was hot in Houston for over a decade, mostly because of DJ Screw.
The now ridiculously famous Lil’ Wayne
Mainstream artists even have “Chopped and Screwed” (basically slowed down) versions of their albums available alongside their regular versions. And rappers like Drake and T-Pain have called their songs names like “Chopped ‘N Skrewed.” In many of these videos, you can also find slight influences of DJ Screw’s sound. You can even find Houston slang such as “What it do?” and “mayne” in many mainstream videos, clothing, and car styles. Unfortunately, the lyrical prowess of Houston’s underground scene hasn’t really carried over, but that’s another story.
Anyway, my point with all this is that even if something goes unrecognized several years after its creation, it can still have a monumental impact on things in the future. The lesson learned through DJ Screw’s movement can just as easily be applied to video games. There may not be a city that’s a mecca for independent game developers or publishers who produce quality niche titles, but seemingly small games still have the ability to influence contemporary mainstream titles, or even the games of the future.
To illustrate, let’s discuss a niche game of the early ’90s. Remember Ys Book I & II for the Turbografx-16? Unless you’re someone who owns obscure consoles or are a walking video game encyclopedia, there’s a good chance that you haven’t heard of it. Even though I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable when it comes to video games, I didn’t get the chance to play Ys until its Wii re-release. But when I did finally play it, I immediately realized that this was a revolutionary RPG that had a major influence on future titles in the genre.
Ys’ opening scene
It wasn’t Ys’ colorful 16-bit visuals that were revolutionary; rather, it was the fact that this game had voiced, animated cut-scenes to tell its story over a decade before Final Fantasy 10. Ys may have never had mainstream success in the U.S., but it’s obvious that its storytelling technique was adopted by titles ranging from obscure fare such as Lunar to popular series such as Final Fantasy. And this isn’t even where Ys’ influence ends.
Ys also changed the gaming landscape through its high quality audio and unique rock sound that was easily some of the best of the 16-bit era. While I have no actual evidence, I’m fairly certain that we would have heard fewer rock influences in games like Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and Lufia if it weren’t for Ys.
But enough about relatively unknown titles. Let’s shift focus to a game that had an even greater influence on the industry. Unlike Ys, which mostly influenced future RPGs, Final Fantasy 7 transformed the entire video game industry. You might be thinking, “But isn’t Final fantasy a popular game?” It may be now, but back before Final Fantasy 7, few U.S. console owners knew of RPGs.
Final Fantasy 7 drew in a sizeable new audience through its modern day setting, its increased emphasis on action, and its visually impressive cut-scenes. Before Final Fantasy 7, most console cut-scenes looked mediocre at best, but Final Fantasy 7′s cut-scenes not only managed to impress individuals, they made them cry (okay, maybe not all of us).
Final Fantasy 7 was important because it encouraged other game developers to focus more on their games’ stories and cinematic appeal in addition to providing a great gameplay experience. Is the amount of influence Final Fantasy 7 had on other games measurable? Not really, but to any longtime gamer, it’s obvious that Final Fantasy 7 was one of the most influential video games of the 32/64-bit generation.
Let’s look at a one last title, a contemporary game with an unusual name: Braid. Since Braid is still a fairly new title, it’s difficult to pinpoint a direct influence it’s had on other games, but with effort I managed to pull up one influence — along with a few strands of my hair.
This quirky, time-altering platformer has influenced the actions of major publishers by making them realize that a small title produced by a nearly invisible team can be an enormous success on a downloadable platform. Titles such as Braid taught well-known publishers like Epic that a small, well-crafted adventure can reach a sizeable audience that is unwilling to regularly shell out $60 for a game. Games like Braid may have even resulted in Epic publishing the excellent Super Metroid-inspired Shadow Complex.
What titles such as Ys and Braid make clear is that the actions of a few can have a monumental impact on the industry, even if the merit of their titles isn’t recognized right away. Just as one man influenced the future of rap even after his death, small titles can similarly influence the fate of the video game industry. Indie games may not be direct competitors of titles such as Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4, but they can still influence those products — or at least change the process by which the games are distributed.
With indie titles becoming more readily available through digital distribution, it is my hope that they — along with niche retail titles — will thrive alongside major titles far into the future, and that the efforts of their developers will be forever recognized and admired. Just like how Houston remembers the legendary DJ Screw.