Arguments about what kind of thing a thing is are one of the leading causes of schisms—don't get a 19th century biologist started on lichen, if you happen to meet the ghost of one—and a rift opened up between gamers this week over one such taxonomic debate: whether or not Dave the Diver is an "independent game."
Here's the beef: The Game Awards published its list of nominations for the year, and Dave the Diver appears in the Best Independent Game category. Dave the Diver is a brilliant game—we gave it a 91% in our review—but it was developed by a subsidiary of Nexon, an enormous game publisher.
The argument for putting Dave the Diver in the Independent Games award category, where it sits alongside Cocoon, Viewfinder, Sea of Stars, and Dredge, is that it has qualities associated with independent games, such as 2D pixel art. The word "indie," at least, does already mean "in the style of an independent artist" in other contexts: The Strokes are an "indie rock" band whose last album was released in part by the Sony-owned RCA Records.
The argument against putting Dave the Diver in the independent games category is that, well, it literally isn't an independent game. Dave Oshry, CEO of indie label New Blood Interactive, said in an email to PC Gamer that he thinks categorizing Dave The Diver as indie is "bullshit."
The three tiers of indieness
New Blood, known for retro FPSes like Dusk and Ultrakill, is "100% independent," says Oshry, because it does everything itself with no outside investors or publishers, including QA, marketing, and hiring localizers. If there were an 'indiness' chart, he'd put New Blood's games at the top with other self-published games. Vampire Survivors comes to mind for me.
Under those games would be a second tier of indieness for independent developers that are supported by publishers like Devolver Digital and Team 17—their games are still indie, if not quite as absolutely. Cocoon, another nominee in The Game Awards' Independent Games category, was published by Annapurna Interactive.
At the bottom of the chart, however, we finally reach the "bullshit" tier of indieness, where games like Dave the Diver reside: games that aren't actually independent at all, but assume the label by having "indie vibes."
"Dave the Diver is a great game," said Oshry, but "calling it 'indie' because cute pixel art is straight up bullshit as many have noted."
It's a shame that all the discourse around Dave the Diver is about it not being an indie game - because it was developed by Nexon - instead of talking about what a great game it is.But Nexon purposefully put together a new internal team and marketed it as indie for this reason.November 13, 2023
It's not as if Nexon itself thinks Dave the Diver is an indie game: The company has said that, although it has an indie look, it isn't necessarily an indie game.
Really, Dave the Diver's indieness is just a marketing tactic, something Oshry pointed out on X this week and reiterated in his email. Other big publishers take advantage of indie-like branding, too. For instance, Take-Two acquired Rollerdrome developer Roll7 in 2021, but the name Take-Two only appears in the fine print of that game's Steam page—it made the acquisition through its 'indie'-focused Private Division label.
A case for vibes
I'm with Oshry that Dave the Diver isn't an indie game, though I do think that, after we've considered the facts, vibes have to play some role in indieness determination. Trying to be totally objective can lead to awkward situations, too.
For example, we could reasonably call Baldur's Gate 3 an "independent game." Larian is a private company that's still majority owned and run by the guy who founded it in 1993. It's an independent developer, give or take some Tencent investment. But in the context of an awards show with an indie category, should a big-budget RPG based on one of the most popular RPG series ever, and also the most popular tabletop roleplaying system, be put in an indie category alongside Viewfinder, a neat first-person puzzle game about a perspective-shifting camera?
Obviously not, if we're using the vibes system, which is really just a way to say that context matters.
Accepting the ultimate authority of vibes doesn't change my Dave the Diver assessment: Once I knew it was made by Nexon (finding the facts of the situation does matter), the illusion of indieness evaporated. For one thing, what indie game would use such a legible font?
Is an indie category even needed?
If I were dictating the Game Awards categories (PC Gamer was one of many outlets that voted on the nominations, by the way), I wouldn't have had a problem putting Dave the Diver up against other non-independent games like Pikmin 4. But, to sidestep the issue entirely, I might not have included indie-only categories in the first place.
We don't have an indie category in our own PC Gamer GOTY awards, because there's no need: We nominate indie games across all our categories, and they are likely to win. In 2019, PC Gamer's overall GOTY award went to Disco Elysium, and in 2018 it was won by Into the Breach. That parity is something to celebrate.
The Game Awards has to contend with something we don't, though: a very large pool of voters, including lightly weighted public votes. Perhaps it makes sense to rope off a couple sections for indie games that would otherwise be helpless against more mainstream games that, inevitably, more of that large voting body has played.
I'm also sympathetic to the general difficulty of defining awards categories. I know from experience that goofy distinctions like "Best Action" and "Best Action/Adventure" are only arrived at in meetings after everyone's brains have become puddles. It just isn't easy to categorize games.
PC Gamer's recent GOTY awards may have avoided awkward decisions about indieness, but we have included honors like "Best Design" and "GOTY Runner-up"—categories that are hard to clearly define but, dammit, had to exist because we wanted to celebrate games that didn't neatly beat the competition in a traditional genre category.
Game genres are so messy. Any given pair of "RPGs" or "roguelikes" can be poles apart. And there are also distinctions like "live service game" and "early access game" to contend with, and there are reboots, remakes, reimaginings, expansions, free updates, expansions that come with free updates (eg, Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty), and loads of other complicating factors.
Making up oblique award categories like "Best Comeback" isn't a perfect solution, but at some point you've just gotta ship it. There's always a better way to categorize games, but there's no good way. (Dave the Diver's still not an indie game, though.)