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Acclaimed indie devs ask “does it matter” as Dave the Diver hits TGAs

As the outcome of Dave the Diver’s TGA nomination draws near, Xalavier Nelson Jr. and Faisal Sethi interrogate the meaning of indie.

A Pillow Champ fighter and Dave the Diver are positioned against each other, though they appear in friendly competition rather than at odds.

What do you do when you speak to two prominent indie developers in the same week as The Game Awards? You ask them what constitutes an indie game, of course! We sat down with Strange Scaffold founder Xalavier Nelson Jr. and Frosty Pop CEO Faisal Sethi to discuss their upcoming fighting game Pillow Champ, which takes the spirit of Street Fighter and channels it through the universal language of pillow-fighting. However, I couldn’t pass up the chance to pick their brains on Dave the Diver’s divisive nomination for Best Independent Game at The Game Awards.

Naturally, TGA founder and host Geoff Keighley has already weighed in on the discourse, declaring that “independent can mean different things to different people and it’s sort of a broad term.” This vacillation caused uproar among indie game enthusiasts; how could MintRocket, a subsidiary of $3 billion company Nexon, exist in the same classification as Sad Owl Studio, the small-scale dev team behind fellow nominee Viewfinder?

Marcus Duckworth and Akiko Tanaka go head-to-head in Pillow Champ, an upcoming indie game from Frosty Pop.

Xalavier also wonders where Pillow Champ would fall on this spectrum. Frosty Pop is certainly not a Nexon subsidiary, but the studio’s fighting game is coming to Netflix Games upon release – a platform that’s growing exponentially thanks to the money behind it. There’s no question in my mind that Pillow Champ is an indie game, but some may see the connection to such a staggeringly large brand like Netflix and call that label into question.

Instead, Xalavier evokes the same principle of “indie spirit” coined by Keighley, reflected in the smallest one-man projects on Itch.io right up to high-profile cult sequel Alan Wake 2. The horror game is regarded as the most expensive cultural product in Finnish history, but it’s defined by the collective taste, knowledge, and voice of the creatives behind it. “At the end of the day, so many people – even inside of large brands and franchises – are just trying to make the most fulfilling experience for players that they can with as much of their creative voice as it makes sense to put into that space.”

Saga Anderson proceeds down the main street of Bright Falls in Alan Wake 2.

Faisal also reckons with the wider populace’s tendency to define indie games via capital: “I don’t think it’s necessarily an accurate way to do it.” While there are numerous avenues to game development funding, there’s no denying that acquisition is often a challenge. It should come as no surprise that an independent creative team wouldn’t hesitate to attach itself to a larger entity to see its creative vision come to fruition.

“For me, independence is being able to do what you want, when you want, and with who you want for as long as you want,” Faisal remarks. “It’s independent of external thoughts and influences. If you don’t have the capital making decisions that impact the gameplay or the storylines, perhaps that’s what independent is – it’s being independent of those externalities that allow us to create what we want.”

Two fighters duke it out in a Canadian campsite in Pillow Champ, wielding the eponymous pillows as their primary weapons.

That last point is particularly prescient, as big-budget games with more to lose are shaped by marketing and cultural trends to create a curated product palatable for widespread audiences, in stark contrast to avant-garde grassroots projects that may raise eyebrows. “A lot of the success that [Frosty Pop] has had – it would be remiss not to suggest that there was a big part of luck involved,” Faisal says, speaking to the creative freedom the studio has to craft offbeat experiences like pinball dungeon crawler The Pinball Wizard, or solitaire-style boxing card game Deck ‘Em.

Baldur’s Gate 3 also belongs in this conversation – recall how the dissonant public perceptions of indie and AAA came to a head with That Bear Scene during the Panel From Hell release showcase. It’s a reveal that we’d probably expect to appear in an Itch.io visual novel, or an Ari Aster short film rather than the frontrunner for Game of the Year. Perhaps that’s the “indie spirit” shining through, despite ongoing dissension that Baldur’s Gate 3 cannot be an independent game due to the strength of its IP, its $100 million budget, and 400-strong team.

Halsin in bear form appears smirk up at Astarion in the now-infamous bear cutscene in Baldur's Gate 3.

“The games industry struggles with the vocabulary of ‘indie,’” Xalavier ruminates. “We are trying to sum up, in such a complicated landscape, what it means for people to have unique creative voices.”

Faisal and Xalavier’s dev-forward contribution to this ongoing discourse is certainly refreshing. Scores of indie game enthusiasts are adamant that Dave the Diver should be excluded from the Independent Game category, on the basis that larger, more ‘prestigious’ nomination slots are often so packed out by the AAA landmarks of the year that smaller projects can never get a look in.

The eponymous Dave receives a worrying phone call during the opening cutscene of contested indie game Dave the Diver.

By that reasoning, the indie game category must necessarily serve as the last bastion of ‘the little guy.’ However, when interpreting this as an underhanded attempt by Nexon to cuckoo a category under the guise of pixel art and an affable everyman protagonist, perhaps it’s also disregarding the individual efforts of MintRocket’s creative team to realize their vision of one funny little man’s love for the sea.

Of course, my conversation with Xalavier and Faisal has by no means closed the book on this argument. “At the end of the day, whatever Xalavier and I say there’ll be countless counter-arguments,” Faisal concludes. “It’s a neverending conversation. But to what end? What does it matter?”

Our imminent Pillow Champ preview delves into what we can expect from Frosty Pop’s absurdist Street Fighter throwback. In the meantime, check out our list of upcoming PC games to add to your wishlist, as well as our thoughts on El Paso Elsewhere for more of Xalavier’s work.