Punk’s Not Dead: But This Series Is

Death is inevitable. Even the universe in all its grandeur will decay and fall apart bit-by-bit with a cold, quantum death rattle. Yes, I know. It’s very sad. There’ll be no more stars. There’ll be no more Italian food. No more rediscovered fivers in old coat pockets. It’s very sad.

But today is not that day. Today is just the day that this wee series come to an end. It was kind of a snotty upstart of a column to begin with, proposing as it did that a large portion of the indie crowd were nothing but a bunch of punks. Of course, there were (still are) several holes in this argument. But I like to think we treated those holes like piercings and filled them up with enough spiky metal to make sure nobody noticed just how scattershot we were at times.

Because rather than being a direct mirror image of punk rock, this home-grown gamemaking movement is actually different in many ways. That raises lots of questions, the biggest among them being: ‘maybe punk isn’t the best thing to compare it to after all?’ But I won’t answer that question because that question can go fuck itself. In fact, to spite such challenges I think we’ve learned enough in the past few months to finally set out a formal definition of bitpunk, as distinct from both punk music and the broader realm of indie games. Well, we can at least have a go.

They are amateur creations.

I don’t mean that in a nasty way. The bitpunk mentality is amateur in the same way the Gaelic Athletic Association is amateur. Anyone can join. (Of course, the GAA involves more broken shin bones and brain injuries than games development, so let’s drop that parallel). The point is that these games are made by non-coders, without a traditional education in gamemaking. Usually they use tools and programs made specifically for people to side-step the high entry requirements of development. As well as this, they may lack other practical skills like art or music but will often turn any such weakness around and incorporate it into the design. Often by flat-out kicking their inhibitions and doubts in the teeth with the big, black boot of sweary self-confidence. Note: This does not necessarily equate to ‘Ha ha I made the game bad on purpose’ but sometimes it does and also that is fine.

The old ways are respected.

Far from adopting an obnoxious ‘let’s level the whole industry yeahhh’ attitude while gobbing on a gold-framed portrait of Shigeru Miyamoto, punk gamemakers generally have a deep and genuine love of the old ways. Genre rhetoric is often adhered to both mechanically and thematically. Partially this has to do with the limited tools at their disposal and partially it has to do with fondness or familiarity. But this doesn’t mean every game is derivative. At the same time punks will play with these conventions in unexpected ways and won’t be afraid to take the piss out of a genre’s famous fatal flaws. Loving someone means knowing all their failings and still making time for them. And then mocking them for their aforementioned failings, possibly using a funny voice.

Humour is more important than politics.

Discussing meta-blahoretics and politico-fashions might have been the realm of manys a punk rocker but punk gamemakers – for whatever reason – often avoid such overt statements. They’re more concerned with making people laugh or howl or cackle with joy than making them pensively ponder the pros and cons of the First-Piss-on-the-Post voting system, or whatever. Comedy, be it the surrealism of Space Funeral or the slapstick mechanics of Nidhogg, is the premier flavour of bitpunk. That’s not to say there are no political punky games out there. Only that they are a lot rarer than you might expect.

The short form is king.

A lot of punk games are the semi-abortive results of fevered game jams. Such as they are, these… things… have not only been designed and crafted in a very short space of time but are also intended to be enjoyed within a short space of time. While not every bitpunk monster is the result of a Ludum Dare or Pirate Kart there is a tendency towards the short form. If tripp-lay explodethons like Max Payne 3 are our blockbusters, punk games are our obscure music videos on YouTube. If the COD series is our bombastic equivalent of a Lee Child anthology, and the much-loved Braids of the world are our cerebral, existentialist novellas, then bitpunk is our flash fiction.

If a game meets all the above criteria, it might well be bitpunk. Of course, this list might not be exhaustive. It’s just all I can think of. There’s certainly a distinct art style that could round off the list nicely, one with lots of clashing colours and shakey screens. But that emphasis on brightness might also eliminate groggier-looking games like Cart Life or Murder Dog, which is PREPOSTEROUS AND UNACCEPTABLE. The main thing to remember is that *while every punk game is by necessity an indie game, not every indie game is necessarily a punk game.* Even so, holes in the argument remain unplugged. In my short time trying to classify certain games as punk I have come across some very fair comments. “But all these elements could apply to any indie game,” you might say, or “Brendan, stop.” Very important points to make. But please.

Think of the category of ‘indie games’ as a stained-glass window in your local godhouse. A gorgeous, shimmering image that looks colourful, complete and coherent. Ah, but it’s also fragmented into many pieces. And lo, there is an impressive jewelled mullion [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mullion] running down the length of it. No wait, there are many mullions because this window is a very big window indeed. Jesus, you’ve never seen so many mullions in your life. Why, ten seconds ago you didn’t even know what a mullion was. And now look at you, standing in front of this miracle of a window, a veritable mullionaire.

The point is that these framed window panes, each with their own glassy, disunited mural, has been glazed in a wholly different style. They all occupy the same space – they’re all a portal to the godhouse of indie games – but individually they might represent a different Order. There’s the window for the Amanitan Friars, there’s the window for the the Frictionalites, another for the Knights Mojang. In other words, the whole scene is so splintered it appears to defy practical classification. (Not to mention the fact that artists invariably ‘hate labels’). Well, I defy that defiance! There is this thing; I’m certain of it. It’s funny, it’s short and it can be embraced by anyone regardless of background. There is this thing; it’s called bitpunk.

It’s the window over there. It’s a little bit smashed.


  1. Alexander Norris says:

    And it was an excellent series.

    Congrats, Brendan.

    • Oozo says:

      Just wanted to say the same thing: Thanks, Brendan, I really enjoyed the column. Well written, interesting stuff. Hope it wasn’t your last.

      Also, you should talk to Nathan. I guess you two could have something like a connection, or at least a conversation going on.

  2. Hoaxfish says:

    This makes me think that EA’s “indie bundle” is rather like John Lydon’s advert for butter… except he at least seems to acknowledge how silly it is.

  3. B1A4 says:

    Rest in pixels.

  4. randomnine says:

    These games may pay homage to the classics, to the old masters, but they’re straight up dismissive to the contemporary mainstream. When they don’t adopt the conventions and aesthetics of retro games out of necessity they do it to get as far as possible away from modern, establishment game design.

    Crude arcade games were made in an era before gaming was popular, before it was big business, before it was established. They are our version of getting together in a shed to muck about on a guitar and hit stuff. Maybe that’s part of it.

  5. Caerphoto says:

    If this video is anything to go by, I don’t see the connection here.


  6. Freud says:

    I enjoyed this series. The problem with games/projects like these is that it’s a jungle for an outsider like me. I have found some of the recommendations to be gems and many to be a waste of my time. It’s very hard to navigate and eventually you just back off and try the few that get recommended to you.

    I guess it’s easier to lean back, grab my joypad and continue playing through Arkham City.

    • PopeJamal says:

      I think the real point of it all is that:

      a) You learned about something you didn’t know about before. Broadened your horizon.
      b) You were willing to actually give something new a try.

      Stepping outside of the comfort zone is the hard part for most people, so just by being open to change, you did better than most and are now, officially a winner.

  7. Grundig says:

    That wikipedia page for the heat death of the universe should have been made compulsory reading before finishing Mass Effect 3.

    • Gap Gen says:

      Having read Alastair Reynolds books, Mass Effect 3 made a little more sense. ME3 is a bit like Baby’s First Fermi’s Paradox in that regard.

    • PleasingFungus says:

      Someone never played Marathon 3.

      /gaming elitism

  8. KaL_YoshiKa says:

    A shame, the games covered in this series were some of the more fascinating games to read about.

  9. Valvarexart says:

    Aww :(

  10. pertusaria says:

    Wow, never thought I’d see the GAA mentioned in this context. Maith thú (well done)!

    Neat article, too.