Dysia4: Free Web Games Bring Intimacy and Subverion Back to Indie Games

Curator's Note

The method of publication affects video games’ design choices. Free web games offer avenues of experimentation and subversive design without the pressure to turn a profit, but they are often left out of conversations about indie games. The smaller scale of free web publishing allows for one or two-person teams to conceive, design, produce, and publish a game outside of the now mainstream indie game markets found on Steam, the Xbox Games Store, or the Nintendo eShop.

Nowhere is this truer than for Dys4ia, a game by Anna Anthropy about her journey starting hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Beginning HRT can be a chaotic and confusing experience, and Dys4ia captures those feelings through a cacophony of mini-games, sounds, and flashing visuals. Each mini-game lasts for only a few seconds, and the game offers little to no instructions for how to play. In total, Dys4ia takes mere minutes to complete, but each mini-game, from blocking verbal attacks to taking blood pressure medication, is packed with meaning and feeling.

Several popular indie game designers got their start with free web games, such as Nina Freeman and Edmund McMillen, but writers sometimes describe free web-published games as “hobby games” or “personal games.” As indie game studios—and their games—continue to grow in size and scope, games like Dys4ia should continue carry the banner of truly independent games.

As an indie game designer, I have found distributing free HTML5 games to be liberating and anti-consumerist. Unlike most indie games, free web games are uniquely positioned to break barriers and tell intimate stories. They are easily shared as simple URL links, and they only require a web browser to play. While Anthropy has since begun selling the game, Dys4ia certainly would not have made such a splash and reached such a wide audience if it were not initially designed and published as a free web game.



Great point about how platform, format, and economic model (or lack thereof) shape the possibility space for indie/DIY game makers. In addition to Anna Anthropy's own book, scholars like Brendan Keogh, Chris Young, and John Vanderhoef have also made convincing arguments for the importance of small, DIY, art-, alt-, hobbyist, personal, zinester, and otherwise non-commercial "everyday" game development practices that don't fit neatly within dominant conceptions of indie games.

However, part of the story is missing here. No doubt Dys4ia has made a splash and reached a wide audience in the six years since its release, and has come to exemplify for many people the idea of using procedural rhetoric for personal expression. But Anthropy has expressed anger and disappointment at the way the game has been received, and in particular its association with the notion of "empathy games" that allow you to "walk a mile in someone else's shoes," even going so far as to make a biting satirical game in which players could literally walk a mile in her shoes at Babycastles (she is not alone in this critique of "empathy games").

This tension is closely linked to the fact that the game was released for free on the web. Anthropy has been quite vocal in her criticisms of teachers and academics who have incorporated the game into their classes without compensation of any kind, both devaluing her labour and appropriating the game to teach a version of empathy to which she is strongly opposed. Her decision to start selling the game and charging an exhibition fee (while still offering it for free to trans and questioning people) can therefore be seen as a literal and figurative re-valuing and a political act of "creative justice." This was part of broader shift in DIY game making around 2013-2014 away from releasing games for free and towards micro-scale monetization on itch.io and Patreon that I think complicates the idea that publishing games for free on the web is inherently liberatory.

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