This weekend more than 120 games will be playable on the streets of Culver City as part of IndieCade, a now annual game festival where risk-taking design choices and anything-goes unpredictability take precedence over commercial success.
But this year, there are signs that the indie gaming world is catching the eye of much larger players. Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 4 console will also be there, as will Nintendo’s Wii U and the still-in-development Oculus Rift, a headset industry observers believe will finally popularize virtual reality.
Still, only independent games will be playable at the event. Take “Deadbolt,” where a player must take a look at fellow players, then answer a series of questions, such as who among the group is the most beautiful. Or which player is the most intimidating. And it’s all done with a real-life pen and paper.
“The whole idea is you make yourselves vulnerable to one another,” says “Deadbolt” designer Elizabeth Sampat. “You share things you wouldn’t normally share with one another.”
One of the primary focuses of the now 7-year-old festival, says IndieCade architect Stephanie Barish, is “showing people the diversity in the types of games that exist.” Some games such as “Deadbolt” require only stationery and honesty, while others such as “The Hearst Collection” will have players navigating an elaborate maze of lasers in downtown Culver City after sundown on Saturday.
The event, which began with an opening night awards gala on Thursday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, will also feature standard industry talks, but IndieCade’s heart remains in its populist-focused weekend street festival. General tickets to check out the titles on Saturday and Sunday are $20 per day.
“It’s not, like, a gamer event,” says Barish. “That’s that funny line we’re always walking. We want people to come and play games, but we’re not a hard-core gamer event.”
More traditional console and PC games are showcased as well, but they’re often far from typical. “Gone Home” is one of the 36 games up for an IndieCade award, and it was designed by the tiny Portland, Ore.-based Fullbright Co. “Gone Home” sets players loose in a house to piece together a family’s secrets, touching on themes of failed grown-up ambitions and awkward teenage sexuality.
The game was crafted by four industry veterans who went independent after working on blockbuster titles such as “Bioshock 2.” Since its August release, the game has sold well over 50,000 copies. Independent games, available for download via services on PCs and home consoles, are now a viable alternative to the trigger-happy and sports-focused titles that dominate the mainstream game industry.
“It’s not necessarily about changing anything,” says “Gone Home” principal Steve Gaynor. “Hollywood blockbuster movies, for instance, are always going to continue to be around, but there’s other cool stuff going on.”
IndieCade has grown with the movement. Attendance for the festival in 2009 was about 900. Last year, organizers tallied close to 6,000. Sony and Nintendo will also be showcasing independent titles available now or soon via their digital storefronts.
Some, such as the fanciful musical adventure “Hohokum,” an upcoming title to be released on Sony platforms, were discovered at IndieCade. Others, such as the Wii U’s “Spin the Bottle: Bumpie’s Party,” are award-contending games this year. The latter is designed to shift attention away from the television screen and encourage players to get out of their comfort zones, a common thread of many an IndieCade game.
“In the last five years there’s been this burgeoning thing of taking independent games and showing them in public,” says game designer Douglas Wilson. “That context calls for games that are accessible and spectator-friendly, or inaccessible in a different way. It should be very different than playing at home.”
This year Wilson is part of a team that created “Edgar Rice Soirée,” a game that’s a borderline art installation. Named after the creator of “Tarzan,” “Edgar Rice Soirée” has players navigating a makeshift jungle of hanging PlayStation Move controllers, a game device outfitted with a small glowing ball. Players must “swing” from luminescent controller to luminescent controller, always being sure to grip two of their assigned color while attempting to block others from reaching their own glowing destinations.
“The hope was that players would start fencing each other, getting in the way of each other and it would get physical in this jungle,” Wilson says. “The game was originally called ‘Awkward Tarzan Grinding Game.’ We didn’t want to gross people out. It’s not a sexual game.”
But Wilson and his collaborators have one of those, too, and though it’s not on the official 2013 IndieCade program, he intends to show “Dark Room Magic Sex Game.” Just follow the blushing, or listen to the, well, sound effects. Players, using only PlayStation Move controllers (no screens), try to create an erotic rhythm until the game climaxes to its conclusion.
It’s all for the sake of art. “You’re not actually having sexual activity,” he says. ”That’s the joke of it. Why is this embarrassing? We’re used to murdering hundreds of people in video games everyday, but listening to some moaning sounds is worse? That’s the whole point of the piece.”
IndieCade, however, is largely a family-friendly affair.
One game sure to draw a crowd is “The Hearst Collection,” an elaborate laser maze that will be constructed outside and shown as part of the festival’s Saturday evening program. While many independent games at IndieCade will eventually be available for purchase, if they’re not already, the festival may be the only opportunity for Angelenos to play a game such as “The Hearst Collection” or the soul-baring “Deadbolt” for the foreseeable future.
If some of the concepts seem hard to grasp, Gabe Smedresman, the San Francisco-based designer of “The Hearst Collection,” has a pitch our movie-obsessed town can easily understand.
“Have you seen the movie ‘Entrapment,’ where Catherine Zeta-Jones practices sneaking through an array of lasers with elaborate body contortions? This game is built so you can live that moment. That’s what games do. They take things you experience vicariously in movies and allow you to live them.”
IndieCade headquarters are at 9300 Culver Blvd., Culver City. The festival runs 10 a.m.-7 p.m. on Saturday; and 10 a.m.-5 p.m on Sunday. Night games start at 7 p.m. Saturday. Admission $20 per day and $15 for evening games only.
– Todd Martens | firstname.lastname@example.org
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