SXSW 2015: The gaming world tries to get inside our heads

March 23, 2015 | 5:30 a.m.

THE PLAYER

Boba Joe takes his dog, Starfox, for a walk outside of Palmer Events Center during SXSW gaming at the Austin Convention Center during SXSW. (Austin American-Statesman)

Boba Joe takes his dog, Starfox, for a walk outside of Palmer Events Center during SXSW at the Austin Convention Center. (Austin American-Statesman)

AUSTIN, Texas — Discovery at South by Southwest isn’t what it used to be. More than 2,000 bands make it hard to cut through the din here, and it doesn’t help when cellphone providers and beer companies are making some of the loudest noise.

Having attended SXSW now for 12 years, I can safely say that excitement happens on the fringes, far from whatever brand is hoping for a slight edge in attracting the attention of more than 30,000 attendees.

The gaming portion of SXSW is entirely on the fringes.

Though the industry is a powerhouse that’s estimated to bring in more worldwide revenue than the film business, a brief Miley Cyrus appearance at SXSW showcase sponsored by Converse shoes appeared to generate more attention than anything the gaming portion of the fest offered.

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Even the gaming conference’s physical placement — a 25- to 30-minute walk from the main action at the Austin Convention Center — implies the culture isn’t yet on par with music or film.

Games were hidden away at Palmer Events Center in Butler Park, but here’s why the trek was worth it: The game festival is a surefire way to guarantee you will see something that has never been done before. This is rock ‘n’ roll in 1966, television in the late 1950s, cinema in 1930. Compared to its more established big brothers, gaming is a medium that’s just getting started.

This is how I found myself in a makeshift tent, pitched in the corner of the event. Picture a mixture of sweat and incense, and try not to worry about the action that the floor mats and pillows have seen. The microphones and virtual reality headgear, however, made it clear this wasn’t some sort of self-realization convergence at Joshua Tree. There was no hand-holding and no illicit substances, but there were outer-space visuals.

This was a showroom; the tent was set up for a game-meets-conceptual-art project called “SoundSelf.” The title uses new technology to teach players how to relax. In theory, at least.

“Ohmmmmm,” I said into a microphone as neon-blue circles, triangles and wiggly lines danced around me. The shapes would get closer — or swell in size or contort in all sorts of odd directions — depending on the breaths I would take. All of these were indicators for when I should or shouldn’t breathe.

Was I relaxed? Not at all. I was consumed with thinking about who wore the VR headset before me. Did he shower? Was she spitting into the microphone?
Welcome to my head, but my anxieties aren’t important right now. The experience is important, and it was unlike any other at SXSW. “SoundSelf” is a visual-audio experiment, one designed not to be played so much as to use new technologies to manipulate our emotional state.

But it’s much more than that.

“SoundSelf” is indicative of a still infant medium, one that’s just a few decades old but eagerly experimenting with where it can go. The experience was wholly new.

It had company. “Smooth Operator” used animated tongues and sloppy kissing sequences to inspire people to accidentally touch, “Ice-Bound” tried to redefine the concept of a novel by using a tablet’s camera to turn hard-bound pages into an interactive pop-up book, and “Darkest Dungeon” was a fantasy game in which the greatest enemy could be human stress. It turned a game of strategy into one of nurturing personalities.

The Iranian revolution is shown in upcoming game "1979." (ink stories)

The Iranian revolution is shown in upcoming game “1979.” (ink stories)

Then there was a game called “1979 Revolution.” In development for a number of years, “1979” is nearing release this spring or summer. It’s being developed for mobile devices and will be released in episodes — an interactive TV series, if you will.

It will seek to put players inside the Iranian revolution of the late ’70s, playing the role of a young photojournalist trying to make sense of both sides. There’s plenty of action, but not the kind you expect when it comes to games.

“It’s about what you have to do in order to survive a revolution, not by ducking out of the way of bullets or picking up a gun and charging the army,” said designer Navid Khonsari, a veteran of the games industry who has worked on such mainstream franchises of “Grand Theft Auto” and “Max Payne.”

“How do you go about buying bread? How do you have that conversation at the dinner table when your brother is a part of the military and you’re absolutely opposed to the military presence? We think there’s an amazing opportunity for game designers to embrace this kind of content.”

I stood transfixed by the snippets of “1979” — an interrogation scene in which saying the wrong phrase could quickly lead to torture or another moment in which the main character is photographing a rally, zeroing in on historical figures and moments of note. It allowed me to get in and mess with history, all while maybe learning a little something. Khonsari says he’d just like to change some stuff up, although he used a less-newspaper-friendly word than “stuff.” “Just engage,” he said. “I don’t care if you like it. I don’t care if you hate it. I don’t care if you think it’s anti-American. I don’t care if you think it’s anti-Iranian. Whatever. Play it. That starts a conversation.”

Get cozy with another person in "Smooth Operator," coming soon for mobile devices. (Beardo Games)

Get cozy with another person in “Smooth Operator,” coming soon for mobile devices. (Beardo Games)

I wish I could say the music portion of SXSW still started a dialogue. Music remains my first love, and I saw numerous artists in Austin worthy of follow-up listening. There was Soak, whose quiet and fragile confessions found humor in the pains of being a teenager, and there was Shamir, whose funky take on dance music shimmied through hip-hop and ’80s-era warehouse raves. Then there was the Swedish pop of Amason, which was all charm.

But as I bopped my head and watched local couples dance around me, I realized that I kind of missed that stinky tent and worn VR headset. It wasn’t that one art form was better than the other, only that I knew where music could take me. I like it, but I’ve been there before.

Games, however, are still a giant unknown.

We’re at South by Southwest until March 22. Join us at latimes.com/sxsw for ongoing coverage of the festival.

– Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex

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