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Highlights from IndieCade

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Space Invaded: these public sculptures dotted downtown Culver City, including here in IndieCade Village

This past weekend I flew out to Los Angeles for my first IndieCade, the annual festival that is sometimes described as “the Sundance of games” and celebrates the indie gaming spirit (whatever “indie” means — ask that question around the office and you’re in for a long and potentially heated discussion!). IndieCade has many parts, including a public weekend festival, game exhibitions, and awards, as well as a professional conference. I suppose I was expecting some kind of “indie GDC,” which was both sort of right and sort of way off. There were slightly shorter lines, many fewer business cards, about the same amount of swag (so many Magic card decks!), and many more zombies. Also a lot more children (although sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference).

 

I left New York on Thursday, so I could attend the conference on Friday before the festival proper. I’m a conference junkie, and I’ll jump at any chance to sit in an auditorium in front of a projector screen and someone with a Powerpoint and a microphone talking games. Things got off to a rousing start with Naughty Dog designer Rich Lemarchand’s excellent keynote about, among many other things, how mainstream developers can look to and be inspired by the creativity and freedom of indie games and bring some of that innovation back to their own titles. If it seemed strange on paper to have a big-budget AAA developer keynote a conference devoted to indie games, Rich’s passion and enthusiasm, not to mention his serious retro gamer cred, quickly dispelled any doubts. And who knew that Uncharted 2′s “peaceful village” level owed a debt to Tale of Tales’ “The Graveyard”?

 

Speaking of which, in a session on experimental collaboration (which could easily have been retitled “Collaborating Couples” as many of the featured partners were involved in romantic as well as creative collaborations), we learned something about Tale of Tales’ Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn (via stuttery Skype link): in her words, “our love is not a physics platformer,” but rather some kind of weird experimental experience, much as their games are not traditional games. This leads me to wonder what other interpersonal relationships could be described in terms of gameplay genre, and what unlucky souls find themselves in, say, a brawler, or a bullet hell?

 

Or perhaps a racing game — one of the odder spectacles of the conference was the demo of Hye Yeon Nam’s “Kiss Racer,” a game played with her own prototype “kiss controller” — a peculiar device consisting of decidely unsexy, clinical-looking headgear worn by one participant and a magnet glued to the tongue of the other participant, who operates the controller by shoving their tongue around in the other’s mouth in an activity superficially resembling a kiss. In this memorable “Well Played” session, the low-fi racing game was tested by Jane Pinckard and her gamely patient and accommodating partner. Sparks flew as the pixellated car ambled erratically around the screen, mostly on the grass well away from the track, and then finally trundled alarmingly towards a brick wall several reapplications of Fixodent later. Ah, love!

 

And speaking of spectacle, no gaming conference is complete without the cheery gameshow-flavored fun brought by Colleen Macklin and Eric Zimmerman, whose high-energy “Iron Game Designer” session pitted teams of unwitting members plucked from the audience against one another in an audacious, and fairly dangerous, game design challenge involving the Amish and piles of hapless bananas. For a little while bets were on as which team’s game would most quickly result in the most spectacular wipeout (was it the one with the blindfolds, the stairs, or the no-holds-barred wrestling?), but everyone made it safely to the judging round at the end. (And for the record, in a competition judged by audience applause, the team that goes last ALWAYS wins!)

 

That’s just scratching the surface of the conference, without even going into the festival events and all the games that were on display, including some pretty awesome Big Games. I haven’t even mentioned what went on in the Masonic lodge, where secrets of the universe were revealed. To be continued?

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