Positioned between the main halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center, the Indiecade display was easily the best part of this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. Here, there were no winding queues, no luxuriously appointed media lounges, no icily smiling PR people to inform the curious that all interactions with the game or the developers were 'by appointment only'.
Here, people just played games.
And what games they were. Physical games that sought to push the usage of peripherals beyond the standards set by Microsoft or Sony stood juxtaposed with games that utilized more familiar mediums to tell unfamiliar stories. In between, there was everything else, from first-person horror to word puzzles to social interaction simulations set in the advent of a certain high school tradition.
Contrasting the rigid formalities of the main exhibit areas, the Indiecade showcase existed in a state of organized chaos. Developers indiscriminately engaged the public in conversation, their enthusiasm seemingly immune to the tedium of repeating themselves time and time again. Camera crews intermingled with non E3-goers. Eloquent volunteers moved one booth to another, readily and competently filling the spaces left by absent creators. Occasionally, there were even developers with games not on the official roster and people, both famous in the industry and not, who were simply there to meet other people.
"Indiecade started in our living room as a conversation, kinda." Indiecade CEO Stephanie Barish explained when we asked her about the Indicade festival that happens in Culver City every October. "We asked each other, 'Where is a place for all the indie guys to show their work? Where is the indie stuff? Where are the experimental games?' There weren't any, really and so we decided to make that space."
"It's entirely grassroots and community effort." She added with a tinge of well-deserved pride. "Everybody built it together. There's a huge international team that has been working on it and submitting games to it.” Now a little piece of that big event resides at E3, allowing anyone with a little interest and free time to enjoy some of the best games to hit the show floor.
Songlines, a gorgeous, riotously-colored experiment with the Kinect and Australian aboriginal creation-myths, was usually one of the first games to greet new arrivals thanks to its placement beside the registration desk. An MFA thesis game developed by a team of ten and helmed by one Samantha Vick, Songlines calls upon its players to take on the role of a rainbow-riding deity and to craft a world out of gestures.
Depending on the choices that the players had made, each sweep of the hand would conjure everything from rivers to mountains to verdant forests. "On top of everything else, we wanted this to be very non-scary for those who had never played a Kinect game before. There's no lose state. You can just go in and do whatever you want and something awesome will happen." Vick noted.
A little beyond the Songlines booth, games of Pickpocket Junction and Johann Sebastian Joust were being hosted with delightful regularity. Depending on the time of day, passer-bys could either see trenchcoat-swathed people scrambling good-naturedly for the contents of each other's pockets in a round of Pickpocket Junction or a cadre of Playstation Move-wielding folk cautiously attempting to 'joust' to the telltale strains of J.S Bach's 'Brandeunburg Concertos'.
While detractors have commented on how Johann Sebastian Joust did not fit the conventional interpretations of the word 'video game', Die Gute Fabrik Lead Game Designer Douglas Wilson had a different view.
"Social context matters." Wilson said. "For me, the term "videogame" signifies something different than just 'video' and 'game.' It has become its own term, with its own history and culture behind it. For me, 'videogame' suggests some kind of console or arcade platform. So, I'd argue that Joust is a videogame because it's played with PlayStation controllers. That's not just relevant technologically, but also culturally. Unlike some research experiment or art piece, you could easily imagine playing Joust on a console like the PlayStation or the Wii. In some sense, then, Joust is a 'videogame' because it's also relevant to the videogaming community."
And judging by the overwhelmingly positive response it garnered from curious on-lookers and participants, most people on the floor were in agreement.
Like the games mentioned previously, Ramiro Corbetta's Hokra drew no small amount of attention. Prominently displayed on a large, flatscreen television in front of a plush black couch, Hokra was almost never without players. Arguably the most minimalistic sports game since Pong, Hokra is the genre distilled into its simplest form: two teams, one ball, and the desire to amass the highest number of goals.
In contrast, A Valley Without Wind seemed almost impossibly complex. The Indiecade website described it as a 'procedurally-generated action adventure game with logical difficulty progression and detailed character customization'. The developers call it a '2D sidescroller without a linear path', an 'action game with tactical combat and strategic planning'. Metroidvania-like in flavor, the game was, according to PR Lead Erik Johnson, difficult to explain within the time constraints imposed but not impossible to appreciate if the throngs of interested people it drew were any indication of things.
Indiecade's sixth appearance at E3 also saw the return of Messhof Games to the line-up. Described as a 'war learning game' designed to teach the principles of typing while 'emphasizing on good posture and collaborative social engagement', Tickleplane felt less like an educational experience than it did an entertaining excuse to frantically pummel the keyboard. Not that anyone was complaining, of course. Inversely, Prom Week seemed far more deliberate. Set within the titular time frame, Prom Week required its players to engineer and manipulate social connections in order to accomplish a variety of adolescent goals.
There were darker games too. Analogue: A Hate Story, Christine Love's first commercial release, shared the tale of a long-dead crew through a disjointed collection of ship logs and dialogue with the vessel's A.Is. DADIU's A Mother's Inferno took things even further by plunging players into the nightmarish ordeal that is a loss of a child in a blood-drenched, hell-bound train.
As has always been the case, Indiecade's showcase at E3 was a celebration of diversity. From the lushly polished heist action-RPG The Moonlighters to philosophical iPad-based flight simulation Languish, the games at Indiecade shared little commonality outside of their proletariat origins and their commitment to the unconventional. If E3 this year was a red-carpet event dedicated to the latest ham-fisted action movie and attended by tired glitterati then the Indiecade display was a street performance: intimate, joyous and pure.