Independent games hold a very dear place in my heart.  I love games, and the quirkier and more experimental they are, the better.  Large corporations can’t make quirky, experimental games very easily because of the risk that experimentation entails—with some of the larger blockbuster games requiring teams of hundreds of people and budgets of tens of millions of dollars, it’s no wonder that big publishers tend to stick to established franchises and proven formulas.  If left unchecked, this can lead to stagnation and decay, and the industry suffers as a result.  This is where the independent developers come in.  Since independent developers aren’t tied to big publishers, they have more freedom to make riskier games on smaller budgets.

IndieCade is a festival celebrating independent games and the people who make them, held every year in downtown Culver City, Los Angeles.  It’s been called “the Sundance of video games,” and in addition to having many independent games set up for attendees to play, there are talks, panels, activities, and “big games” that attendees can participate in.  This year, I went to see the sights and try to meet new people and find new inspirations, and that’s exactly what happened.

The most interesting new game I played at the festival was a bit unusual; it’s called Johann Sebastian Joust, and it’s a game played with up to six motion-sensing controllers (PS3 Move, specifically) and no graphics.  Each player activates their controller (which lights up in a different color to quickly indicate which player is which) and faces each other as music begins to play in slow motion.  If you move your controller too quickly, it will vibrate and flash red, indicating that you’re out of the game; the objective is to be the last player with an active controller.  At random intervals the music will speed up, indicating that you can move a bit faster without losing, but you have to be careful to listen for when the music slows down again or you’ll be out of the game!  The genius of this game is that, although it encourages very physical play with people trying to move their opponents’ controllers, the need to keep your own controller from moving too quickly keeps the game from getting out of control.  The fact that people have to move in slow motion really does make it feel like jousting or fencing; it’s surprisingly elegant.

There were plenty of interesting graphics-based games too, of course.  One of my favorites was Fez, a Metroid-style platforming/exploration game where the 2-dimensional protagonist gains the ability to rotate his flat world into the third dimension.  Each level has four sides, and each side plays like a traditional Mario-style 2D platformer, but at any time you can rotate the world to show another side.  It’s very clever, and the art style and music are gorgeous.  Another game I liked, along similar lines, was a simple title called The Depths to Which I Sink.  Played in full 3-D, it’s a game about depth perception where you control a simple bouncing dot in a three-dimensional box.  Windows, hoops, and obstacles float through the box, and your objective is to fall/rise through the hoops and break the windows while avoiding the obstacles.  It’s a lot of fun and surprisingly engaging.  The Depths to Which I Sink was so popular, in fact, that it garnered enough of the attendee’s votes to win the Audience Choice award.  Another game that intrigued me was a game for the iPad, which had come out a few months ago.  It’s improbably named “Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP” and is an eccentric point-and-click adventure that consists almost entirely of exploring an expansive, lovingly detailed 2D world of beautiful pixels, humorous characters, and incredible music.  It’s almost more of a meditative experience than a game, and I was sorry I was only able to play it for a few minutes.  Other favorites included Antichamber, a philosophical first-person puzzle game involving the navigation of very strange, often non-Euclidean spaces, and At a Distance, a similarly mind-bending two-player cooperative game where the biggest hurdle to completion is figuring out the rules!  There were a lot of other games there that seemed interesting, but I didn’t get a chance to play all of them—there was everything from a cooperative platformer where the two players have to invent their own gestural language (called Way, this game won the Developer’s Choice award), to a puzzle-platformer game where players manipulate gravity and navigate Escher-like “impossible” environments (the name of this one was The Bridge), to a magnetic “kiss controller” where couples actually use their tongues to control the game!  Good stuff.

In addition to the games on display, there were also some interesting panels and sessions.  I got to participate in one called “iron game designer”, in which three teams were chosen from the audience and had to come up with a game that they could play and test out then and there.  Each game had to be based on a theme that the audience chose (the Amish), and had to incorporate a “secret ingredient” (which turned out to be bananas).  Later on in the day, there was a talk I’m still recovering from by Adam Saltsman, maker of the Flash game development kit Flixel.  He talked about such high-level philosophical concepts as death, infinity, and the true nature of the sublime, all in front of a 60-minute animation of a spaceship launch.  The day after that, Phil Fish (the developer of Fez) gave an even more experimental “talk” in which he did not say a single word.  Instead, he showed a slide show, accompanied by music, that began with the text “a thousand pictures are worth a million words.”  Then he proceeded to click though, yes, one thousand collected images in time with the music.  The presentation lasted ten minutes and could probably have been made into a bestselling music video.

The conference wrapped up with a party (and, of course, a game), followed by the presentation of the Audience Choice and Developer’s Choice awards.  I had a lot of fun and am definitely looking forward to going back next year—who knows, maybe I’ll have a game on display myself!

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