The IndieCade Festival is the country’s biggest event dedicated to celebrating games made by independent developers (those not supported by game studios). Last weekend was the ninth Festival, and this year it was held at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, which is home to USC Games, the most prestigious educational program for game design in the country. I was only able to attend IndieCade on its last day, Sunday, but as always, I was impressed by the imagination and passion behind the games on display.
Gaming Is For Everyone
Diversity remains a hot topic in the game industry, and Intel supported this issue by sponsoring the Gaming Is For Everyone exhibit. This was my first stop of the morning, and I could have easily spent the rest of my time in this one room.
Games for Change (G4C) is a non-profit organization promoting and facilitating the development of games for social impact, which includes learning, civics and health. G4C hosts public arcades, funds game design challenges, workshops, and produces the annual G4C Festival, which highlights games for good and brings together developers, social innovators and funders to further develop the field of impact games. Through G4C Lab, it consults with organizations on social impact game strategies and often pair game developers with cause-related organizations to executive produce games. . Among the more fascinating games at its table was We Are Chicago, developed by Culture Shock Games. In this first person narrative-driven adventure game using real stories, you play a high school kid from Chicago who’s best friend has disappeared, is threatened by gangsters at school, and finds the shootings on your block to be the only constant in your life. As you explore your relationships to uncover what really matters, you learn the important of friends and family sticking together to keep each other safe. We Are Chicago has earned a number of honors and received IndieCade 2016’s Developer Choice Award.
I’ve long been an enthusiastic supporter of women in game development, and so I had to stop by the GirlsMakeGames table. Girls Make Games is a series of international summer camps, workshops and game jams designed to encourage girls to explore the world of video games and development. The camps are run by LearnDistrict, an educational company based in San Jose, CA. We are committed to providing students with access to knowledge through our games and programs like Girls Make Games workshops. Their goal to teach 1 million girls around the world how to make games by 2020, and if anyone can do it, they can.
One gentleman I especially enjoyed talking to was Marcelo Viana Neto, an artist, educator, and game designer who also shares an interest in games and education. While earning his Master’s Degree in Digital Arts and New Media at University of California, Santa Cruz, he developed a curriculum for an introductory course on video game game design and development for youth ages 12 and up, with little-to-no game-making experience. The explicit nature of Radical Play is to expose students to a variety of design methodologies, diverse array of game development software, and novel game play experiences to encourage student self-expression through video game design. His course also aims to develop students’ sense of autonomy, by using a variety of classroom management techniques, and allowing students to choose their game-making tools and creative path.
Innovative Input Devices
I decided to put one of the exhibits I visited at the Gaming Is For Everyone pavilion under a separate header for some of the innovative input devices I saw at the Festival. XTH Sense calls itself the world’s first biocreative instrument and next evolution in sensory expression. The XTH Sense harnesses the power of your body to let you interact with connected devices, musical and video software, games and virtual reality in a highly personalized and engaging way. Using multiple biophysical sensors, the XTH Sense captures various sounds from your body, such as muscles contracting, blood flowing, the heart beating, as well as your motion data and temperature. These sounds and data represent your expressive signature. With the XTH Software Suite you can use your expressive signature to control musical parameters, create digital drawings, interact with game mechanics and play in virtual reality (VR). It also makes for a cool wristband.
I was feeling a bit peckish when I game across the most delicious game to satisfy my IndieCade appetite. The Order of the Oven Mitt is a tabletop, completely edible game for all ages that will get you laughing and strategizing while you satisfy your sweet tooth. Created by game designer Jenn Sandercock of Inquisment, this non-competitive game’s components, other than the Sacred Tome, are edible. This includes the main board and the edible-ink pens used to decorate and personalize your Knight. This design choice means the entire sacred space can be eaten, so that there is no evidence left of it. This yummy game is designed foster friendship, curiosity and challenge, and as the cherry on top, it won IndieCade 2016’s Interaction Award.
They say you reap what you sew, and this was never truer than it is with Threadsteading, a two-player game for a modified quilting machine. The quilting machine is a computer-controlled longarm quilting machine, which moves a sewing head around a 12′ x 2.5′ area to stitch 2D paths. Players act as competing commanders of a team of royal scouts tasked with exploring a hex-gridded domain of varying terrain difficulty. Gameplay is turn-based and designed around the unique constraints of the platform. Because the output is essentially a single “pen” position over time, each turn must pick up where the previous turn left off; because the final artifact is a quilt, the rules should encourage an even spread of lines across the surface—ideally, a quilt has neither large unsewn portions nor multiple stitched lines on top of each other. This truly unique game, created by Disney Research Pittsburgh, deservedly won IndieCade 2016’s Technology Award.
However, the most, um, intimate input device I’ve ever used in a game came courtesy of Infinite-0: Dreams of Space. The video game is a conceptual portrait on the life & influence of three generations of women artists: Eugenia Butler, Eugenia P. Butler, and the game’s designer, Corazon Del Sol. The central character is a pair of three legs that the player uses a controller in the shape of a vagina to navigate a series of planetary vignettes, with theme elements that oscillate between absurd dreaminess and narrative vehicles that explore the archetypes of woman-hood. The player scampers through the territory of a creative self, attaining material signifiers that raise her stature in the world, but she also holds power to destroy what she’s created for herself. Dreams, which seeks to embrace the absolute freedom to succeed creatively in respective cultural paradigms, won IndieCade 2016’s Visual Design Award.
Tabletop and Live-Action Roleplaying Games
I spend so much of my time involved with video games that when I go to events like this, I am attracted to the non-video games. Here are a few that caught my eye.
Fracture is a competitive tabletop game where each player strives for diversity. The game is played using a set of smart hexagonal tiles called AutomaTiles by its inventor, Jonathan Bobrow, that communicate with one another to determine the board state. The tiles simulate a population of different colors that simply “want” to be around colors different from themselves. Each player is assigned a color and is given the goal to keep the population together, but make their own color touch only other colors. Players quickly realize they need to manage their ability to prevent others from winning while moving themselves forward. I learned this a bit to late when, just as I was about to make my winning move, I lost to another player.
Keeping the Candle Lit is is a live-action freeform game inspired by blackbox theater techniques and abstract play. Designed by Shoshanna Kessack, who drew her inspiration from being raised as a Conservative Jew, the game immerses players in a story about three generations of women in one family fighting as partisans during the war. Having escaped the grasp of the Nazis, they have taken to the woods of Europe to fight back in armed resistance. The women are from a traditional Jewish background and have spent their lives steeped in their culture and religion. Confronted with this wide-open world fraught with danger, they must decide what part of their past traditions they wish to preserve, and what legacy they will carry with them to be passed down to future generations. A session runs for four hours, requires three players and two facilitators who will also play supplemental roles.
Bad News is an installation-based game that combines procedural generation, deep simulation, and live performance. Set in the summer of 1979, gameplay takes place in a procedurally generated American small town with over a century of simulated history. When an unidentified body is discovered in the town, a mortician’s assistant—the player—is tasked with tracking down a next of kin to inform him or her of the death. To do this, the player explores the town and converses with its residents to discover the identities of both the deceased and next of kin, as well as the current location of the latter. Whenever the player encounters a town resident, an improvisational actor reveals himself to perform the character live, adhering to the character’s generated personality, life history, and knowledge. Created by a team of PhD students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Bad News is designed to showcase the humor, drama, and tragedy of everyday life, and the game won IndieCade 2016’s Audience Choice Award.
Luck: When Planning Meets Opportunity
IndieCade is not just about the games developed by independent game developers, but the indie game spirit. And no one embodied that more at IndieCade than two of my Los Angeles Film School students, Robert Rose and Josh Weston. Although the game they had submitted, Nightmare, was not selected by IndieCade, the two received free passes for their efforts. By accident they walked into a meeting room where a representative from Oculus Rift was being pitched game ideas. Instead of backing out of the room, they decided to pitch the game they had developed in class and were rewarded with the promise of a follow-up discussion. I was thrilled to see their indie spirit paying off.
Last Wednesday I made my annual pilgrimage to the Electronic Entertainment Expo to check out the new video games coming out this year. Okay, it wasn’t much of a pilgrimage; it was just a short subway ride from my work to the Los Angeles Convention Center, which has been the home to E3 almost every year since the trade show debuted in 1995. However, unlike many trips, it’s the destination and not the journey that matters, for E3 is like the video game industry Mecca, where publishers show off their upcoming releases to retailers and the gaming press.
Except that there seemed like a lot more elbow room in Mecca this year. Activision, Electronic Arts, and Wargaming were all no-shows this year, as was Disney, which is (once again) dropping out of video game publishing entirely. Whereas in previous years South Hall was jam-packed with ginormous booths numbing crowds with sensory overload, this year there were a lot of lounge area and recharging stations in the back of the hall. The reason: retail sales are losing their significance in an era of digital downloads, and there are now many more outlets for promoting games that through the gaming press.
For the publishers that did show up for the party, the games that they were promoting indicated that they were living in glory days of the past: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Halo 2, Killer Instinct Season 3, Gears of War 4, Elder Scrolls 5, Civilization 6, Resident Evil 7, and Final Fantasy 15. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loves me some more Civilization and Deus Ex, but I would have liked to have seen something new at the show. The closest the AAA publishers had to anything innovative was in slapping virtual reality onto titles: Batman Arkham VR, Doom VR, Fallout VR Resident Evil VII Biohazard, Star Wars Battlefront: X-Wing VR Mission, and perhaps the best of the bunch, Star Trek: Bridge Crew VR. Now, these are all good indicators that consumer virtual reality will eventually go mainstream, but there was still no killer app that convinced me that I gotta have VR today.
Truth be told, I found the most interesting games not in the multi-million dollar AAA publisher booths, but in the modest IndieCade exhibit. Here are a few of the games that captured my imagination.
Beautiful Corner is indeed both beautiful and in a corner:the entire game played out in a small, fantastical bedroom. t has a set, and lights and sounds that react to the player’s progress. Two interactive puzzles are used to convey the narrative,a coming-of-age story that plays out through letters, trinkets and postcards from the player’s imaginary friend. It’s moving and sweet, while commenting on the realities of growing up (or not).
The player assumes the identity of a specific character, and is given costuming and props. The player enters the set and explores both puzzles to see how the puzzles relates to the character they are playing. As the player plays through the two puzzles, the set reacts to their progress by lighting and music changes. The experience ends with the player being asked to make a narrative choice on the outcome of the story. After choosing, the player experiences one of two possible endings
Lead designer and artist Martzi Campos created the game as her Master’s thesis in the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media and Design track. Her goal was to create an emotional tone in an interactive space of something besides fear or panic. By creating a single player experience, Campos’ hope was to bring about a higher degree of roleplaying opportunities for the player, bridging the emotional tones of interactive theater with the gameplay of escape rooms and creating a hybrid that sets players up as the main character in their own interactive play.
Speaking of escape rooms, I was once hired to write an escape room scenario, and ever since then, I’ve toyed with the idea of creating an escape room in a box that could be sold in retailed stores, like those murder mystery party games. Well, as they say in this business, ideas are a dime a dozen but implementation is everything, and two women beat me to making the idea into a reality.
Ariel Rubin and Juliana Patel are the co-creators of Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment, a tabletop gaming experience that crams together all the fun and social interaction of a party game, the event nature of a consumable game and the cooperative spirit and dramatic timed challenges of an escape room. You have 19 puzzles, 3 locks, and 1 hour to save your life! Doc Gnaw has sent you a mysterious box. When you open it, you release a poisonous vapor and need to solve her devious puzzles to unlock the antidote, or you will be forced to join her werewolf army. Unlike boxed “murder mystery” games, Escape Room In A Box consists us to try to capture the physical nature of escape rooms and not have our game consists not of not just pen and paper puzzles but also diverse materials and hidden objects to capture the physical experience of real-life escape rooms.
This game grew out of the duo’s deep passion for escape rooms and at home game nights and their desire to bring them together in a completely new way. Their initial plan is to sell their game at a real-life escape room locations, so that players have an opportunity to bring their experience home with them to play with their friends. I just hope some smart retailers who appreciate the growing escape room craze will offer to carry this product on their shelves, because I would be just one of the first to buy one.
You can learn more here: http://www.escaperoominabox.com/.
A tabletop game can be a lot of fun, but how about a thousand? PlayTable is a tabletop console system designed to let you play any number of board and card games without fiddling with rulebook and hour-long set-ups. The system consists of a full-HD 1920x1080p monitor that’s impact-resistant and waterproof, software compatible with any Windows-based laptop (future compatibility with Mac and iOS), and a set of standard pieces, cards and stickers. The system also comes with a recommendation engine allowing you out new games and find the perfect one for game night. It even includes a construction kit allowing you to make your own games using your existing game and toy pieces such as Infinity, Skylanders, and Amiibo figurines. However, at $599, the price of admission is steep.
You can find out more at http://playtable.xyz/.
Magic Dance Mirror is an interactive visual music and dance experience created by game developer Kinetic Magic, a seven-person team assembled by Game Director Kyle Ruddick. It uses a Kinect motion sensor to track player’s movement and create a stylized mirror image of those using it onto a giant screen filled with neon starbursts that reacted to their dancing.
The concept was inspired by Burning Man and the immersive art there.The goal is to primarily explore and let players’ own movements and sounds entertain them and spectators. The Magic Dance Mirror is designed to be fun for all ages and promote exercise and healthy self-expression. Not a typical game in tat there is no way to “win” or “lose”, Magic Dance Mirror was built for clubs or large parties, but thankfully not to the home living room, where my spastic attempts at dancing would result in all my furniture being trashed.
You can learn more here: http://www.magicdancemirror.com/.
From time to time I get on my soap box and talk about the need for more female game developers, and so I was really pleased to come across an exhibit for the book #Feminism: A Nano Game Anthology. Written by feminists from eleven different countries, #Feminism offers bite-sized takes on contemporary feminist issues. Each of the 34 analog nano-games (games that can be played in less than an hour, explained exhibitor Whitney “Strix” Beltrán) in this collection requires between three and five participants, and simple (if any) props.
The games range from silly to serious, including scenarios about selfies and rom-coms as well as reproductive rights and domestic violence. And of course, enjoyment has no ideological boundaries–there are games here for participants new to feminism as well as those experienced in making gender arguments on the internet. The book is available for sale via Indie Press Revolution.
You can learn more at https://feministnanogames.wordpress.com/.
Virtual reality was as popular among the indie games as they were with the AAA games, but the experience that most captured my imagination was not a game at all. The Zeiss booth featured a pair of their VR One Plus virtual reality headsets controlling and receiving camera images from drone suspended from above. The headset could only control the camera (you would need a second person to control the drone’s flight), but with the very lightweight headset (essentially a pair of lenses on which you mount a smartphone running the virtual reality software) and heads-up display, I felt like Iron Man flying above the South Hall exhibits.
You can find out more at http://vrone.us/flyfpv.
Maybe the reason I didn’t describe too many video games is that it’s a sign the E3 organizers need to rethink what their show is all about. Fun is fun no matter how you get it, and in a year when doing the same ole, same ole just isn’t cutting it, I’m tipping my hat to the innovators who are thinking outside the console box.