This weekend, game designer Eric Zimmerman was overheard discussing how this year’s IndieCade, even more than in previous years, felt like a film festival. Indeed, Culver City felt just a bit like a reduction of Park City, Utah, as groups of game developers and fans made beelines between art galleries and theaters to see and hear everything that these independent games and their creators had to say.
Of course, one big difference in presenting games compared to screening movies is that you don’t need to schedule the games. There’s no predetermined start time, no immutable running time, no non-trivial changing of reels or emptying of theaters.
Instead, each of IndieCade’s twenty-nine (29!) games
simply lived in their places, whether they be in the lobby of the Culver Hotel next to a factoid about the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, or in the Wonderful World Art Gallery, sitting underneath an animation cel from Disney’s Snow White.
Each game in its place, they ran from sunup to sundown -- sometimes with their creators there to explain the game and sometimes not, but always with the unfailing ability to draw someone in, even if only for a few minutes. Maybe that person grew up playing video games, or maybe that person couldn’t tell Pac-Man
; regardless, the games would send that person off with a new understanding of what the game world was capable of.
Some of the games featured at IndieCade came into the festival already festooned with laurels. Hemisphere Games’ Osmos
was no stranger to the indie gaming world, having already received the D2D Vision Award at the 2009 Independent Games Festival, and it would leave IndieCade after being honored both the Fun/Compelling Award and the title Best In Show. Similarly, Closure
saw critical acclaim in this year’s Experimental Gameplay Sessions at GDC and left Indiecade with the Gameplay Award.
Less familiar was Brenda Brathwaite’s Train
, a non-digital board game which saw players struggling to follow instructions typed out on a 1930s era German typewriter, then struggling to subvert those same instructions as they ostensibly played with model trains and iconic yellow people pieces atop a frame of broken glass.
I ended up watching two sessions of the game play out over the weekend; watching the shock and realization on the players’ faces filled me with awe in a way to which I simply can’t draw comparisons. For Brathwaite, whose games have received numerous awards and achieved legendary status over the course of more than two decades, having a rabbi declare Train
a work of Torah eclipsed all of those distinctions. That didn't keep the IndieCade jury from awarding her and Train
the Vanguard Award. (For more information on Train
, please check out Ian Bogost’s article on Gestures as Meaning
Daniel Benmergui’s Moon Stories
also resonated with the IndieCade crowd. Simple stories of love and life hit our emotions even harder thanks to the game mechanics themselves forming the magical reality affording the player both the ability to bring a couple together and to tear it apart. Despite the retro presentation and the simplistic nature of the mouse control (or because of it), players really connected with the plaintive in the plain. So did the IndieCade jurors, who awarded Benmergui the Jury Award.
Other games in IndieCade were perhaps slightly more mainstream in their aspirations, but this is no slight, as their success as games is no less tempered. The abstract action puzzler Eliss
had already received much love from iPhone users and the IGF, and it was little surprise when its creator Steph Thirion was awarded the Auteur Award over the weekend.
Jonatan “Cactus” Soderstrom’s Tuning
is a relatively simple platformer, a game of moving from point A to point B, but the sheer energy and creativity of the presentation and the dynamics of the levels easily made it worth of the Sublime Experience Award. Dear Esther
might be considered just another ghost story, but what a ghost story! Using the space for subtlety afforded by Half-Life 2
’s engine and excellent audio design, developer thechineseroom created one of the most engaging game worlds in recent memory, and for that they were awarded the World/Story Award.
It wasn’t until after three straight days of indie game world playing, learning, and partying that the developers' Finalist Choice and the Audience Choice Award winners were revealed, and they ended up being the same game. Andre Clark’s Minor Battle
had players circling around a pedestal topped with four LCD screens, attacking enemies and bombing castles.
The soundtrack for the game was less the orchestral music from the computer speakers and more the peals of laughter as the players dealt with the four screen arrangement, the virtual world’s circular arena, and their own real-world physicality. The random yet focused energy and joy of that game seemed a microcosm of the joy and energy of the whole festival, undoubtedly part of the reason developers and gamers alike awarded the game.
Now, though, is the day after, and the festival has come to an end. Thankfully, the vast majority of IndieCade’s selections are available on the internet. While movie enthusiasts may still need to deal with the dreaded mean time between home releases and limited distribution, time and geography pose little obstacle to the modern indie gamer.