#IndieCadeEast 2018 Recap

Games as Craft, Games as Art: Reflections on Coming to Independent Game Design a Decade In

Despite a surprise snowstorm that dropped 6 inches on us over the weekend, Patrick and I made it out to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY for a single day of IndieCade East.

My last contact with IndieCade had been in 2016, when the game I designed with Patrick Watson, DemocraSea, was an Official Selection. The vibe in New York was way different than in L.A. For one thing, there was more coffee around (I don’t know about subsequent years, but caffeine was disturbingly difficult to find at IndieCade in 2016, especially on Sunday). But I left feeling much like I did two years ago: enlivened, and eager to bind myself deeper to the weird and wonderful world that is game design.

On this IndieCade visit, I found myself musing over the difference between craft and fine art — a version of the debate we’re all pretty much sick of by now in the creative writing world over the differences between genre/commercial and literary fiction. IndieCade is focused on boundary-breaking, experimental games that challenge values, or “notions of what a game is.” Seeing arty media side-by-side with more commercially-minded games made me consider how this confrontation might be different in the game design world.

Unlike literature, video games are a new art, one that essentially arose and was made possible by consumer culture— a thing I kind of already knew, but was reminded of fairly recently by the careful history in my friend Andrew Ervin’s book, Bit By Bit: How Videogames Transformed Our World. As Andrew says, “Whether video games today embody the ideals of art or the reach of American commercial power, or some combination of the two, depends on the specific game in question.”

Community Pop Up

The Museum of the Moving Image is a sleek and airy gallery space that evoked for me my long-ago trip to the Nagoya Robot Museum (alas — now closed). Like that wonderful urban outpost, this one glimmers, the neon pink lettering splashed across its entryway doors promising a singular experience of modernity. Being here also reminded me of one of the things I like best about New York City — how art and creativity feel interconnected across social groups and disciplines here, a distinct collaborative vibe preventing genre boundaries from limiting the ways people choose to self express.

Upon walking inside, Patrick and I were immediately pulled into a gathering on the first floor, where folks from the local #gamedev community had set up in-development games for playtesting and feedback. After the wild creative pyrotechnics of my first game jam weekend (read my post about that here!), I now see the process of building video games with new, and very appreciative, eyes. Here are just a few of the titles we checked out:

Museum Multiverse by Hessvacio Hassan, Mikei Huang, and Ethan Redd. I made a beeline for this one because it was a Gear VR game, and thanks to the game jam, I’m now fascinated by the problems and the potential of VR. The gimmick here was that this is a third person VR game — your POV hovers over a character who moves around in different rooms of a VR museum.

Imposter Drawster by Up At Night Games. This was a fun and mostly complete tablet drawing game that reminded me of the tabletop game A Fake Artist Goes To New York. Every player except one knows the prompt. All take turns drawing, and then vote at the end on which person they suspect was in the dark.

Kung Fu Kickball by WhaleFoodGames. This one was kinda like 2D Rocket League. Frustrating physics, a fast, twitchy pace, and team action. The goal was to kick the ball up a steep slope and into your opponent’s bell. A simple game that we both agreed was really well done. The developer said it would be out in about a year, likely on Switch and PC.

Cede by BareHand. Pure awesome. I love games with nonhuman characters — colorful, weird little monsters or agender robots, anything that gives me a break from identity-driven thinking (I wrote about this way back in my proto-content creator days). In Cede, you play as big blue Seph and his brothers, the Lil Bois, who work together in “combat farming” (!) to grow psychedelic plants that drop health, shoot seeds, and help defend the land from randomly-generated baddies.

A Decade of Game Design

After we’d exhausted the Community Pop Up games, Patrick and I headed upstairs to check out IndieCade Presents: A Decade of Game Design, a long-term installation that will be on display at the Museum of the Moving Image until June. This exhibit highlighted eight influential game developers from the past decade, presenting recent projects and contextualizing them within their larger bodies of work.

Interestingly enough (as you can see in the image above), part of the introduction to the collection read as follows:

Little more than a decade ago, video games produced outside the mainstream were largely an afterthought, found only in small online communities or derogatorily labeled ‘casual’ games. The proliferation of game-making tools, the coming-of-age of a play-literate generation, and a growing consensus on canonical works has pushed the medium into maturity, expanding what we talk about when we talk about games.

Since I think of game-making as a young art, I was fascinated by the notion that the medium is “mature.” But really, we’re talking about the same thing. In the last ten years, game design has evolved into a recognizable artistic space. And thanks to the hard work of those who’ve been with this community for years, there are accessible inroads for newcomers and genre-crossing artists like me.

We played almost every game in the exhibit. Below are a few highlights:

B.U.T.T.O.N. (Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now) by Copenhagen Game Collective. Evocative of the Wii title WarioWare, this amusing title enticed players into short minigames involving a real-world component. Players were asked to set down the controller and step back, change places, etc. before a goal flashed across the screen — something like “The player who presses their button five times first wins.” Like with WarioWare, I loved watching other people play. I was surprised by how rarely people realized they could compete using the physical space surrounding the game. On the third minigame Patrick and I played, we got the goal “Whichever player presses their button loses.” He leaped forward and pressed the button on my controller. I loved the way this game impishly tempts players into redrawing the game’s magic circle to include the room, the controller itself, and each other.

Walden by Tracy Fullerton, et al. This bigger-budget game had relied on support from the NEH and NEA, and won many awards, including the 2017 IndieCade Developers Choice. Despite its accolades, I was suspicious. The game’s description explained it was “an exploratory narrative and open world simulation of the life of American philosopher Henry David Thoreau during his experiment in self-reliant living at Walden Pond.” Over in the literary world, we’re not too excited about white male “canon” right now, and I was irritated to learn so much effort had been devoted to giving Thoreau even more attention. That said, I was impressed by the level of detail in this game, even charmed by the ways it enticed players to explore the environment (which was gorgeous and full of a clear-eyed love for the natural world), and the many historical texts to be found within it. A game like this devoted to a more interesting historical topic would be a stunning learning tool.

Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars by anna anthropy. This one snuck up on me. At first glance, I thought it looked inconsequential — a Pac Man-like game with a cute skin. I was surprised. Of the games in the exhibit, this one was the most fun to actually play. And its tongue-in-cheek theme got me thinking about the cultural narratives built into arcade titles. I loved how this game chatted with my inner cultural critic without getting heavy-handed. That gaming can be both pointed and light is one of the reasons I find it compelling. Sparks fly when we stop that oh-so-human struggle to get our point across.

This experience was what got me thinking about the difference between game craft, and game art. Over the course of the day, I sampled a few experimental titles in the Decade of Game Design exhibit that didn’t excite me. These games made loud arguments about obvious topics, staging themselves as games, but focusing their energy on the work of a critical essay. Mechanically, some of these added up to little more than story-rich tappers (games where robotically touching the screen eventually leads to completion). For me, discovering I’m playing a tapper, no matter how socially on-point, is a disappointing experience. I feel like I’ve been tricked. It dawns on me I’ve been cast not as co-conspirator and participant, but as audience member — a role I, a card-carrying Internet Person and dogged literary reading attendee, am surely weary of.

Still, when I play simpler games, I often wish they had more to say. Except in extreme cases of true Csíkszentmihályi’s flow goodness, simply trying to win isn’t enough for a piece of game media to feel meaningful to me. Beating levels or other players is a good feeling, but a predictable one. As an artist interested in game design, I’m looking for an experience that is new, and hopefully something to mull over after my time with the game is done. So I’m more interested to encounter games that strike a melodic balance between lowbrow addictive fun and critical self-expression, like Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars.

One such game was The Night Journey, a collaboration between Bill Viola and the USC Game Innovation Lab, along with Tracy Fullerton and Todd Furmansk. At the end of the day, Patrick and I were headed out of the museum, and I saw a flyer for this title, which claims to be “one of the first experimental art games ever made.” We scrambled back upstairs to take one more shot. After witnessing two other visitors take up the controller and then replace it in confusion, I donned the headphones and warily dove in. To the left of the screen, on which an a fuzzy, black and white 3D space was rendered, exhibit notes explained this game’s design explored a challenging question: “what is the game mechanic of enlightenment?” I diddled the thumbsticks, and found I could move in space, floating across hills and deserts at the pace of a lucid dream. Pressing the A button effected audiovisual transformations, tuning in drumbeats, distant voices, and visions of rituals, ghosts, and owls. This description will make the game sound like one of those pointless touchscreen tapper art films I discussed above, but it wasn’t. The Night Journey was deeply interactive, a bizarre spirit world that came to life only when I connected with it through the controller. Throughout, my curiosity was piqued in a dissociative and yet sustained way, compelling me to remain engaged with the winding atmospheric convolutions of this very unusual game. It’s probably true that I was primed to like The Night Journey because my novel also focuses on elements of techno-spirituality — but I’d stand by my judgment of this as legitimately cool and innovative no matter what.

I left IndieCade East feeling satisfied by the range of media I’d experienced there, and excited about my own game design projects. Capitalizing on the good game energy, Patrick and I did one of our patented Metro-North design sprints to solidify the revised ruleset for our new board game on the way home. I’m pretty excited about this game — it’s a dungeon-crawling roguelike with a collaborative storytelling element and some devilish nods to Agile Design. The current plan is to head to NYU Playtest Thursdays with the latest version on February 1, 2018 for feedback. If you’re in the New York City area, I hope to see you there!

Visit my website, nataliemesnard.com, to read more of my writing and learn about my games!