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“Flower” (2007, developer: Thatgamecompany). Part of “Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Games” at the Museum of the Moving Image (courtesy of Thatgamecompany)

From controlling a flower petal on the wind to experiencing a five-minute memento mori in pixels, Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria brings together some recent touchstones of independent game design in a playable setting.

The exhibition is co-presented by IndieCade, and features many of the independent gaming conference’s past awardees, including standouts from the 2013 edition: the security system hacking Quadrilateral Cowboy from Blendo Games and Kentucky Route Zero from Cardboard Computer, which has you prowl through a hidden highway inside the caves below Kentucky. It also coincided with the conference’s East Coast iteration — IndieCade East — which took place from February 14 to 16 in the museum.

Visitors playing “Minecraft” (2011) in “Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games” (photograph by Ben Helmer)

All 25 games are set up on the third floor of the museum in a large, dark space, the main light being the colorful monitors and screens that project out their pixelated illuminations. During IndieCade East it was absolutely packed with players, many of whom were likely familiar with at least some of the games. However, even if you’ve played a game like Jason Rohrer’s Passage (2007), where you walk through a narrow band of color representing the passage of life to death, it’s much different to play it with an audience.

And while the diverse offerings of the exhibition are definitely a highlight, including some games that you can’t find many other places, like the 10-person Killer Queen Arcade (2012), where you play on teams via connected arcade cabinets, it’s the participatory and community aspect of the games in the museum setting that makes the exhibition such an enjoyable experience. I found myself interacting with strangers through the absurdities of Porpentine’s Twine Compilation (2012-2013), which includes the Kafkaesque “Ultra Business Tycoon III” where you wander through a text-based narrative as a “prominent businessreplicant in the money business.”

“Passage” (2007, developer: Jason Rohrer) (courtesy of Jason Rohrer)

The exhibition is in no way comprehensive for independent game history — it’s as much a showcase for IndieCade, with a large chunk of recent awardees featured. The “essential”-ness of the exhibition title is difficult to assess between something like the incredibly sprawling building-based Minecraft (2011) and the solitary meditations of Gone (2013), where you trace an empty space for clues to departed lives. However, for an exhibition on games in a museum, it’s refreshing to not see a heavy-handed debate around whether or not these are art, or only those “classic” games that have existed long enough to have achieved iconic status.

Instead there’s a mix of games that have inspired interactive development, and games that haven’t even been released yet, a broad cross-section of software developed outside of major studios that proves its own worth in design and engagement. Despite the various platforms and perspectives, from games about powering the legs of a runner (2008’s QWOP) to solving puzzles in a moody immersive environment (Braid, also from 2008), the exhibition is all about the power of shared experiences in gaming.

“QWOP” (2008, developer: Bennett Foddy) (courtesy of Bennett Foddy)

“Killer Queen Arcade” in “Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games” (photograph by Ben Helmer)

Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games continues at the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Avenue, Astoria, Queens) through March 2.  

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