In 2009, the Los Angeles Times called the then-young Indiecade Festival “the video game industry’s Sundance.” Now, in the game festival’s 13th year, that label feels reductive. Sundance has become thoroughly mainstream, whereas the Indiecade International Festival of Independent Games is rich in outsider spirit. Taking place this year at the Japanese American National Museum in Downtown Los Angeles (before moving on to East Coast and Europe iterations), the festival space is crammed with booths offering unique combinations of computers, laptops, tablets, VR headsets, jerry-rigged older gaming consoles, cards and boxes, modified CRT TVs, and much stranger devices. One augmented reality game involves a physical statue of a fishlike creature, helpfully cordoned off from pedestrians so the player can touch it and explore its space undisturbed.
There’s been an explosion in independent video game creation in recent years, enabled by a rapid proliferation of developer tools and devices which are cheaper and easier than ever to use. This has come linked with a rise in creators who seek not to make the next Angry Birds, but to get audiences to rethink how they play and even what a video game can be.
Sometimes all it takes to do this is slightly modifying a familiar premise. Music games are massively popular, particularly as arcade staples, and Rhythm Doctor upends the tradition of pushing buttons in time to onscreen prompts in favor of one directive: Hit a single button on the seventh beat of a tune. That basic idea soon grows challenging, as the game throws up both visual and auditory distractions to the main rhythm. In this way, the game subtly instructs the player on rhythm theory, training even the most tone-deaf person to sync themselves to a beat.
A few of the games on view would be more at home as museum pieces than anything else. Atchafalaya Arcade utilizes a modified SNES with a Game Boy Color as a controller for a player-created “audiovisual performance.” By simply directing a small dot across the screen, the player causes moss-like 8-bit imagery to creep outward. Pressing or holding a button plays a blip of chiptune music, and your location on the screen determines the pitch of the sound. Thus, the player can make up both their own song and artwork via simple exploration. It’s like experimenting with a magic Etch-a-Sketch.
There are works at the fest which use the setup of traditional games while upending the standard of what counts as “progress” or “success.” Oblige is a side-scroller full of minigames in which the world is 1979 Hong Kong and the minigames are typing busywork. Reminiscent of the masterpiece Papers Please, it fits game mechanics into the mundane aspects of daily life within a hyper-specific real-world-based milieu. The goal is to get you to think like a working mother, which it pulls off poignantly.
Similarly, Busy Work turns the drudgery of cubicle life into a frantic competition. The game had one of the more elaborate setups at the festival, featuring a miniature recreation of an office, complete with a water cooler. Up to eight players see who can answer the most emails in two minutes, which is accomplished by banging randomly on their keyboards — no matter what you press, the game automatically fills in a few words of boilerplate patter. Thrown into the players’ way are instant messages from co-workers, phone calls that must be answered, and other physical distractions. It makes a biting statement about the meaninglessness of most 9-5 work and office life, while also being breathless fun.
There were many VR games at the fest, but as its title suggests, Virtual, Virtual Reality takes things a step further. Upon strapping on the headset, the player learns that they are a human press-ganged into creating simulated entertainment for artificial intelligences, a reversal of the usual paradigm (and metatextually ironic). Within the game, this involves strapping on additional virtual headsets, creating multiple Inception-like levels of reality. The five-minute preview takes the player through half a dozen different worlds, each of which they interact with in a different way via a simple but flexible handheld remote.
Some of the games blend VR and tactile experience, and require cooperation to win. Un-Destined needs two players, one of whom puts on a headset while the other interacts with a physical series of doodads. Actions in the virtual realm affect the real world, and vice-versa. The VR player must figure out how to properly communicate both verbally and nonverbally what the outside player needs to do to help them progress. Similarly, Emotional Fugitive Detector has two players sit across from one another with their faces shoved inside a little booth. One player has a tablet with a facial recognition program before their face, and must convey an indicated emotion (happy, surprised, angry, etc.) in a manner that’s clear enough for their partner to understand but subtle enough for the system not to detect their expression.
My favorite game I played at the festival was Everything is going to be OK. Billed as an “interactive zine,” it consists of an array of pages which can be selected in any order, each of which contains a minigame of sorts which is really an interactive life experience. Most of these pages represent some sort of romantic, emotional, or physical trauma or disfunction via the allegorical misadventures of cutesy bunnies and other creatures subjected to cartoonish violence. In one choice bit, the player navigates a series of “crushes,” attempting to get into a relationship with them by selecting the right dialog choice. The odds of choosing the right option are … not great. As an example of the game’s sense of humor, a successful relationship with a crush results in a message informing you that you were together for two years and had eight children. The setup fragments life and pain into a harrowingly accurate representation of how we remember traumas and frustrations.