LOS ANGELES — IndieCade is the world’s largest festival of independent games. Each year, it brings together some of the most accomplished creators of video games, board and card games, VR and AR experiences, and multiple permutations of all of these. As major game publishers grow increasingly risk-averse (sticking to a general format within shooters, open-world games, and the like), events like this offer new ways for the medium to expand creatively. Once again, we paid a visit to this year’s festival to see what was on display.
What the Golf? is billed as “the golf game for people who hate golf,” and it does a brilliant job of taking a simple premise (aim the ball, choose how hard you want to hit it, and let go) and throwing new wrinkles into it at each turn. With breakneck speed, it runs the player through new courses, each one putting a different twist on the formula. After the first scene teaches you how to play, for example, the second has you line up a shot … only for the player’s avatar to go flying toward the flag instead of the ball. Later courses feature a ball that can shoot Spider-Man-like grapple lines, a soccer ball that’s chased by people who want to kick it, and a parody of the popular shooter SUPERHOT in which obstacles are only moving when the ball is. Each level pulls double duty as a challenging gameplay twist and an effective joke.
Similarly, Anyball is a sports game in which players are offered a few simple verbs (run/dash, grab, and throw), and are then faced with a constantly changing set of parameters. One moment you may be racing to hit a ball into the goal, and then the next you’ll find that you have to hit objects of a specific color before you can score a point. While half the fun is figuring out and adjusting to the shifting rules, the other half is playing with the cartoony physics. It’s like an interactive Looney Tunes short.
Lazer Mazer (available now on multiple smartphone and tablet platforms) combines augmented reality with clever puzzle setups. Wherever a player points their phone or tablet, they’ll see a different section of a laser-filled maze around them. Carefully looking around, they must navigate this maze without falling into an abyss or getting zapped. Obviously, a big real-world space is optimal for playing, but the game also incorporates a clever pausing feature that allows one to turn around if they hit an actual wall and continue playing. This brings an unusual level of physicality to gaming, with players having to sometimes dash, duck, or even jump to get through a level.
One standout of the festival was The Game: The Game, which turns the dating sim genre on its head. Instead of playing a guy attempting to woo different girls, you are a girl who continually finds herself hit on by various guys over the course of a night out — specifically, popular pickup artists using the techniques they lay out in their books, like negging or tag-teaming with their wingmen. Dialogue choices let you decide whether to be cold, polite, or simply baffled in response to their advances. The game functions both as a pointed commentary on contemporary culture and a critique of how many of the traditional tropes of dating sims erase the agency of others in their protagonists’ quests for love.
One of the more technologically and conceptually stunning entries at the festival was Pixel Ripped 1989 (available now for multiple platforms). Through a VR headset, the player inhabits a schoolgirl in 1989 who attempts to covertly play her Game Boy-like system during school. Play involves both controlling the game within the game, which combines elements of old-school platformers like Mario, Sonic, and Mega Man, and paying attention to what’s going on in the “real” world. In a stellar sequence, the game world invades a classroom, with the girl controlling her character as it jumps and shoots over stacked books and school supplies. It’s a canny twist on the multiple levels of reality involved in VR gaming, and a full-length adventure of this nature is deeply enticing.
Among the more conceptual installations at the festival, none combined elemental deconstruction with pure fun like the Octopad. It takes apart the classic Nintendo Entertainment System controller, doling out each of its buttons to its own separate controller. As a result, games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda become multiplayer affairs, with people having to work together to make a character move, jump, attack, and more. In fragmenting the basic actions a game is built on, it both makes for frantic cooperative fun and spurs thought on how these games structure their input.
Many other games showcased at IndieCade 2018 are available at the fest’s itch.io store. Take a look for yourself and see what you discover!