Wandering Through The 'Burning Man' Of Video Games

"Indiecade is like the burning man of video game events."

I can't remember who said that to me, but that's how the young conference celebrating independent games —which started off as a part of E3 before it went off and did its own thing—was introduced to me.

I have no real conception of Burning Man, other than "it's a giant party in the desert." That might be wrong. The Burning Man website makes the event sound more hippieish, while the Indiecade Wikipedia page compares the Indiecade to Sundance.

The point here, I think, is that Indiecade is different. And when I compare it to, say, PAX or E3—both of which soullessly scream INDUSTRY and BUSINESS so hard I walk away feeling like I hate video games and everything they stand for—it's the type of difference I want to believe in.

2012 has been a good year for these sentiments, as it's a banner year for indie games.That's appropriate, given how much everything is changing right now. Key figureheads from big gaming companies are stepping down and starting their own thing, chasing after the potential and freedom that indie development promises. And I suspect that many of my colleagues will end up with GOTY shortlists that include more indie games than they do triple A games. The average person, meanwhile, when extolling the virtues of the medium to others, is more likely to pull out Journey first rather than Call of Duty.

All of this adds up to something. What is that something? I'm not sure. Attending Indiecade was a search for that answer; a mystery compelling enough to make me disregard my uncomfortable experience with previous conventions.

Indiecade is held in Culver City, which I am told is "pretty much" LA, only more wholesome, more presentable. Going through the exasperatingly hot LA for the first time last Thursday saw me rolling through through slummy places full of Spanish architecture, and I thought to myself that I could have easily mistaken it all for a neighborhood in Central America. I think I heard a gunshot at least once this weekend.

Culver City, by comparison, has no grit, seems almost a little too perfect. It's the type of place where police officers will readily fine you for jaywalking, and weekend cruisers aren't lowriders, but helmet-wearing gangs on freaking mopeds revving hard like they're fierce or something. Uh huh.

You wouldn't think that the vanguards of disruption would hold something like Indiecade in Culver City of all places, but maybe the truth is that regardless of what myths the indie scene peddles about the type of outsider voices it includes, the scene remains kind of bourgeois. When that very same scene postulates that you shouldn't make games unless you make x amount of income, maybe Culver City is perfect for Indiecade.

Indiecade starts a day earlier than most of the public and media gets to see it. As I understand it, there are developer-only events on this day. The only thing I heard about that day was how most developers seemed upset with the red carpet awards. Apparently the awards were presented by z-list celebrities who didn't have much to do with games and who didn't seem like they wanted to be there. In a low blow, one indie I was had lunch with compared it to the Spike TV awards.

It seems as if there's not just insecurity about being considered a ‘legitimate' medium, but a eagerness to be understood under the same glitz and glamor of other media. But would it all be so indie if that wish became true?

It seems as if there's not just insecurity about being considered a ‘legitimate' medium, but a eagerness to be understood under the same glitz and glamor of other media. But would it all be so indie if that wish became true? Then again, we live in a world where a big publisher can put together an "indie bundle," so maybe indie has been over.

Or maybe we just can't agree on what it means. Hokra creator Ramiro Corbetta on becoming indie: "I didn't know we were indie! But according to the rules...we went to win IGF, won an award, went to GDC, met other developers, went, well, I guess I'm an indie now?"

If there's anything amazing that came out of the award night, it's the story of one indie darling running around drinking straight out of a bottle of alcohol, and later, when someone took it away from him, the bottle somehow ended up in Phil Fish's hands. It's like I've indirectly kissed him, the indie mused while we watched a game where a blonde woman tried her best to jam her tongue into a dog's mouth.

As I heard this story, I contemplated the intricacies of the hand-drawn boners orbiting me—because I was at a boner party that celebrated all sorts of lewd, subversive games. This marked the start of my deep affection for Indiecade. It's mostly a brain crush; I've fallen in love with the ideas people talked about in Indiecade more than with any of the kooky things that happened while I was there.

***

The opening keynote was a conversation between John Romero and Steve Russell, the man who created Spacewar! and who could be considered the creator of the industry that we know and love. Wandering Through The 'Burning Man' Of Video Games Russell's description of how Spacewar! found its way across the country made him seem like he was from another reality where developers are ecstatic to learn about everyone playing their game, regardless of how they acquired it. Amused and almost proud of it, Russell told the audience that many people claimed that video games at the time were "better than psychedelic drugs." Then he was asked when he thought that video games became socially acceptable, to which he replied when they "started making money."


When the panel ended, Steve Russell invited the audience to come on down with him to a bar and chat, which I was astonished by. Only in Indiecade could something like that happen! I had somewhere else to be, but what Russell said struck me: for indie games, money changed everything, too. Indie games have been around for a while. It wasn't until they started breaking into the mainstream—when they started to make good money—that indie games started being taken seriously. Indie may operate outside of triple-A, but how different is the ethos, how risk-ready, innovation-happy are they actually as a whole?

At a panel on the importance of multiple voices in the gaming scene Anna Anthropy put forward the idea that indies shouldn't be fighting for a spot at the ‘table,' and should instead try to flip it. Make use of your position as an outlier, don't play by the same rules, buck the system. And yet only certain types of indie games make it through (hello, platformers, hello physics-based puzzle platformers), and only certain types of developers get cast into the limelight.

Earlier last month Robert Yang described how even the modding scene has become so preoccupied with the big boys, that in some ways it's become an extension of the industry: and all for what, to be given a chance to be a part of the club? Not making what you want, not making what you love, not making what comes to you?

I can't help but recall Edmund Mcmillen talking about how Super Meat Boy was him playing it safe, him making a title that he figured would perform well—he wasn't about to put his career on the line over something that wasn't viable! Which makes sense, I don't blame him. I can't help but wonder how many indies end up doing the same as Edmund. It's worth noting that Edmund did end up making his all-out, no reservations game—that'd be The Binding of Isaac. More importantly, The Binding of Isaac performed well! Why not start there?

Later when I sat in a panel that was supposed to be about inspirations, and instead ended up being largely about the constant preoccupation about money, it became apparent to me that many indies are no less ruled by money than the big publishers—though not always in the same way.

Notable statements in that panel (via Prom Week and Hokra developers) included:

"If you want to do what you love, don't expect to get paid for it."
"How does money affect me? Not at all. Perhaps to my detriment."
"I feel the pitter patter when I think about monetization, but then I feel guilty."

***

Somehow ‘games as art' infiltrated a lot of the undertones at Indiecade, but for once the conversation didn't seem tired or unwelcome. I know, shocking. I saw art everywhere, from Eric Zimmerman's elaborate, ornate game installation, Interference, to a reimagining of Pong where the paddle is controlled by physically moving until reaching aural equilibrium in your headphones.
Wandering Through The 'Burning Man' Of Video Games

Still, the games as art conversation took on a new face for me when I listened to Dear Esther developer, Dan Pinchbeck, talk about how he approached making video games. The talk was held in Culver City's Mason's building—realistically the most appropriate place for a video game talk to occur. You know, a boys club that acts much like a cabal? No women allowed? I didn't know non-members could be let into these things. I half expected the eyes of eerie elegant-looking men on the walls to follow me. They didn't.

The central question behind Dear Esther was whether or not it was possible to make a game that was beautiful—just beautiful. Everything else, stripped away. In some ways the development seems less about us and more about the creator pursuing an interesting question—and perhaps failing, according to some.

Wandering Through The 'Burning Man' Of Video Games

There is no room to fail when you're in development as a business, that's a cutthroat environment. But academics? As long as you fail in an interesting way, then it's a valuable effort. Personally, I've covered a number of games here that perhaps at the end of the day didn't turn out to be any good, or could even be argued to ‘not actually be games'. And I don't care: the process itself is fascinating and worth talking about.

"It's not a game" along with "It's not a good game, so why bother with it?" are the big elephants in the room, but isn't there value in something that makes you question your assumptions; is there really no room for process here? Art needs artists, creators with predilections, involved in interesting inquiries and processes. More importantly, art rebels, it provokes: art is not simply or always masturbation—which is what a game that exists solely for the pleasure of the player ends up being.

That same Pinchbeck panel saw the controversial Tales of Tales developers take a stand in the conversation, claiming that they got tired of being accused of making not-games and eventually just embraced the label. And they claimed that doing so opened up a new method of approaching creation, one that is capable of speaking to different people in new ways. "This is a beautiful medium. Let's see what else we can do."

Indie is suited for that call to arms. Of course even the academics are tightening the noose around people like Dan, Tales of Tales, and Anna Anthropy. Definitions are being decided. I just hope that at the end of the day, we're picking right and not just closing doors.

This is a beautiful medium. Let's see what else we can do.

Pinchbeck also hoped that we are able to develop language that speaks to emotional-based mechanics, not just physics-based ones. For all that we focus on physics-based mechanics, there's meaty stuff to be found even within games like Dear Esther. The player tries to actively configure reality, process it: how is that not a game mechanic? The player isn't being passive, they're creating meaning: isn't that a deep type of interaction, to change the player herself?

Later, I sat on a bench while I watched a bunch of Indiecade-attending kids make a cardboard mini golf course. Indiecade is open the the public and ultimately sees a wider range of people than any other event. As I watched, I worried about how it seemed that the second a game wasn't utilitarian, wasn't consumerist, it would be shut out, considered useless. Are games only art inasmuch as we can enjoy it, throw money at it, or inasmuch as they exist in a traditional format?

And while we argue endlessly over what is and isn't a game, while we try to shut people out, I couldn't help but notice many well-known developers from triple A perking up and taking ample notes during the talks that dealt with ‘not games', nodding, perhaps not convinced by the ideas but certainly enticed and provoked by them. Is that not valuable?

What I do know is that now I do want to go to E3. But only so that I can walk up to triple-A developers, have them explain their game to me, and then slap a sticker on them that says "NOT A GAME" no matter what. I want to see the reaction.

INTERLUDE: A META CONVERSATION WITH TIM ROGERS WHILE WEIRD STUFF HAPPENS AROUND US

"Why do they have all the people who drink corralled into this small space? I have a game over there! Why can't people drink and also look at my game," Tim wondered.

I noticed beforehand that the boner party seemed kind of claustrophobic, but I was also focusing that entire time on having my fill of the free scotch. But yeah, huh: why were we all in the corner of the Indiecade village, cut off from the interesting stuff that was happening? And with red tape that seemed to say "DANGER. Accident site ahead."

Then again, maybe when one of the featured games (awesomely) required the player to insert a dildos into godzilla-like vaginas....well, it's possible that it wasn't the type of thing where everyone might feel comfortable. We were like a leper colony, secluded from the rest of the world, only cooler.

"Team Kotaku, bifurcated." (I go on to mumble incomprehensibly)
"Oh yeah. I write for Kotaku! When I want to. I don't think people realize that!" Tim exclaimed.
"What? You should write more then."
"I write like once a month!"
"I guess that's just how much I like your writing, that it seems like it's been much longer than a month. Hmm, I'm going to write this conversation I think."

Wandering Through The 'Burning Man' Of Video Games

Tim seemed very pleased with himself. Next to us was an academic and a developer from Dyad, arguing over the definition of games. From the corner of my eye I noticed two people trying their best to, uh, hump each other? Oh wait no! They have Atari joysticks attached to their crotches, which they're using to joust in what may be one of the most awkward games I've seen at Indiecade. Appropriately, it's called Swordfight.

"I wish I designed that game," sighed Anna Anthropy, who briefly left her own party to watch along with us.

Tim talked my ear off on his new game and the scotch runs out, so I cross the line and head over to where his game is at.

***

"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN...come one, come all for a massively multiplayer thumb war!," a short man bellowed into the Indiecade village. Slowly a group of people amassed around him as he explains the rules: a thumb war like any other, but with more players. Last person standing wins.

"Get into it, but not too much! Remember, this is war, not sex! ....one! two! three! four! I-declare-a-massively-multiplayer-thumb-war!"

Then it's like a mass of humans erupted in an intense wriggle: you'd think it was some sort of avant-garde interpretive dance but no, it's just a thumb war. This is a planned event, and there were many like it—the kind that require you to get physical, if not to use your imagination. The kind of games that revealed the true equalizer amongst us, harking back to days of youth—and not in the immature, arrested development type way. Play. Some events were just playful—last year, there were piñata-making workshops.

My favorite activity had to be Pete Vigeant's real-life Frogger—appropriately named "Field Frogger". All the obstacles—the cars, the logs, and so on—were printed onto banners which people held up while walking back and forth in rows. Two speeds: normal, and turbo. The ‘frogger' was someone sitting on top of a giant ball, and they had to bounce their way through without touching any of the obstacles. Real life Frogger? Much more difficult than actual Frogger! I think I saw only one person make it to the other side of the road. Everyone else got defeated right at the start of the level.

Back to the thumb war. I think someone won, but I was too mesmerized by a man who walked in front of me to notice: he had a cardboard arcade stuck to his back. A working one, it looked like, and he had a small posse walking behind him—possibly waiting for a turn? I was amazed and decided to follow, too—but also, I'm just easily distracted when drunk. This is evidenced by the fact that before I could get close, I got distracted once again by lasers. Dozens and dozens of lasers. I was watching the game Renga, which was being played on a huge screen at the deep end of the Indiecade village.

Players have to work together to move colonies and defend them from attackers. It's a spectacle. Though some people never stopped waving their laser pointers frantically, not doing anything in particular, for the most part people managed to work together silently. That's probably the point: the word "Renga" is a genre of Japanese collaborative poetry. I later heard that the enemies and dangers were being orchestrated by the game's creator, live. Meaning that the "game," in a way, was like a live performance—the developer acting like a living, breathing AI director.

Or maybe a DJ? Naw, that sounds more like the game being demoed before Renga, Panoramical. Panoramical is an aural and visual exploration game where a DJ controller is used to modify the landscape as well as the soundscape. It's beautiful to watch, though you might mistake it for a screensaver if you weren't playing.

Not only did I never get to Tim's game (sorry, Tim!) I also learned that the developer doesn't consider Renga a game. Hmm!

***

The last talk that I attended was one by Mary Flanagan, where she urged developers to be aware of the type of values that they instill in their games. Like I've asserted before, there is no such thing as a game without politics—but this may be harder to notice if the vast majority of games mesh with your value systems. That's a likely scenario, if we consider that by and large the game industry is a loop.

Developers have a favorite saying, and that's "make games you'd want to play." But what happens when the industry is made up of a certain type of demographic above all others? The ‘games you'd want to play' start perpetuating a monolithic industry, where only a certain type of person is included. And maybe that's what indie is for, to provide a space for everyone else to exist, that's the appeal.

But you wouldn't have guessed that the industry is like that if you looked at who was at the festival. It was the most diverse gaming event I've ever seen. More than that: it was the most intimate. Indiecade "takes over" Culver City, but it's not huge, it's not impersonal. That was what rubbed me the wrong way about events like PAX or E3: they were less a celebration of the medium than they were showcases of indulgence, of industry, of business.

That's not why I love video games, that's not why I think most people like video games. Maybe we're too eager to make the medium catch on and blow up to notice this. For all the money, for all the Michael Bay, for all the saving the world, for all of the fantastical elements, video games remain this deeply personal thing that allows me to experience what I could not otherwise while also allowing me to look into a mirror and learn things about myself.

And video games are made by people. Real flesh and blood people that were approachable enough in Indiecade's low key environment. People that I could walk up to and chat with, that I found myself laying in the grass while looking up at the sky with. Indiecade reminded me of what makes video games human.

I'd love for you to experience this too—and maybe you can now that there's going to be one in the east coast. But in some ways, maybe I don't. It's not a selfish thing or anything, I don't want to keep this experience to myself. But I can't help but wonder what would be lost if Indiecade caught on and became a bigger event—became more like E3 and PAX. I hope that never happens.

The end of Indiecade, that wonderful, wonderful bubble that reminded me why I love games, what games are capable of, and what exciting things the medium has in its future, felt stark. The crowds thinned and the sky grew heavy: sunset. A man holding a large hammer stood in front of the giant wooden Space Invader welcoming people to the festival. The Space Invaders were the only thing that overtly screamed VIDEO GAMES at the festival, and the closest thing we had to a burnable effigy.

The man raised the hammer above his head. In what seemed to be slow motion, he brought it down hard on the invader. Bits flew everywhere. It felt perfect.

(Elliot Trinidad | Anime)