IndieCade East: The Sundance of Videogames?

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At about two o’clock in the afternoon on the final day of IndieCade East, I was standing on the far side of the large, bright game showroom waiting in line to try the latest incarnation of the Oculus Rift. While I was trying to prime myself for using a non-Virtual Boy VR headset for the first time in my life, a friendly-looking guy tapped me on the shoulder and broke me out of my Sunday afternoon, pre-virtual-reality, last-day-of-a-conference trance.

“Are you showing anything this weekend?” He asked.

“No,” I answered, having never showed anything at any kind of conference in my life.

After a beat of silence, he added “Are you Phil?”

“No,” I said. “I’m Joe.”

“Oh, okay.”

After a couple more minutes, I was seated on a folding chair alongside a guy about my age and two kids who couldn’t have been older than ten, all of us being fitted with almost dystopian-looking headsets, pairs of noise-canceling headphones, and Xbox controllers. As the Rift flickered to life in front of my eyes, revealing a first-person view of a sort of space runway, the motion sickness I thought I’d outgrown when I was the kids’ age flickered to life as well. With the wave of nausea came a realization: That guy I’d talked to while in line had thought I was Phil Fish.

My spacecraft’s engine turned over, and suddenly my peer and I were in space, dogfighting against kids half our age. All four of us found ourselves laughing out loud during the match as our minds tried to wrap themselves around what was taking place. Our match ended in a tie. The Oculus Rift almost made me throw up, but did not. I shook hands with the older guy, high-fived the little kids, got a drink of water to calm my stomach, and went to watch NYU Game Center Director Frank Lantz lead a panel discussion where Naomi Clark joked that, if she could remove one technology from the games industry, it would be agriculture.

A lot went on at IndieCade East.

The second installment of the east-coast incarnation of one of a handful of events often referred to as “The Sundance of Videogames,” IndieCade East 2014 filled the Museum of the Moving Image with people interested in where games culture might be going. That notion is too broad to suggest any straightforward agenda, but it felt like a kind of forward- thinking ideological vector was shared, even among the cool little kids who just kept waiting in line for the Oculus Rift over and over. Attendees had to be willing to make the trek up to Astoria. A degree of open-mindedness was assumed.

A common thread throughout the weekend’s events seemed to be recounting the process that led to finding oneself presenting at IndieCade, while highlighting the replicability of that process. Three examples:

1. Vlambeer “Chief Executive Business & Development Guy” Rami Ismail’s Friday night keynote recounted the story of his studio, starting with his and his business partner’s births, moving through an excellent story involving Vlambeer’s first paycheck being for $10,001, and concluding with the release of Ridiculous Fishing, its critical and commercial acclaim, and Vlambeer’s receipt of an Apple Design Award.

2. Merritt Kopas’ Sunday morning talk was entitled “I’m a Transsexual Witch Poet Gamecrafter and You Can Too.” (I’m delighted to report that Kopas’ incredible title accurately depicts her speech’s content, but the full text can and should be read here).

3. Kunal Gupta and Syed Salahuddin spoke on Saturday about the history of Babycastles, their DIY arcade collective. Besides setting an “it was easy, it was cheap, go and do it”-style example, the talk also touched directly upon the importance of any easily-accessible points of cultural entry. Salahuddin, especially, offered his experience with longstanding NYC punk collective ABC No Rio as an example of the importance both of having a physical, safe meeting place and of reaching out to surrounding communities rather than shoring up subcultural insularity in the name of staying cool. The notions of outreach and radical inclusiveness were made implicit in a million different ways throughout IndieCade East, but hearing them spoken about directly felt exciting.

On a similar note, there was a big Nidhogg tournament just before Bennett Foddy’s closing keynote on Sunday afternoon, and watching black belt-level Nidhogg play on a big screen, with a big crowd, is about as exciting as you’d expect.

Nidhogg is one of those elegant competitive games like thumb wrestling or chicken—games where the mechanics, the primary object and roughly 90% of the rules are immediately apparent to almost anybody within about twenty seconds of observation. The only abstractions that remain are a thin layer of mechanical mastery and a rich, decadent center of psychological warfare. After those twenty seconds of observation it’s a knee-jerk reaction for a certain kind of person to see if their psychology is up to snuff. Nidhogg’s boldfaced legibility doesn’t imply a lack of complexity, but rather a more inclusive type of design that doesn’t require a deep time commitment or even a real understanding of the current language of videogames to appreciate. From a certain standpoint, it’s the same competitive song and dance as something like Call of Duty, but Nidhogg’s conceptual inclusivity feels radical when everything I’ve observed about something like Call of Duty seems to divide the world into people who play (those types of) videogames and people who do not, which leads to “gamers” defining themselves in opposition to people they perceive as “non-gamers,” which leads to a host of problems.

It’s one thing to consider all of this by reading about Nidhogg, or even by playing it alongside a friend or two; it was another to see a large-scale tournament in action. Maybe sixty people watched the IndieCade Nidhogg tournament live. One of the matches lasted roughly half an hour, or ~1000% the length of most Nidhogg matches. People were walking into the room and their understanding of the game developed before everyone’s eyes. Some people ended up yelling.

When I think about summarizing the enormous, inspiring range of talks, workshops, demonstrations, social encounters, interviews, competitions and cultural implications both small and large of IndieCade East, I reflexively start to feel like a jerk for trying to account, in any general way, for a weekend that has already demonstrably meant so much to so many, but the intuitive, alluring inclusiveness of Nidhogg is the closest thing I can come up with to some type of synecdoche: It encouraged learning, especially by participation. For those with a certain mindset, its form, function and purpose worked together seamlessly to invite them into the fold. It seems like a foregone conclusion that more things like it will begin appearing with increasing frequency. It was really fun.

IndieCade Asides:

—The Applebee’s next to the Museum of the Moving Image has better wireless than the Museum of the Moving Image.

Towerfall is so fun that a small competitive scene developed around the demo machine over the course of the weekend. I just bought one of those shady semi-official Xbox controller USB hubs so I can play Towerfall on PC.

—I align myself with the rest of the internet when it comes to Octodad: Dadliest Catch being a one-note joke that hits hard and wears thin quickly, but watching people play (and watch it) during IndieCade was a constant source of entertainment.

—During his keynote, Bennett Foddy showed a slide for a thirty year-old PC game called Hovver Bovver where you steal your neighbor’s lawnmower and try to mow your lawn for free without getting caught. One of the meters on the HUD was “Dog Loyalty.”

Joe Bernardi is a writer and web developer living in Brooklyn. His words have appeared in Dusted Magazine, the Boston Phoenix and Tiny Mix Tapes, among other places. He’s got both a Twitter and a blog.