IndieCade 2011: Inspired by Design
Game academic Simon Ferrari reveals why the IndieCade independent games festival is his favorite games event of the year.
Walking with Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini after a day of panels at the Mason’s lodge, I lamented the fact that there weren’t any sessions at IndieCade this year on political games. Yet Pedercini saw it in a different light: he was pleased to see that many of the high-profile presentations were coalescing around a common aesthetic sensibility and theoretical grounding. Briefly, we could gloss this as a heady mix of auteur theory, minimalist audiovisual sensibility, thematic exploration, and an emphasis on systems-thinking. But this isn’t to say that all of the games and talks fit this description—the Copenhagen Game Collective’s Johann Sebestian Joust, a mash-up of physical gaming and motion controllers, is particularly defiant of popular conventions and our understandings of what videogames might be at their core.
IndieCade is small, but its size isn’t managed through any aggressive manipulation of the cost of attendance. Unlike trade shows and larger industry events, the corporate sponsors of IndieCade play it low-key. Casual interlopers are welcomed into the many sites of the Gamewalk to play finalist games for free. And the price of a conference pass is purposefully kept to a minimum in order to attract visits from students, academics, and developers who haven’t quite broken in yet. Despite its increasingly high profile in enthusiast media and its knack for identifying up-and-coming indie hits, IndieCade remains so cozy as to allow all the developers and speakers to gather for a single after-party each night.
There’s a palpable feeling of inspiration in the air. Established indies lend expensive dev consoles to younger developers. Collaborations form over drinks or in the hallways after exciting sessions. Designers show off early prototypes or game sketches on their iDevices and laptops, playtesting and asking for advice from their peers—sometimes they even tweak their code on the spot. Some of the most exciting games of the conference emerge in this manner, including Dan Benmergui’s Storyteller and Zach Gage‘s new adaptations of Solitaire and Sudoku (this teaser sounds ridiculous, but they’re going to devour your life). There are no PR people at IndieCade; it’s a conference where you can talk honestly to designers about their successes and failures.
You can read extensive reviews and commentary on the festival’s winners elsewhere, but I do want to comment on what I saw as the best in show. On the first day of the conference, Michael Abbott (of Brainy Gamer and Wabash College) delivered an impassioned “Well Played” session on a cooperative puzzle platformer called Way made by a group of students at Carnegie Mellon. I was skeptical from the start: Abbott lauded the game as a “rare” example of a game demanding empathy, an expressive goal I find overrepresented in “indie vs. mainstream, us vs. them” discussions. Its lead designer, Chris Bell, was on hand and entirely too friendly to be a genius. The last nail in the coffin came when I heard that Bell had recently been brought on board thatgamecompany’s Journey project.
At last year’s Indiecade, I’d walked out of a session discussing Journey, because I found its analysis and condemnation of mainstream/MMO design to be superficial and intellectually harmful. Surely Bell was a snake-oil salesman, his game a load of horseshit. The cards were heavily stacked against Way, which made it particularly exciting when I enjoyed it so immensely on the last day of the festival. I smiled, and laughed, and hugged the person I played it with, and ran outside to call my girlfriend and tell her that we needed to play it together. I overheard one developer walk up to Bell and say, “Somebody told me to play your game, because, if I played it, I would vote for it.” Way ended up winning the developer’s choice award, nabbing a second place in audience choice. And, for the first time, I’m excited about playing Journey.
Perhaps the only universal disappointment of the festival this year was its surreal, booze-fueled award ceremony. Sponsorships tied to this event keep the cost of attendance low and the quality of the Gamewalk and session facilities so high, but that support comes with some baggage. The show’s script, written by LA Times reporter Ben Fritz, was unfunny and insulting—but we’ve got to admit that these things are universally bad, perhaps because they’re so unlike any other kind of writing and performing. What made this year’s show uniquely disturbing was the fact that its stilted one-liners were delivered by blank-faced B-list actors who hadn’t spent enough (if any) time playing the finalist games.
Award shows are always an opportunity to roast members of a professional community. When Brandon Boyer or Anthony Carboni poke mild fun at developers at the IGF awards, we know they’ve played the games, and they’re considered part of the indie community. But what message is IndieCade sending to innovators in our field when we hire clueless starlets to stand on a stage and crack wise about indie designers being basement-dwelling virgins? If celebrity presenters are a necessary part of the sponsorship deal for the event, then there needs to be more attention paid to the vetting of the script. Instead of rehashing ridiculous gamer stereotypes from mainstream shows like the Spike Video Game Awards, the jokes should be written by people who can legitimately comment on the games and the personalities of the developers.
To the credit of IndieCade’s organizers, the problem of the award show is one they recognize and seem determined to remedy. Everything else went off without a hitch. Although some expressed indignity that the conference’s keynote was delivered by Richard Lemarchand, a mainstream designer, their worries were eradicated when it became clear that he was a friend of the indie community who drew legitimate inspiration from their work. The Well Played sessions, which I had the honor to take part in, were particularly exciting for me because they staged interactions between designers and keen critics (in an industry that largely demands cheerleaders). If I could change anything, I’d like to see more effort put into attracting female developers and representatives of the amateur/punk/hobbyist game community. But, all-in-all, IndieCade remains the games event against which I’ll measure all others.
Simon Ferrari is the co-author of Newsgames: Journalism at Play. Currently he works as a doctoral researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology.