A pair of dudes, high on booze and freedom, pull an impossibly long tandem bicycle off the wall. If this Culver City fire station wasn’t so crowded they’d be joyriding by now. But at the moment this cavernous building, its door wide open to the cool California air, doubles as a convention floor. Clusters of people crowd a dozen or so kiosks, their eyes fixed on LCD monitors, hands gripping controllers or hovering over keyboards. They’re playing an exquisitely curated selection of independent videogames—everything from the mesmerizing, psychedelic freak out of Dyad to Gorogoa, a hand-illustrated puzzle game that nests worlds within worlds like M.C. Escher.
The bicycle parts the crowd like an icebreaker. But one gamer, steadfastly refusing to cede his “I got next” on the game, doesn’t budge. The handlebar digs into his doughy midsection but his feet remain firmly planted. Eventually, pain overcomes this homesteader’s claim and his torso rolls away from the jabs. The two drunks bull their way outside and into the sunlight never to be seen again. “They didn’t even have wristbands,” a voice observes.
IndieCade, which took place over a long weekend in Culver City earlier this month, splits the difference between the dork appeal of the massively popular (and populated) Penny Arcade Expo and the inside baseball of the Game Developers Conference. It’s a casual festival of independent game making unleashed on the walkable, Trader Joe’s livable streets of downtown Culver City. At the festival’s center is a cluster of tents, filled mostly with more of those tell-tale game kiosks. Wisely, the organizers of IndieCade make sure to pepper the scenery with eye-candy more appealing than nerds crowding around a game console. This year the reason to waltz up and browse was an open-air workshop that invited kids to sprawl onto the floor and build their own games with cardboard, construction paper and crayons. The result was a scruffy homage to childhood creativity and the next logical step in the inspiring story of Cain’s Arcade. Teetering cardboard boxes, embellished with garish color and ragged scotch tape, housed kid’s approximations of carnival games and arcade machines. It was easy to see that most of them hardly worked, but that was entirely besides the point. Rather, these clumsy prototypes were about the pure joy of making something, and how the act of creation, too, is a kind of play.
At The Ivy, a small theater that usually hosts Tim Robbins’ The Actors Gang, the lively Bernie DeKoven had much to say about play. The author of 1978’s The Well-Played Game voiced the driving motivation behind IndieCade’s out-in-the-open vibe. “Playing in public is itself a political act,” he said. Clad in checkered motley pants, Asics and a purple T-shirt, the man embodied an ethos of freedom and physicality that has inspired P.E. classes, playgrounds and (most unfortunately) work retreats for decades. “You can’t play if you don’t feel safe,” he posited to the crowd before encouraging them to stand up and invent a new wrinkle on rock-paper-scissors with the strangers around them. Clearly, this place—a cozy building dedicated to art in a community dedicated to good living in a city with beautiful weather—fostered a profound sense of safety. The room was soon abuzz with creative types hooting and gesticulating as they play-tested their new creations.
Whether by design or happy accident IndieCade’s scattershot encampment amid a block or two of restaurants and galleries allowed for easy osmosis between by-the-guide convention-going and off-the-cuff sidebars around tapas and pint of beer. It was not uncommon to see clusters of folks break off from play to dine, gossip and debate as the sun set. As if anticipating these movable fests IndieCade’s Night Games—a collection of even edgier (if that’s possible) offerings—served as an excellent, slightly buzzed night cap. Experimental work, like Samantha Vick’s Songlines, was projected onto a massive screen. Players leaned and tilted their outstretched arms to control a primordial bird God as it soared above a pulsating, slightly-askew vista. It looked like a ‘90s virtual reality demo with the psychedelic edge of an Altered States hallucination.
For much of the evening there was a bumping soundtrack, provided by Fez’s creator Phil Fish and the game’s music designer Disasterpeace. Games cycled in and out of the big screens, so those who stuck around got a chance to try Cactus’ forthcoming commercial outing Hotline Miami and play the mind-bending head-to-head deathmatch of 0Space. Writer and game designer Tim Rogers shuttled his laptop around offering those who missed it on the big screen a round or two of his new game Fistmonger—a simple brawler that pits player against player in boxing duels where risk and reward are a hair’s breadth apart. Spelltower designer Zach Gage, who wasn’t officially showing anything during Night Games, could be found casually taking willing subjects aside to test an audio-only prototype using a pair of headphones and the motion sensing of an iPhone tucked in the players’ pocket. For now the game is about turning and facing the sound of raindrops, the plops panning back and forth between the ears as you waddle in a circle. Get it right and it feels like the water is dropping square against that third-eye in the middle of your forehead. Line up enough of them and your reward is rainshower—a wall of sound that seems to curl across your head like an aural umbrella.
An entire tent was dedicated to a presentation by D.I.Y advocate Anna Anthropy. The Rise of the Videogame Zinesters author curated a selection of shaggy, expressive homegrown games that flaunted obscenity. She called the collection Metagalactic Boners Battle at the Edge of Time. And, to prove that inclusion need not preclude profanity, Anthropy and her army of bedroom game designers decorated their tent with hand-drawn penises. Taped crookedly around the periphery were scribbles of toothy dong monsters and outsized schlongs. Later she would tweet, “Let me give you a hot tip. If you are thinking about going to GDC or PAX, go to IndieCade instead.” Miss Anthropy has an excellent point. Where one gathering of gamers and gamemakers aims for the head and the other for the crotch, IndieCade seems to find a pleasant balance, celebrating both the heady analysis of videogames and the giddy thrill of playing them.
Gus Mastrapa is a freelance writer from Apple Valley, CA. His work has appeared in Edge, Variety and Wired. Follow him on Twitter: @Triphibian.