Playing games at festivals is a challenge. Long lines can make it hard to get to a game, and sweltering rooms and deafening noise can impede the experience the designers had in mind. However, festivals also provide a unique opportunity to speak with a game’s creators, hear other players’ feedback and play site-specific or multiplayer games you wouldn’t have access to anywhere else. It was worth a trip to Los Angeles to visit Indiecade, an annual celebration of independent games full of talks, workshops, events and an exciting range of digital and tabletop games. Between the Digital Selects tent, highlighting innovative recent creations, and the Firehouse’s exhibition of award-nominated games, I braved the crowds and inevitable conference crud to check out some fascinating games and meet some awesome people.
1. Read Only Memories
Read Only Memories is a futuristic cyberpunk point and click about a struggling journalist whose apartment has been broken into by the world’s first sentient robot. Developed by a team from MidBoss, the founders of LGBT convention GaymerX (several of whom are friends of mine), lead artist John “JJ” James showed me how the game welcomes queer players by allowing them to enter their own pronouns, as well as by not making an issue out of diverse sexualities and gender presentations. “People who play it play it for a while,” JJ explained, telling me that the game has garnered praise from both festivalgoers and, seemingly despite themselves, internet message boards attempting to target its creators for harassment. Read Only Memories’s brightly-colored world and twisting plot drew in nearly everyone who encountered it. [Note: Our assistant games editor, who did not work on this piece, is married to one of the developers of Read Only Memories.—Ed.]
2. Fabulous Beasts
It’s as impossible to not want to touch Fabulous Beasts as it is to actually get to touch it; the booth was always mobbed after the game won the Indiecade Technology Award. A pile of brightly-colored, chunky animals, created using a 3D printer, were stacked like Jenga blocks on a sensor that translated them into a digital world housed on a nearby tablet, where they interacted and morphed in combination with each other. With the growing accessibility of new technologies, the developers told me “indies can be software companies,” but Fabulous Beasts was far from the sterile, high-tech output I would associate with this statement. The child-like joy on the faces of players as they heaped sharks on top of elephants on top of bears soon had adults and children alike clamoring to play.
3. Codex Bash
A stranger shyly asked me to play Codex Bash, an empty space at the back of the Firehouse crisscrossed with wires and four voluptuous green, red, yellow and blue buttons spaced out in front of a screen. Within seconds we were dashing back and forth solving increasingly difficult puzzles by decoding what order to smash the buttons in. Developer Alistair Aitcheson said he drew on improv comedy’s “yes and” in his design, iterating on what he calls the “eureka moment” of players finding solutions and new ways to play. He proudly showed me pictures of times the game has been destroyed by players’ enthusiasm; to him, the shattered buttons are better trophies of the game’s success than the Media Award it won at the end of the festival.
I stared over someone’s shoulder as they poked around a house on an abandoned street, picking up bright canisters of gasoline and rooting through rubble. We pushed a dumpster out of the way to bring a car grumbling to life, revealing a prompt to start us on this turn-based game’s cross-country journey of survival. “What should we do?” this stranger asked me excitedly, both of us already captivated by and engaged in this new yet familiar world. Overland had a distinctively legible low-poly art style and a clean interface that made necessary information readily available, immediately welcoming and hooking players. Slated for a PC and Mac release in 2016, there’s a wealth of randomly generated encounters and tough decisions in this deceptively simple-looking game from Finji, the creators of Canabalt.
5. Apartment: A Separated Place
Chuckling, the developers told me Apartment is a “feel ‘em up.” As they said this, someone came running up to the game’s composer to gush about the soundtrack; they immediately huddled together and began to swap musical tips. The little community that soon formed around the game felt shockingly intimate for the crowded space of the Digital Selects tent, strangers trading breakup stories as we waited for our turns with the graceful demo. Apartment is a game about relationships of all kinds, from romantic breakups to relationships between parents and children, and the integrated text and stark environments highlight the isolation of the characters and bring their feelings almost too powerfully into focus. I left the booth hesitantly eager to play the game and with everyone around me knowing too much about my love life.