There have been less successful gaming showcases than Indie Megashow Atlanta, but it’s hard to think of one. The get-together for indie designers was deader than the Wehrmacht in 1997.
The vendors were excellent—Adult Swim’s games division brought several delightful titles. The professionals there were on point, and had brought their A-Game. (Side note: “A-Game” is a term of praise, not an actual videogame.) The Google Oculus team brought out a bunch of Oculus rigs—the drawing program, Tiltbrush, was delightful. Of course, all of these programs had been out for a while, but the “Been There, Done That” aspect could be overlooked, since there was a far more pressing issue: the organizers had declined to bring anyone to see the “Mega” show. Or at least they had failed to compel many people in a region that doesn’t have a lot of gaming shows to make the drive downtown to the Tabernacle. What was the point of the assembly? Why would you go to such great lengths to bring up an Atlanta powwow of electronic gaming tech and then forsake the key element in that equation—the player?
Granted, I have been to a total of three or four gaming conventions. Despite the many letters I have written to Twitch, I am do not yet hold supreme power over gaming and the “gamer” lifestyle. However, I’ve been to a lot of public events which have accommodated multitudes of people. It is entirely possible to hold a human get-together of over fifty people; Indie Megashow seemed not to realize this.
In my hometown every year, we used to hold an event called “EasterBash” in dog-haunted flat grassy plain outside of town. A local raspy-voiced DJ hosted, while middling country-pop and metal acts played. Everybody hauled couches out there, then the couches were set on fire, and then the drinking truly began, as is the natural, Texan way. The last year I visited, the MC pleaded with the crowd: “Hey y’all? Y’all? We need to cool it … hey guys, let’s cool it.” I left before the breaking point, but I can only imagine at some point the horse cops were let loose with extendible batons and promises to extract maximum reprisal from a muddy hell of soused high school kids and weed dealers on vacation. All of the EasterBashes were Kennedy affairs compared to Indie Megashow Atlanta.
At Indie Megashow, there were no arrests, and no violence, no gruesome displays of arson, and the show was the worse for it—there was almost nobody there. The downtown Atlanta Tabernacle venue would have been perfect—for a more popular gaming event. The free T-shirt I was offered would have been perfect—at a real technology conference. The awkward rap maestro onstage would have been charming—if there had been a crowd of people present.
One part of the event which was both new and engrossing was Robin Arnott, who brought his groundbreaking SoundSelf program. SoundSelf is a VR-type setup for meditation, which works on audio feedback; it uses the Oculus rig, just as Tiltbrush does. Arnott has worked on other games, but this seems likely to be the virtual greyhound that breaks away from the virtual pack in the virtual metaphor I’m writing here. The method of SoundSelf is this: you lie down on the ground, your head on a pillow. Arnott straps the headset and headphones on. On the head-rig, there is a mic which picks up your voice. The program pops up on your display, giving you instructions about what to do—in the beginning. You are instructed to breathe in and out, and then the headphones pipe in a humming tone.
The program tells you to breathe out in a way which matches the tone you are hearing in your headphones. The program picks up your tone, and feeds it back in, until you’re in a strange biofeedback loop. All the while, the eye-screen is showing you a series of graphics which are essentially updated versions of the finale from 2001—you are moving through a tunnel, and the colors and tint shift up and down with your breathing. I didn’t realize it was keyed to my own rhythms until about five minutes in. The experience runs about twelve minutes. While you are in the SoundSelf, you dwell in a place which isn’t sleep and isn’t wakefulness. A level of consciousness wraps you which is both extraordinary, and utterly normal. SoundSelf might be the ground floor of an Oculus-biofeedback field to be, or simply an aid to a meditative practice already established. Between the excitement and innovation of Arnott, and the disappointing, hype-focused execution of the Megashow, you can find the two poles of indie gaming. For the future, let us hope the direction of gaming belongs to Arnott: a virtual reality, but one that brings us closer to the real world.
Jason Rhode is a Paste staff writer from West Texas. His first games-related tattoo reads “Spoony Bard.” It will not be his last. Follow him on Twitter at @iamthemaster.