IndieCade: E3’s Oasis and Scrying Pool, All in One

on Friday, Jun. 8th

The general reaction to this year’s E3 by the gaming press is one of disappointment. Everyone is upset about either the lack of new hardware, too much emphasis on marketing to the shooter loving hardcore, not enough games for the hardcore and just a general lack of inventiveness. To which I say: they must not have spent any time at the IndieCade booth.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed at E3, and the the relentless march of ultra-violence can take it’s toll on even the most jaded of gamers. Which is why IndieCade’s annual set up is a needed oasis, complete with a scrying pool for seeing the future of games.

This year the booth was set up on the concourse between the two main halls, within the eyeline of expo-goers crossing from one part of the Convention Center to the other. This made it hard to miss IndieCade, if you bothered to turn your head while racing from one trade show spectacle to the other. Those who did, and took the few steps off the path to actually visit the booth were able to play some of the most inventive, if not incredibly polished, games at E3.

I spoke at length with festival director Sam Roberts and you can hear the interview above. We got into the life cycle of indie game development in this year where games at the edges of the industry are finding huge financial success. Also covered: the new possibilities of play that are being opened up by inventive college students experimenting with Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral.

One Kinect game in the booth was Songlines, where the player takes on the role of god, using gestural controls to shape the landscape. It’s a project that is almost more of an interactive art installation than a game— but could one day be brought into your home, using the technology you already have. A few minutes with Songlines was an effective palate cleanser after hours of explosions and gunfire. (We’ll have more about Songlines in a separate write-up.)

Another game that piqued my interest was Prom Week, a game that seeks to graft a complex social structure onto gameplay reminiscent of The Sims. Co-developer Ben Samuel explained to me that the idea was to create a version of a classic high school movie– think John Hughes territory here– through emergent gameplay. The character AI in Prom Week is focused on remembering and assigning value to interactions.

Not only are the direct interactions between the player and a given non player character tracked, but in classic high school anxiety fashion everyone seems to know everything that’s happened to everyone one else.  What you say to one character on the Monday before prom may come back to haunt you on the big night itself.

While I might not be chomping at the bit to experience a virtual prom– hell, I skipped my real one– innovations in this kind of game play are sorely needed in the industry right now. Systems that allow for intricate social structures and dynamic narrative designs are a balm a field that has become dominated by carbon copy first person shooter play needs. The games on display at the IndieCade E3 showcase this year might not have the flashy appeal of the “AAA” titles being marketed by the major publishers, but they are a preview of where the next generation of designers will be taking an industry that is learning bolder tricks every season.

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Turnstyle in 140 Seconds: IndieCade’s Sam Roberts

on Tuesday, Jul. 12th

Listen to this episode or subscribe to TurnStyle’s podcast feed on iTunes.

Sam Roberts, the festival director for IndieCade— the international festival of independant  games– talks to TurnStyle at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo about the festival’s mission to promote independantly developed games of all kinds, and shares his earliest gaming memories.

All that, in under 140 seconds.

The 2011 IndieCade will be held October 6-9th in Culver City, CA.

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Diving Deep To The Edge Of Play: IndieCade @ E3

on Friday, Jun. 10th

The show floor at E3 can be an overwhelming visual calvacade. The latest in technology used in megadoses in order to batter down the will of retailers and journalists alike into submission. Mood lighting, explosions, and more spandex and bare flesh than can be legally fit into a strip club.

At the edges of of the Los Angeles Convention Center’s West Hall an oasis of creativity and DIY innovation was found in the form of the IndieCade booth.

“We’re trying to be the Sundance for video games,” said Sam Roberts, Festival Director for IndieCade– the International festival for independent games which is held in Culver City each October.  “We’re trying to help young creators make cool games with great ideas, bring those games to a mainstream audience and get released through mainstream platforms.”

IndieCade’s presence at E3 is one of the fulcrum points where the large indie game scene connects with major publishers and platform holders. New studios like Haunted Temple Enterprises, who were at the booth showing off Skulls of the Shogun, benefited from expo buzz. The studio is comprised of industry professionals who’ve struck out on their own after years of toiling away at megapublishers like EA.

Yet Indiecade was showcasing more than video games, with no-tech board, card, and participatory games on demo, which might seem strange for a show that is almost obsessively focused on bigger and badder imagery. The games of Ninja and Humans vs. Zombies which were played in a taped off area at the edge of their booth were a reminder to all who passed by that play is a human instinct, and that we don’t need a $5000 computer or a 3D TV that can generate separate images for each viewer in order to have a good time.

It was one of these non-video games that provided my most memorable experience of E3.

Deep Sea is the creation of Austin, Texas based sound designer Robin Arnott.

The game requires that the player wears a gas mask whose goggles have been blacked out and headphones. The player’s breathing is monitored, and that sound is fed back through the headphones along with sonar pings, and the “rumbles made by unseen terrors”. The objective: to use sonar to pinpoint the location of your enemy and sink them before they can find you in the darkness of the ocean.

The seed for the game came from Arnott’s experience as a sound designer for games.

“We’re asked to bring the immersion to games,” Arnott tells me.  “We bring the element that people don’t notice but kind of makes them feel transported. Deep Sea is an experiment in immersion using sense deprivation as a strategy for achieving a greater level of immersion”

The feeling of accomplishment that accompanied sinking my unseen opponent was greater than anything I’d managed to eek out of L.A. Noire. The game challenged my senses in a way that few games have before, plugging into a skill set I rarely get to use. I found the experience meditative, which might not quite be what Arnott expects, as he says the primary emotion he’s playing with is fear.

For his next project, Synapse, Arnott is exploring the other end of the emotional spectrum.

“We’re trying to achieve a kind of euphric synesthesia with sense pleasure, and using dance and play and rhythm.” Dancing in front of a Kinect camera will unlock music and psychedelic projections. Arnott’s team has been “working on it for a little while, but unfortunately our funding just fell through and we started a Kickstarter [recently] to get some of that back.”

If all goes according to plan, Synapse will make it’s debut at this year’s Burning Man. Meanwhile the next crop of indie games will be on display at the next IndieCade, submissions are still open until June 15th, and the festival will run October 6th-9th in Culver City.

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