Directly after my trip to Unite Austin, I flew straight to Los Angeles for IndieCade. I had never been to the show before, even though I’ve known about it for a few years now.
Ever since the Mr. Game! days, I’ve submitted games to their contest. It was a long-shot to assume that SkyRunner would make it in, but I thought we had a better chance with Where Shadows Slumber this year. I’ve never made it in to the showcase, and this year was no exception, but I’ve always wanted to figure out what kind of games IndieCade is looking for. On the bright side, they allowed me to show off the game during one of their show and tell segments! More on that later.
Jack and I went to IndieCade East a while back and really enjoyed it, so I thought I would do some field research on the main event and get some game testing in at the same time! Unfortunately, as I sit here writing this at my desk back in New Jersey, I’m struck by this awful realization: after 10 years in operation, IndieCade still doesn’t know how to put together a well-run event.
Red Flags From The Start
Friday morning was incredibly stressful, and that feeling lingered on for the rest of the day. When I went to pick up my badge in the morning, I was dismayed to find a long single-file line that lead to a tent where one person was slowly handing out wristbands. As we all burned in the unforgiving Los Angeles sun, I started to freak out. IndieCade scheduled a talk with me and Oculus that morning and it didn’t look like I’d make it in time. Fortunately, Anita swooped in at the last second and just brought me to my meeting.
Oculus’ outreach team wanted to meet developers at IndieCade, and not just the ones presenting. Even though I’m working on a mobile puzzle game, I was able to meet Chris Jurney of Oculus! I tried to meet him at GDC 2017, but he was in meetings all day. But this time, I was the meetings all day >:). We discussed Where Shadows Slumber, and my post-release plans. Although this game can’t really ever come to VR, I do find the virtual reality medium pretty intriguing. They’re going to hook me up with an Oculus headset, which is insane. I’ll take it!
From there, I went over to Game Tasting. Although Where Shadows Slumber was not an official IndieCade selection, they were nice enough to invite me to show off the game between 12 pm to 2 pm during the Game Testing segment. This is like IndieCade Lite, a quick look at some games that didn’t make it. To be honest, I liked the games near me even more than the ones at the official showcase! But we’ll discuss that more later.
How can you say “get out, bum” to this face?
Due to some persistence (and my innocent baby face) I was able to get a second Game Tasting slot later that same day between 4 pm to 6 pm. In between, I saw a depressing talk about how Xbox Live Indie Games as a service is going to be shut down. That’s the first time I ever heard of that! It went offline the next day.
After I fulfilled my obligations to IndieCade, I finally got a chance to grab dinner and explore around 7:30 pm. What I saw did not impress me. Although the Japanese American National Museum is a beautiful building, it makes for an awkward venue. Games seemed to be strewn about haphazardly, taking up space in crowded rooms while other larger halls remained inexplicably empty. Perhaps the most striking visual dissonance I witnessed was the IndieCade banner standing in front of a reproduction of a Japanese Internment shack. The banner screamed Enjoy some unique cool games! while the shack screamed Franklin D. Roosevelt violated the constitutional rights of over 100,000 American citizens and some people still say he’s their favorite president.
Recreation of Japanese internment shack (left) and IndieCade’s banner (right)
It appears that this is their first year in this new venue, so I’ll cut them some slack on that end. They need to find their footing by next year’s IndieCade though, because this could really sink them. Many times, the exhibits on Japanese-American history were more interesting than the games being shown next to them. I don’t know why IndieCade has chosen to distract attendees from their games by putting them right next to compelling American history displays. Many times I found myself walking away from the dry non-games being exhibited to read more interesting plaques about Japanese immigrants coming to America. Perhaps the choice of a museum is to remind everyone that games are art and not just commercial products, but the venue put unnecessary strain on a show that’s already hanging by a thread.
The Main Showcase
The main showcase of IndieCade had some of the strangest games I’ve ever seen. I believe that is the point of the show – to showcase the odd side of video game innovation. There were role-playing games that used only food and speech as a medium. Some games had unique controllers (like a giant inflatable sphere you played inside) that could never be mass produced and sold, which is why they can really only be displayed at IndieCade. A few games required large spaces to play in, or elaborate setups like a mock office area. As my friend said to me on Saturday, “IndieCade is good, because if they didn’t showcase these games, how would anyone else find out about them?”
He’s right, of course. However, these games lose their power when stacked on top of each other like this. Although they may stand out at a conference like PAX East, at IndieCade everything blurs together into a politically left-leaning parade of grad-student quality propaganda. It’s hard to stand out when you’re put next to 29 similar games in a room titled LOOK AT ALL THESE THINGS THAT ALL STAND OUT!
“The Hackers of Resistance (HORs) is a queer transfeminist hacker collective of artists, activists, researchers, cyborgs, witches, and technologists, of color.”
The strangest thing I “played” was an interactive experience called “Hackers of Resistance” that took place in a 10 x 10 area enclosed by pipe and drape. The designers of the experience decorated the room like a makeshift hacker den out of something like Mr. Robot. As we hacked our way to destroying the Trump administration, I couldn’t tell if I was taking part in a delusional liberal fantasy or brilliant conservative parody. (Seriously, read that caption again and tell me that doesn’t sound like something Kat Timpf would write)
Given the setting, I decided it must be the former, but the dreadful acting of the performers kept me guessing until the very end. Since this game is essentially an interactive installation that requires a physical space, you can see why IndieCade is just about the only place it could be setup. That’s fine by me! But I can’t help but think that IndieCade is doing its political messages a disservice by painting them as obscure. Think about it – they’re highlighting the strangest elements of the left-wing game industry and then purposely branding them as “weird” and “strange.” Don’t they want their political beliefs to be seen as mainstream instead? In its desire to seem weird, it makes them seem weird, too.
I’m quite used to blatant political messaging in the game industry these days, so that wasn’t even my biggest problem with IndieCade. What bugged me is that the show seemed dreary. The showcase was supposed to stay open until 10 pm, but by 8:30 many developers had abdicated their booths. I don’t blame them – many said they had been there since 4 pm. Giving people a long shift like that at the end of the day is bad planning on the part of the organizers. I would have liked to play more, but the venue depressed me. Around this time, a show like Unite would just be getting started with fun parties that last until 1 am. IndieCade was like an old man who was up past his bedtime at 9 pm, and went up to bed before his guests went to sleep.
It’s Not All Bad
Before you think that I’m just a mean-spirited wet blanket who flies across the country to have a miserable time on purpose, let’s talk about my favorite three games from the showcase!
Bit Rat is a cool futuristic puzzle game for PC where you play as a rogue A.I. construct trying to escape your company. I didn’t get a chance to play it because the tables were always packed, but you should check it out! The pixel aesthetic really works for the type of game this is, and the puzzles seemed quite difficult.
Keyboard Sports: Saving Qwerty is an absolutely hilarious PC game where you use the keyboard to control your character’s position. That may not sound special, but I mean that quite literally: you don’t use keyboard keys to issue commands like “go right” or “go left.” Instead, the keys on your keyboard are mapped to physical locations within the game! See the tutorial level above, for example, where the spacious couch (hehe) is mapped to the space bar. There’s always an overlay on the screen so you can kind of gauge what to do, but it’s constantly changing which adds to the humor.
Detention is a point-and-click horror puzzle adventure game set during a dark period in Taiwan’s history. I could have used less jump scares, but the overall experience is really tight. The actual mechanic this game uses for its monsters is one of the creepiest I’ve ever seen, but it’s apparently pretty common in China. You hold your breath to avoid being captured by ghosts! I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s very scary and I wish more games would do stuff like this. Incorporating folk tales into games is a great source of inspiration.
These three games showcase what IndieCade should be about, in my opinion. Alternative control schemes like the one found in Keyboard Sports are innovative, but still accessible to a wide audience. Cultural inspiration, as seen in Detention, doesn’t have to be overly preachy. Games can be weird and still be very well-made and polished, like Bit Rat. Too often, games at IndieCade use their “strange” identity as a shield to protect against the criticism that all game developers have to deal with. There’s no excuse for bad artwork, buggy code, or toothless gameplay – the label “indie” does not mean “I get away with delivering a lower quality product.” Anyway, instead of castigating more of IndieCade’s worst offenders, I’d rather show off the ones I enjoyed playing. Best of luck to these three games!
By Sunday, The Nominee Gallery Vanished
By the final day of IndieCade, the Nominee Gallery was closed because an unrelated event was taking place in their room. (It seemed to be a Japanese-American dinner honoring some of the elderly in the community, but I didn’t pry too much.) Standing outside the venue, I heard quite a few people complaining.
“I was going to see the Nominees on Sunday, but they’re gone!”
The only thing more disappointing than not enjoying the official showcase is being robbed of an entire day to experience the official showcase. It’s just another bad choice by the staff – why wouldn’t you make sure your main showcase runs all three days? They were forced to do this because of the previous bad decision to host the event in a busy museum. Fortunately, I saw all I needed to see of the Nominee Gallery. But put yourself in the shoes of someone who bought a Sunday pass!
The Talks Depended on the Room
I stand by the statement above: your experience going to the panels and talks at IndieCade will vary wildly depending on which ones you attended. The deciding factor seemed to be the room you chose.
I quite enjoyed the puzzle talk by Linelight creator Brett Taylor and Semblance creator Ben Myres. There was a talk about how to make “AAA Indie Games” by husband-and-wife team Tristan and Aby Moore. “50 Ways to Fail in VR” was a ton of fun, a great talk by Mike Murdock about hard lessons learned making virtual reality games. What did these games have in common? They took place in small classrooms with a simple projector screen and whiteboard. They also filled up quite fast!
Brett and Ben tell us a bit about their games before their fireside chat about puzzle design.
The talks that served only to waste my time took place on the main stage; a large theater-styled presentation area with a massive projector, a tech booth, and tons of audio equipment. The IndieCade staff seemed woefully inadequate at operating this room. One talk started fifteen minutes late due to technical difficulties. At one point, ten minutes deep into technical drama, an exasperated technician scolded at the audience:
“Does anyone have an HDMI to VGA cable?! That’s what’s holding us up here!”
…as if I flew across the country and booked a hotel in an expensive area of Los Angeles just to personally hand-deliver you a cable you had months to purchase. Seriously, dude?
It Gets Worse Before It Gets Worse
But by far, the worst talk at IndieCade was the final one with Keita Takahashi, of Katamari Damacy fame. This was supposed to close out IndieCade with an intimate chat between the audience and a veteran game developer. Instead, it served to expose more flaws in the organizational structure of IndieCade. Find it online if you want to waste 50 minutes of your life.
I don’t have anything against Mr. Takahashi. He seems like a cool guy, and he has a wonderfully child-like sense of humor. But they evidently didn’t give him an agenda for this talk, because he began by trying to find his childhood home in Google Earth. As he struggled to do this, I realized both he and Brandon Boyer were trying to run the talk via their mobile phones for some inexplicable reason. This would become a recurring feature of the talk – waiting for the screen to slowly load whatever was on their phone.
The decision not to give Mr. Takahashi a translator was also mind-boggling. I felt bad for him – English is not his native language, and he is not fluent by any means. With no talking points or written speech, he spent half the talk fumbling around in Google Maps until that got old and they transitioned to Question and Answer time. It’s a shame they didn’t focus more on the few interesting bits of the talk, like his inspiration from Japanese sculptor Taro Okamoto. Without a solid plan, I can’t blame them for bombing on stage. When it comes to stuff like this, I usually blame whoever is at the top making the decisions that cause people to fail.
The Final Verdict
I’m not going to submit my games to IndieCade anymore, and I can’t see myself returning to the show any time soon. If you’re still interested in it, follow my guidelines below and I can help you avoid disappointment.
Should I attend IndieCade? If you live within walking or brief driving distance, there’s no reason not to go. Don’t spend money on a hotel or air travel, though. This show doesn’t deserve national or international attention in its current state. As a local show, it would be pretty awesome though.
What kind of pass should I get? I can’t see any reason why you would need more than a single day pass, probably Saturday. That had the biggest crowd. The games were all there. Besides, your wristband could probably get you in on Sunday too. They were all the same color.
Should I submit my game to IndieCade? Unless your game is as weird as some of the other stuff they highlight, don’t bother. There are two caveats: If your game is brazenly political and decidedly left-of-center, you’re good. Also, if you can modify your game to be super weird just for this show, go for it.
Will I fit in at IndieCade? Probably not. For a show that brags about its inclusive nature, it operates more like an exclusive club. IndieCade isn’t for everybody, whether its organizers want to admit it or not.
IndieCade Isn’t Fun
Before I went to IndieCade, I didn’t think all games had to be “fun.” I assumed that was a corporate label slapped on the industry that only applied to mass market games. “Games don’t need to be fun! It’s enough if they’re just engaging, interesting, or weird” I thought to myself. Oh, Frank-of-Last-Week… you were a fool!
After playing scores of dull games at IndieCade, I’ve flipped my stance. I think fun is more important than ever, especially when you’re trying to make a game that deals with hard problems. I saw a lot of games that promised to tackle heavy issues (“this is a game about dealing with mental illness,” etc) but the only things the player could do were (a) walk around a 3D environment and (b) look around a 3D environment. That’s not innovative, and it doesn’t keep its promise either. The Spaces exhibit at IndieCade featured at least three of these. We wouldn’t stand for that if a AAA studio did that. Why do we accept this from indies?
What I think they’re missing is that fun is an important numbing device that helps people through painful topics. Without it, your work will just end up stressing people out and repelling them.
That stressful anxiety I felt since Friday morning was still with me by the show’s end. I felt it as I left the museum and passed by the ghostly faces of Japanese-American prisoners one last time. Death seems to haunt IndieCade, and I wonder if the show will be over for good sometime in the next few years. You’re either growing or dying, and IndieCade did not project strength during their 10th year in operation.
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Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber. The views expressed in this blog post are his own and do not reflect the opinions of anyone else on the Where Shadows Slumber team.