IndieCade 2010: The Sundance of Indie Games Comes Back with Style

Imagine walking into a vinyl store that is stocked to its eyeballs with Bob Dylan and Zeppelin, approaching the counter and asking if they carry any Justin Bieber. That was me at IndieCade.

And in the past, when I have found myself feeling less than adequate among those who can rattle off the virtues of all things “indie,” I usually shrank into a corner as they chastised me for contributing to the bastardization of art by eating the fruits of mainstream culture.

It’s hard to imagine that the same, pretentious and irritating dynamic might exist in gaming. Well – I am happy to announce – it doesn’t.

Actually, turns out I had several misconceptions from the get-go.

I’ve never given much thought to indie games. When I think of my favorite games of the modern day, I think of Mass Effect and…well, mostly just Mass Effect. I also found myself lamenting the idea of showing up to a gaming convention that was going to be one bizarre and boring game after the next. I mean, these are indie games! What kind of budget could these games possibly have? The poor saps that are making these games are probably a bunch of Mountain Dew-guzzling rejects who are developing clumps of animated pixels on a screen as a way of trying to flag down the hiring staff over at Blizzard because the fan fiction they wrote about their characters on World of Warcraft didn’t get them noticed.

Oh, how wrong I was.

For Love of the Game

Every single person showcasing their games was a lover of the industry. Even if you were some silly noob whose favorite game was Nintendogs, you were greeted and welcomed with enthusiasm. The air was charged with gratitude and excitement: developers shaking other developers’ hands, congratulating each other on their triumphs, referring players to another developer’s game station. My anxiety of being persecuted went unanswered as I realized I had stepped into the free-loving Woodstock of the gaming industry.

My notions of the developers all being a rag tag group of rejects were also dispelled – instead I found myself face-to-face with some of the most intelligent and passionate gamers I have ever met. These were the guys and gals who played The Legend of Zelda when they were a kid, even when the power light on the Nintendo was off. The games I saw showcased ranged from the daring to downright artistic and could have only been made by people who looked at Galaga and saw a DaVinci.

One of the most gracious developers I had the pleasure of meeting, was Terry Cavanagh, developer of the Indie smash hit and IndieCade award-winning title, VVVVVV (or “V6” if you don’t feel like chancing a missed “V” ). As I leaned in close to hear him over the din of the ecstatic after-party crowd, Terry relayed to me the sacrifices he had to make to get himself to IndieCade.

“I had to pull out about a thousand quid to get here, and it’s been worth it,” he said with a shrug and a smile.

For those of you who don’t know, that’s roughly $1500. Terry comes from over the pond (aka: the Atlantic) and through his thick accent and red beard, he bore a constant smile as he held his award for Fun and Compelling Game in one hand and a beer in the other. Even though this was a huge financial punch in the gut, he’s made the most of it by wowing the crowds of IndieCade despite his shy demeanor.

As he and I chat games, various developers approach him and shake his hand in congratulations, then go on and on about how much they love his game. Terry is just another example of trials and triumphs of the indie game market.

I also managed to corner the founder and CEO of IndieCade, Stephanie Barish, to ask her a few questions about the purpose and future of the convention. Mostly, I was curious if IndieCade would go the ComiCon route, considering it had doubled in size this year. Specifically, I asked her if she ever saw IndieCade staring down the maw of corporate giants as it expanded.

“Well, we are deeply grateful for our sponsors, like Activision and EA Partners, just to name a few,” she told me. “But the purpose of IndieCade is to create a fertile ground for original thought and give up-and-coming developers as many opportunities as possible.”

Sounds like IndieCade is in good hands.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to play all of the titles at the event, but of the ones I did spend some time with, there were three that I found myself talking about all night: Bit.Trip Runner, Fractal and A Slow Year (*Read about Fractal by developer Cipher Prime in Callabrantus’s here at IGR).

Bit.Trip Runner by Gaijin Games…where to start? The best way to characterize it is a fast-paced musical platform game that will hit a nostalgic nerve while making you joyfully cuss your brains out again and again and again. I had never been that particularly drawn to Wii Ware until I saw this game. It will both challenge your reflexes and entertain you for hours. As you progress through a stage at a nonstop pace (literally), each power-up you collect adds another layer of complexity to the game’s phenomenal Chiptune soundtrack, which only feeds your need to play more. I caught myself raving about this game to my cohort, Aimee, for most of the night after my first play. It’s a symphonic delight and mad-dash from start to finish. If you have a shred of love in your heart for video games, you owe it to yourself to check this game out. Don’t believe me? See a demo here:

Atari Art

The other game that I can’t forget was A Slow Year, which took two awards at IndieCade. A Slow Year is a work of art, and I don’t just mean that in a complimentary sense. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing when I spotted the demo from across the room. As I approached, my jaw slackened until my mouth hung open. There, in all its venerable glory, was an Atari 2600, the grandfather of game systems. It was a beautiful juxtapose, seeing that 30-year-old machine sitting humbly on a table not 10 feet from a Playstation 3 just one exhibit away.

Developed by Ian Bogost in classic Atari cartridge format, A Slow Year is “a collection of four games, one for each season, about the experience of observing things. These games are neither action nor strategy: each of them requires a different kind of sedate observation and methodical input,” according to the game’s Web site.

It would take far more than the space I have here to characterize this title. Simply put, it is an experience. That may sound vague but there really isn’t any other way of describing it. The level I played was literally sitting in bed, sipping coffee while the sun rose outside the window. It is a living poem (in fact, it comes complete with a book of poetry). Winner of the Virtuoso and Vanguard awards at IndieCade, this game is proof that video game design can be a vessel for some truly courageous and fascinating artistic expression. A Slow Year is available for PC and Mac in a custom Atari emulator. Or, if you’re a collector, the game is available in limited edition cartridge and poetry set. Ian, I tip my hat to you, sir.

A Slow Year from Ian Bogost on Vimeo.

If you didn’t get a chance to go this year, for the love of all that is holy, find a way to go next year. Even if you’re not into video games, you’ll find some fun running up and down the block playing Humans vs. Zombies, a live-action game introduced at this year’s event. Or you can sit at home and miss out on the epic moments that only IndieCade can provide…like when the event’s host, Levar Burton of Star Trek fame, lead the entire crowd in a rendition of the theme song from his beloved PBS show, “Reading Rainbow”.

In a market where the player has become nearly deadened to the joy of gaming due to a constant assault of recycled FPS’s and RTS’s, with the same end-of-the-world storylines and cheesy cut-scenes, IndieCade is a lush oasis free from the tedium of today’s gaming market. It is indeed a fertile ground of original thought and a fantastic experience for anyone that has ever picked up a controller.

IndieCade 2010 Winners:

  • Aesthetics Winner: Spirits
  • Gameplay Innovation (presented by BBC Worldwide) Winner: Continuity
  • Fun / Compelling (presented by Shacknews) Winner: VVVVVV
  • Amazing (formerly Technological Innovation) Winner: Miegakure
  • World / Story Winner: Games of Nonchalance
  • Vanguard (presented by G4TV.com) Winner: A Slow Year
  • Sublime Experience Winner: Faraway
  • Virtuoso Winner: A Slow Year
  • Documentary Games Winner: The Cat and the Coup
  • Sound Winner: Limbo
  • Wild Card Winner: B.U.T.T.O.N
  • Jury Winner: Groping in the Dark
  • The IndieCade 2010 Honorary Trailblazer Award for Lifetime Achievement
  • Honorable Mention 16 Tons
  • Audience Choice Award Winner: Retro/Grade
  • Finalists Choice Award Winner: 16 Tons
  • Kids Choice Award Winner: Humans vs. Zombies

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