Space and System in Culver City: A Visit to IndieCade

Reposted from PopMatters Moving Pixels.

Culver City is one of the more curious neighborhoods of the Los Angeles sprawl, a sort of industrial version of Pasadena with much of the filmmaking history as Hollywood, but with only a fraction of its tinsel. Despite being wedged between Santa Monica and downtown, it feels distinctly suburban here, even just a tiny bit upscale–but still definitely middle-class, white-collar knowledge labor, not the town of either executives or bohemians. Even having lived almost exclusively in Los Angeles for the last five years, I’ve only visited two, maybe three times, and never before on (what might loosely be defined as) business.

I knew better than to expect anything on the scale of a major expo. The IndieCade independent games festival is only in its fourth year and is very much defined by its outsider status. While it does deliver a slick presentation, it isn’t the audio-visual heart-attack of E3. The term “adhocracy” –which Naughty Dog’s Richard Lemarchand used to describe his team’s development process at a Saturday panel– would seem to apply well to the overall structure of IndieCade. Games here exist pervasively and at the margins as much as they do in defined spaces, which well suits some of its featured games’ attempts to deconstruct and reconfigure play and space.

The defining moment for me at IndieCade didn’t come in one of the game exhibition centers but along the pedestrian path connecting the main village to the most popular game center, where Jason Torchinsky had installed his larger-than-life wooden Space Invader sculptures. These stood out as starkly alien against their Californian shopping center surroundings as they were meant to, cut out of time and space in reference to a part of gaming history significantly older than the adolescent boys that raced around them. These kids, with orange or black bandanas wrapped around their foreheads or upper arms, are engaged in a life-or-undeath pursuit of Humans versus Zombies, one of IndieCade’s pervasive Big Games. It’s fast-paced yet enduring and–if you’ll forgive the pun–infectious, as much in the eager, frenetic energy of its tag-esque gameplay as the creativity of its participants.

As I watched, the fleeing humans (wearing black bandanas and carrying tube socks as their only weapons) raced down the walkway lined with Jason Torchinsky’s installations and out of sight, their zombie (orange bandana) pursuers hot on their heels. They’d most likely be caught, and reverse their bandanas to the orange side to signify their infection, after which the goal would be to find other hapless human players. You didn’t need to understand a whit of what was going on to know exactly what was going on and thus be entertained by it–something Humans versus Zombies designer Trevor Moorman brought up as being incorporated into the design from the beginning, when he discussed it at Saturday afternoon’s “ethics of big game design” panel.

Left to right: Celia Pearce (IndieCade festival chair), Trevor Moorman (Gnarwal Studios), Brenda Brathwaite (Lootdrop), John Romero (visiting), Max Temkin (moderating), and Richard Lemarchand (Naughty Dog).

IndieCade is the antithesis of E3, and I don’t mean that simply on the level of size or traffic. E3 is quite literally designed as a series of fortresses, with rival companies shoved almost wall to wall with each other in their respective battlements trying to drown out the competition with their raucus wargame noises. There is no attempt at a conversation, which I think is the single greatest note of distinction between it and IndieCade: at E3, you are a receptacle, uninvolved and depersonalized, merely there to receive whatever the publishers shovel onto you.

By contrast, IndieCade’s check-in hub is called the Village (allusions to The Prisoner optional). Its central lot is a cluster of tents and wooden huts, more Renaissance Faire than techno-militaristic takeover. The exhibition spaces are borrowed from local establishments and the Culver City fire department. And it can be a tough call to determine where normal cityscape ends and the festival begins.

(“What’s that?” a colleague asked when I took him on a tour of the exhibitions on Sunday. He indicated to a large tablet PC switched off in the corner, near a PC playing Chinese Room’s Dear Esther mod.

“I think it’s just someone’s work station. On Monday this goes back to being an office,” I explained.

“Well, that’s my goal: not playing games, just occupying other people’s desks,” my colleague quipped.)

As much as the game spaces seemed to be everywhere, they also seemed elusive. A cluster of balloons might denote a gallery upstairs or just point the way to another location half a block down. The design, rather than seeming an obstacle, rewards gamers’ attention to miniscule details and fine-tuned drive for exploration. A meatspace lesson in affordance design and the deemphasize of player privilege, to be sure.

Moreover, discovering setting at IndieCade became as important as discovering locations. Physical spaces, after all, are fairly static, but the festival reinforces how their meanings become mutable. On Sunday, walking out of the firestation exhibition space where festival darlings Fez and Johann Sebastian Joust were set up, I found the box-bedecked play space of Coworkers had, in the intervening time between sessions, become an impromptu space for the pervasive game Ninja. That these different projects should overlap with one another, without prompting or mediation, reflects quite well the kind of anything-goes, free-play spirit of the festival. For something of this nature to go on at E3 would probably be tantamount to corporate sabotage.

Ninja being played by yours truly plus classmates and fellow attendees. (Photo credit: Catherine Peiper, 2011.)

And here's my professor William Huber (left) about to dominate the last of his students. I swear. Actual Jedi. (Photo credit: Catherine Peiper, 2011.)

While the physical “big games” demonstrated best the event’s emphasis on embodiment and spontaneous play, a lot of the electronic exhibitions continued the trend, using Xbox Kinects and Playstation Moves in creative ways to involve a lot of nontrivial movement from their players (superHYPERCUBE and Johann Sebastian Joust being frontrunners for these, respectively). And while it could be argued that the game offerings this year were more conceptual than strongly thematic, they did their job–being what the commercial games industry can’t or refuses to be.

For those who are interested to know more of my thoughts on commercial game industry events, I recommend my write-up on 2011’s Electronic Entertainment Expo.

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