“Indie” might be an increasingly nebulous term these days, but the festival celebrating it was home to some damn intriguing games.
IndieCade, which took place over the weekend in California, is a smaller festival in the grand scheme of video game events, but it still managed to cram its tents with an overwhelming number of quirky, interesting games. I checked out as many as I could, but I didn’t even come close to seeing them all. I blame Line Wobbler. Speaking of which...
Line Wobbler is a one-dimensional dungeon crawler. It shouldn’t even work, let alone be great. And yet, it’s fantastic. You play it with a joystick made out of a doorstop (you know, the sproingy kind) and a long LED light strip. As, well, a light, you’ve got to avoid obstacles — orange light is lava! — and defeat enemies by wobbling at them. Levels are almost puzzle-like in nature, and the whole thing feels fantastic. Lights, sounds, and subtle rumbling coalesce into something one-part game system, one-part rainbow. I want one to wrap around my Christmas tree.
A puzzle game where your perception is reality. If you pick up a cube and hold it up against a wall, it’ll be the size of a very pointy pea when you drop it. If you do the same thing while facing, say, the end of another room, the cube will be massive — probably too big for you to even jump on. It’s hard to explain with words. Watch the video, and then imagine the puzzle possibilities. According to its creator, Museum of Simulation Technology won’t be out for another year or more, but the puzzles I played left an admirable amount of room for improvisation. I’m excited to see how this one turns out.
A shoot-‘em-up that defies just about every convention of the shoot-‘em-up genre. Sidescrolling or top-down levels are replaced by pocket dimensions that you can hop into and manipulate with mouse movements. Death gets the scythe treatment in favour of a rewind mechanic that kicks any time you bite the big one. The game’s aesthetic style is also mesmerising. The music is beat-matched to the abstract action on screen, resulting in a sort of psychedelic spaceship rave.
An at times downright bizarre puzzle game about humanoid plug... things. Puzzles are minimalist and clean, but increasingly devious. Also, weird. At one point I saw a little girl — couldn’t have been more than ten years old — solving a puzzle that involved literally pulling poop out of a plug man’s behind. Hey ESRB, I think you missed a spot. Update: This one’s on Steam right now. Go play!
A story game in which you return to a realm time forgot: AOL Instant Messenger. In lieu of spoiling the story, I will say two things: 1) you get to pick a dialogue option and then flail randomly on the keyboard to type it out and 2) the developer’s description of the game pretty much sums up the rest: “Emily is Away is an art game driven by nostalgia and awkward teenage memories. The aesthetic is a romanticised version of early 2000’s computing. It features a branching narrative based on my own personal experiences. The result is somewhere between a chat bot and an adventure game. It’s my hope that the nostalgic interface transports the player back into their own memories, allowing the narrative to connect with them on a more personal level.”
A self-described “rhythm violence game,” Thumper is about as far removed as Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and the like as it gets. It’s a bit more like a midpoint between F-Zero and Audiosurf, except also you’re a musical beetle and you can crush things beneath your killer carapace. The game’s a rapid-fire audiovisual assault — easy on the senses from afar, but pulverising in person.
Video courtesy of my friend Anthony Carboni.
A game in which you play as a pug, and you sniff people's behinds. Also you explore open levels and experiment, all while controlling the whole thing with a giant tennis ball. No joke: the controller really is a massive tennis ball with a stuffed dog backside (that doubles as a button) attached to the front. It’s an awkward, funny, and — most importantly — joyful game. It’s also great to play with a friend. I peed on a mean old lady’s sandwich and did Tony Hawk tricks on a trampoline. You know, pug stuff.
A fascinating game about language. You’ve been sent back in time for research purposes. Problem is, language has come a long way in the past Whole Of Human Existence (Give Or Take A Few Years), and you have no idea what cave people’s rudimentary warblings mean. Solution: record what they say and repeat their strange symbols back to them. Through context, you come to gain an understanding of their speech and culture. It’s totally left to your interpretation, though.
A game where you play as a hole that eats stuff to become a bigger hole. It’s a bit Katamari-esque, both mechanically and aesthetically. I’ve seen it at quite a few events (I harbour a secret belief that creator Ben Esposito is simultaneously in all places at all times), but the past year has seen it evolve into a coherent, thematically consistent experience.
The whimsy is strong with this one, but the game’s sunny disposition belies its exploration of a weighty topic I haven’t really seen games tackle: gentrification. “The narrative is about the slow process of erasure in Donut County and what happens when there’s nothing else left to consume,” reads Esposito’s description of the game. As someone who lives in an increasingly gentrified city (one that, in some ways, I’ve aided in the unfortunate gentrification of), I’m interested to see how Donut County approaches that thorny tangle of conflicting motivations and feelings.
A game about... a whole lot of things. Gregor is a part-game, part-art-installation I encountered during IndieCade’s “Night Games” event, which highlighted less traditional games with a focus on illumination (because, you know, nighttime). The first thing that surprised me about Gregor: the tablet with the game on it was embedded in a giant stuffed animal beetle. The second thing that that surprised me: creator Jasmine Idun told me she’d been travelling around with Gregor in tow since 2009. The only thing that didn’t surprise me: Gregor (the stuffed beetle, not the game) was looking gnarly. Legs had been reattached with red paint, so as to resemble blood.
The game itself, meanwhile, was nearly impossible to win. The first time through, I just smashed a pixel art beetle until blood was everywhere and its face was a mask of pure agony. It was fucked up! It did, however, make sense, given that Idun later explained to me that Gregor was first created as a project about helplessness, alienation, and segregation. However, time has seen Gregor evolve into something slightly more hopeful. At IndieCade, there was a secret way to win the game, at which point players got to physically knit pieces for Gregor’s new body. It was an unexpected experience, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for a couple days. Why is helplessness so nauseatingly difficult to witness, and — that feeling in mind — why are people still so reluctant to help each other?