Friday, October 02, 2009

Sneak Peak Chic

IndieCade, the international independent games festival that is being held this year in Culver City, has attempted to avoid some of the controversies about the jury process that helped doom the similarly themed SlamDance games festival. Of course, by putting Brenda Brathwaite's analog game about the Holocaust, Train, front and center, organizers were trying to still emphasize their willingness to feature challenging content.

A number of the games attempted to refine what Rosalind Picard has called "affective computing" that engages in some way with the user's emotional state. Given the structural difficulties with gauging a user's emotions, more often this translated into games about representing emotional expression.

I was pleased to see designer Erik Loyer among the finalists with his iPhone "opertoon" Ruben + Lullaby, a wordless interracial love story in which mobile phone users can intervene in the couple's fight by shaking the phone to get the characters more agitated or smoothing the screen to calm them down. Unlike the interactive story Fa├žade, which might invite comparison by critics, the actors in Loyer's argument are depicted more as elements in a procedural musical composition than as intelligent agents acting out complex agendas in AI-generated conversation. I had the privilege to work with Loyer this summer at the NEH-Vectors Summer Institute on "Broadening the Digital Humanities" and was happy to hear that he would be working with the database of film clips in the USC Shoah Foundation Institute and developing techniques for scholarly annotation. Given his work with Sharon Daniel on her testimony-based pieces, he would seem to be an ideal choice.

Also in the IndieCade line-up was Jamie Antonisse who won acclaim at the Meaningful Play conference for his painfully lyrical game about terror, typing, and genocide, Hush. Now Antonisse is working with Skip Rizzo, who I write about in the Virtualpolitik book in connection with his virtual reality simulation designed for Iraq veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Apparently Antonisse is assisting Rizzo in working on an interactive experience that emphasizes game play for post-operative physical rehabilitation with action oriented around breathing exercises and a spirometer input device. Those who know the breath-based digital work of VR artist Char Davies may be interested in the development process of this game.

This year Antonisse comes to IndieCade with Spectre, a game in which the aged hero encounters a nonlinear sequence of memories. (See above.) In Spectre, the player navigates through the memories in search of "bright" events rather than "dark" episodes of shame and misery by playing a series of mini-games, many of which involve platform mazes. Antonisse is also part of the Peanut Gallery independent studio started by USC students, which also put out Andre Clark's multiscreen game Minor Battle that mixes on-screen and off-screen altercations as players vie for position in the physical space around game play.

There were other games about childhood memories and conflicts with arguing couples in the mix. Aether, which is described as a dreamlike game about "childhood and escapism," also allows its protagonist to escape being grounded with a male parent and female parent on opposite sides of a planet, by taking advantage of a game mechanic. The psychoanalytic dimensions of the Little Red Riding Hood story get played out in The Path, which I saw previewed at GDC, where sexual coming of age meets the structure of wandering off the path in games like World of Warcraft to encounter monsters and acquire game capital.

Given what some have called "polygon porn" and the push for hyperrealistic, multi-colorful, textured products with the perfect scattering of light, the festival's choice of two black-and-white games signals an interest in reaction and constraint. You can check out Closure and Gray from their links.

The developers of the unlikely Half-Life 2 mod Dear Esther boasted of over thirty thousand downloads and a vigorous fan base willing to engage in a story based on exploration, non-linear soundclips, and romance. Set on a seemingly abandoned island, this development research project out of the University of Portsmouth, UK. describes itself as "interested in first person gaming - particularly, using mods to explore questions about gaming that you can't answer by just analysing commercial releases or theorising about them."

There were also a few so-called "serious games" in the festival. I had seen MIT's Akrasia, a game that dramatizes drug dependency, at GDC. I've also followed the Global Conflicts series about journalism in conflict zones, which is premiering a new title about Latin America. (See above.)

But the Austrian team from the 2-D MMO Papermint was much more representative of the playful ethos of the conference. They have recruited the Birmingham-based designer who created the IndieCade graphics to experiment with immersive play without the apprenticeship requirements of 3-D modeling. Conference postergirl Erin Robinson brought her game Nanobots to the festival, which had an even stronger colorful hand-drawn aesthetic.

Poster girls aside, the closest I came to a celebrity sighting was meeting Jim Munroe, creator of not only IndieCade's Everybody Dies but also the very teachable machinima film about the Grand Theft Auto games, My Trip to Liberty City.

Not ready for prime time was the video from Blast Theory from their alternate reality game You Get Me, since it wasn't yet running by the preview. This game about a hybrid of tag and truth or dare that brings different class cadres in close contact with each other didn't have video up on the first night.

Having covered how academics struggled with the genre of the high-speed slide-oriented Pecha Kucha talk, I was impressed with Richard LeMarchand of Naughty Dog's ability to encourage presenters to put in strong performances in a frenetic series of what he called "mini micro-talks" that only allow 12 slides total and 16 seconds per slide of commentary. Even presenters who were non-native speakers of English or who bent Lemarchand's rules about the number of time or the use of purely still images still finished their talks right on time.

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