At New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, the first thing Eric Brasure and I ran into was BaraBariBall projected onto a screen. The first day of IndieCade East was short, merely taking up a Friday evening, so there weren’t that many people milling around. An IndieCade volunteer pressured us into taking the controls and she ran through the instructions.
I didn’t remember anything she said as I was confused that the controller in my hands was not what I recalled from my previous experience at the Eurogamer Expo. Hmm, a Sony Playstation controller. I was also double-thrown that we were in a 2v2 team game which is twice as many players as last time.
I spent a few minutes faking the activity of knowing what I was doing. This was vital as what I was actually doing was trying to figure out which of the four characters I had control of. After a few games, my team beat Eric’s and I high fived a stranger. But I wasn’t here to high five a stranger. I had told everybody I had flown to IndieCade East to high five Richard Hofmeier, the developer of Cart Life, for making it into the IGF nominations.
Eric and I put our controllers down for someone else to take up the find-your-character challenge then turned to face someone that Eric, at first, thought was a security guard. Sassy black jacket, crisp white shirt, black tie, all topped off with a pair of dark, intense eyes.
Hello, Richard Hofmeier.
Friday night was Sportsfriends night and a Johann Sebastian Joust session was going on at the back. Hofmeier told us there were children playing and it was amazing seeing adults push children to the floor. The children laugh. Everybody laughs. It’s Joust.
But it was time for me to lose my Joust virginity. After observing several children trying to take down adults – sometimes successfully – I knew it was time to head in. Eric, Hofmeier and I joined the session.
The standard Joust game is familiar to many but let me cover it again quickly. Each player is armed with a Move controller and if the player moves the controller too fast, it will turn red and the player is out of the game. When the background music speeds up, the controllers are more tolerant to movement so players can move faster. The winner is the last man standing so players are encouraged to use any means possible to jostle the controllers of their opponents.
I’d heard that Joust could get pretty rough but this was from indie devs who were seasoned Joust hounds. With a group of strangers, all feeling out the game for the first time, I didn’t notice anybody throwing shoes at each other. Also: children.
The beauty of the game is that it’s so quick. There’s no time to get upset when your controller goes red and you’re kicked out – there’s always another chance to shine. I never won a game of Joust, although Eric did. But I had my moments. One time I swerved to discover I had been stalked by a child, and as he lurched for my controller I grabbed his arm just in time. I also asked Hofmeier to shake my hand when he’d hidden his controller inside his jacket. Seeing through my wafer-thin subterfuge, he backed away a little too quickly… and his controller died.
Here’s a short video of Eric and Richard losing at Joust.
There’s this thing that Hofmeier does where he seems like he’s elsewhere, thinking through possibilities, shuffling a deck of ideas. It may have just been due to a lack of sleep but I’m unconvinced of that. Eyes lost in the Joust match before us, he mused aloud whether the game could be played against an audio book instead of music.
We retreated into the main room which was full of the IndieCade finalists. Not all of them were videogames, such as Armada d6 which is a board game. We spotted the PC running Cart Life but it was far from lonely, with someone playing and others watching. After circling the room a few times I decided to try Davey Wreden’s The Stanley Parable, something I’d not turned my hand to previously. It was on my “play this sometime” queue but being at IndieCade East, it time for a bit of queue jumping.
The strange thing about playing in public is, well, you’re playing in public. After I started the game and a booming narrator began shouting the story of Stanley out through a set of speakers, I was aware I had an audience. This wasn’t Joust where failure was part of the package and The Stanley Parable was an unknown to some of the spectators. We’re back at that old chestnut of players as performance artists and I made the point of moving around with slow, wide turns, making sure I kept my pocket audience on the same page. Soon enough I reached the end of my particular Stanley adventure, was unsure what I had witnessed, and handed the machine to someone else. Definitely interesting. Definitely requires a few replays.
Okay, so, I had been trying to ignore it but stomach acid seemed to be burning a hole in my ribcage and was getting damn uncomfortable. It was probably down to a beautiful cocktail of jet lag and the environment of Far Away From Home. I begged Eric to tell me where a pharmacy was and he reeled off some lousy American-centric instructions which sent me off on a wild goose chase. No, really, I had to phone him up to ask why I was on a gloomy, lonely backstreet that no one else seemed to be exploring for a pharmacy. It was all good in the end, I picked up something called Gas-X and a Cadbury Creme Egg. I told Eric about the Gas-X but I mentioned shit about the egg. He didn’t need to know about that.
Sportsfriends had their talk. Doug “Joust” Wilson, Ramiro “Hokra” Corbetta and Noah “BariBaraBall” Sasso were on the panel with Henry “Spaceteam” Smith. I knew I was in America because there was whooping from the audience. I don’t do whooping. Don’t even think about it.
The talk finished off with Wilson and Corbetta taking on the “Sportsenemies” team of Rob Meyer and Grant Reid in a match of Hokra. The off-the-cuff commentary from IndieCade East host Matt Parker was awesome. Still, I was wondering if it might be better to watch some amateur Hokra on the floor rather than professional league on the big screen because it feels more welcoming for Hokra beginners like myself. The Sportsfriends tried to hold off the Sportsenemies but, despite a desperate fight back at the end which whipped the spectators into a frenzy, they lost the match.
My stomach was still troubling me and I threw in the towel. I was supposed to be high fiving Hofmeier but instead of hanging around for dinner and drinks, I decide to slope off with Eric and take it easy.
Damn you, jet lag. Damn you to Hell.
The audience applauded as Hofmeier was introduced as the developer of Cart Life, based in Seattle. He said he was confused: was the audience clapping for him or Seattle?
On the “Games as Commentary” panel with him was Paolo Pedercini (Molleindustria), Heather Chaplin (writer of Smartbomb: The Quest for Art Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution), and Ian Bogost (known for god have you not heard who Bogost is). Simon Ferrari was the chair and muddled through the introductions. Then we were treated to this giant Molleindustria video montage playing overhead which was an incredible distraction while the panel was speaking. It’s a miracle we listened to the opening at all.
Chaplin remarked that developers suffer from some naiveté because they do not acknowledge that the systems they build include their own biases. They are creating cultural forms which go on to shape opinion, regardless of explicit intent. The obvious example she offered was the FPS genre which acts as advertising for the military. This reminds me of the issues some have with Fate of the World, which is a developer’s interpretation of the serious problems the human race faces.
Hofmeier’s view was that games should expose players to something they don’t know, which sums up the ethos of Cart Life. Slap the unassuming “A Retail Simulation for Windows” on the front cover, then drag the players through the difficult lives of street vendors. This goes to the core problem I have with agitprop games which is you know what they are going to say before you play. There are two purposes to these games: to inform the uninformed or to rally like-minded people. Most of these games hit the latter note rather than the former.
This issue came back much later when Hofmeier got into the idea that people add “serious” films and shows to their Netflix queues, but not actually follow through on watching them. Associating ourselves with good work is enough to make us feel better. So do these games do more harm than good? We play a game about drone pilots – but then that’s it? The activism party is over?
Hofmeier also added that he was uncomfortable with the title of talk, because “commentary” suggested an authoritarian perspective on games. When a game is a vessel for an author’s message, the player’s agency is enslaved to that end. Pedercini said there was a new movement to “fake” the impression of commentary by not taking a position, letting the player explore the discussion themselves. Chaplin went further, asserting neutrality is a position in itself and it is dishonest to not acknowledge that.
There was more. Bogost had concerns that system-based games have failed us in terms of educating gaming audiences and games that sport personal narratives may be the only way forward (Oiligarchy vs Unmanned, Cart Life). Also there was some discussion that games don’t have the same contexts like other media (e.g. sections in a bookstore).
After the talk, Amanda Lange from Tap-Repeatedly introduced herself and her husband, the professor. Amanda was more effervescent in real life than her well-chosen words on the page betray. This may be down to her husband, the professor, who teaches people how to write. He weans them off their unnecessary semi-colons; he berates them for mimicking Gawker. The professor made me laugh and, er, also a little insecure about my writing style.
We attended the “Well-Played” Thirty Flights of Loving session where Drew Davidson gave his interpretation of the game as he played through it. Davidson, who I had pegged as Tim Schafer’s long-lost twin brother, was a wonderful performer. This was no dry critical exposition but a Penn & Teller stage act with developer Brendon Chung playing the straight man who won’t let a single secret of the game slip from his lips. There was little here that I hadn’t already come across online but it was great fun watching Davidson expound his way through the game. Indeed, more fun than I had when I played it.
Anyway, Rusty Moyher’s Bloop. Fucking Bloop, man.
Bloop is one of these fighting finger games on the iPad for up to four players. Players must jab the squares of their chosen colour to get points, the one with the most wins. As the game progresses, the squares get smaller and smaller so things out here in the physical world get a little crazy. With two players, it’s like a contest of typing. With four players, it’s like there are more fingers on the screen than should be possible. I actually said, trying to wade through a sea of aggressive, stabby fingers, “There are too many fingers! Where did these fingers come from?”
We kept going back to that game again and again. It was so inviting, sitting there, looking pretty and Bloopy. After I had been transgressive with Eric once, pushing his arm away from the iPad so I got control, he then upped his game. Elbow in my face, taking the iPad off the table… a general lack of decorum.
Fucking Bloop, man.