When I told my closest gaming-obsessed buddies that I was headed out to L.A. for IndieCade 2016 earlier this month, their response was that of confused enthusiasm. “Cool, cool,” they said, forcing smiles. “But…uh, what’s Indiecade?” Despite the ever-rolling waves of independent titles that have given the gaming scene an unprecedented sense of vibrancy and diversity, North America’s premier indie gaming festival remains one of the industry’s better-kept secrets.
Still, while the muted grandeur of IndieCade can’t quite compete with the raw magnitude of fan conventions like the various Penny Arcade Expos (PAX) or Comic-Con, these comparisons overlook the mission of the independent festival entirely. IndieCade bills itself as “Sundance for games,” and it comes with all the features that such a label would imply: a focus on interactive elements that expand genre, a sensitivity to titles that display an unvarnished ideological slant and a charming but undeniable sense of pretension that manages to permeate every aspect of the proceedings.
With all that in mind, here are 10 games from IndieCade that best-represent the unique flavor of the festival. Some are straightforward and recognizable and some are barely interactive at all, but all of them made a big impression.
YOU MUST BE 18 OR OLDER TO ENTER
Despite being one of the very first games I played at the festival, I don’t think any better embodied the IndieCade aesthetic than You Must Be 18. Originally released as a free game on Itchio, this is a 10-minute text adventure that aims to replicate an experience as awkward as it is universal: our collective first brush with Internet pornography, and the struggle to avoid being caught in the act. While it’s certainly aimed at those of a certain age—the game begins with the chirpy love song of a 56k modem, and the interface deliberately mirrors that of early AOL browsers—those unfamiliar with such period touches will still feel the brunt of its effect. Considering it’s free, it’s difficult not to recommend.
With the incipient popularity of real-life “escape the room” games, it only follows that this year’s festival would feature some examples that would try to take the concept beyond bank vaults and abandoned warehouses. Strictly speaking, you won’t be escaping any rooms in Séance—or in this case, the tent that it takes place in—but anyone familiar with the burgeoning genre will recognize the “find-the-combination” logic puzzles that comprise most of it. Though the space it takes place in can feel a little cramped at times, the Disney-esque technical trickery and the sheer theatricality of the game master who runs the experience elevate it considerably. Since it’s an “installation game,” it’s likely that only a lucky few convention-goers will get to experience Séance. If you’re at one in the near future, it’s certainly worth looking for.
In addition to the installations that commanded space, several spaces were devoted to “field games,” essentially a fancy descriptor for the joyless activities your elementary school gym classes forced you to partake in. Unlike Red Rover, however, Space-Shipped is actually a lot of fun. Four alien-themed teams of two players each race to deliver the mail—that is, physical packages—addressed to their assigned extraterrestrial species. One player uses a blacklight to determine which packages are theirs; the other runs them to various “planets” located at the extreme ends of the playspace. It’s frantic, and perhaps a bit too quick for its own good, but festival-goers couldn’t get enough, the mob growing after every session.
Golden Glitch Studios
Given the continual popularity of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, perhaps the most divisive game in the Zelda franchise, it’s somewhat surprising that only a few have lifted its central mechanic—a tragic, seemingly inevitable apocalypse that only your time-looping hero can stop. Golden Glitch Studios aims to fill this void by applying this formula to one of the greatest tragedies of all: Hamlet. As Ophelia, the titular Danish prince’s one-time paramour, you experience a nightmare vision that reveals the slaughter in the play’s denouement; armed with this information, you attempt to mitigate the bloodshed by sharing your gift with the rest of the cast, with consequences varying depending on your choice. While such high-concept games can turn out to be too ambitious for their own good, Elsinore is one adventure game to look out for.
High Horse Entertainment
It’s no secret that the most successful independent games often lift from their more deep-pocketed brethren, especially those that came out in the arcade heyday of the 1990s. Thankfully, Disc Jam is the kind of unapologetic rip-off I can get behind. Yes, from the sheer concept of “disc volleyball” to the feel of the desperate slide you can use to just snatch a particularly good shot, nearly everything about Disc Jam is taken from (or perhaps “heavily inspired” by) Data East’s Windjammers, first released in 1994. Still, while video game clones are usually bad news, the fact that there hasn’t been any movement on an official follow-up in nearly two decades means it’s fair game.
While this one boasts some of the usual VR horror trappings—a seated perspective, a mysterious monster that hates flashlights, a bevy of inexplicable puzzles—it all comes with a twist. You’re Shackled (har har) back-to-back with another poor sap who’s also wearing a VR headset, and you have to coordinate with them, passing along information and items, all the while trying not to anger the monster with your pesky light source. So far, the execution seems to lag behind the premise but, given that it’s a student product, I’m willing to applaud them regardless.
THIS IS THE STORY OF MY FIRST HEARTBREAK, WHICH I CAN’T QUITE PIECE BACK TOGETHER
Many of the games featured at IndieCade, including You Must be 18, could be considered “experimental narrative” games, in which players make choices that ultimately determine how the story plays out. While this usually results in multiple endings, My First Heartbreak takes a different tack. The plot ends the same way every time—with the eponymous heartbreak, of course—but the objects that the player chooses to click reveal intimate moments between the couple as they slide their way into the inevitable. While it wasn’t the most engaging game I played at IndieCade, the tiny scenes depicted are thoughtful and well-realized, and it ultimately had far more emotional impact than I was expecting.
Cow and Duck Studios
Everybody has their grand idea for the next big thing, but nobody actually wants to put in the effort to fully develop it. Now, with Pitch Fight, you don’t have to feel guilty about your failed plan for a lettuce-powered car; instead, mine it for comedy. Anyone who’s been strong-armed into a game of Cards Against Humanity after a long night at the bar will recognize the setup. Two players are designated the “pitchers,” and are given a vestment worthy of their sacred duty—a clip-on tie—and are forced to contrive a three-point pitch for a product that’s randomly generated out of a deck of Silicon Valley buzzwords, such as a “disruptive hairpiece.” The other players vote on their favorite, and whoever has the most “Pitch Bucks” at the end of two rounds wins. While a flood of this style of games has besieged the physical game marketplace ever since the success of CAH, Pitch Fight is a thoroughly enjoyable alternative. Unlike its apparent inspiration, it actually rewards creativity.
Gaming has democratized tremendously in the past decade, and as the boundaries to independent development have fallen one by one, the number of titles that focus on social commentary has jumped. Killbox is one of these so-called “serious games”—a critique of drone warfare boiled down into a short but harrowing experience for two players. Since it’s the type of game that relies heavily on the element of surprise, I won’t reveal exactly what happens in it, but it’s fair to say that bombs are involved. Regardless of your political persuasion, games like Killbox need to exist, and festivals like IndieCade provide a valuable platform for their creators’ self-expression.
Corazon Del Sol
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the strangest game that I saw at IndieCade: Infinit-O (as in Infinite Orgasm, designer Corazon del Sol happily told me) is an interactive art project that has the player pilot a set of three legs that wobble and tumble around a surrealist dreamscape. The legs can pick up “heads”—such as Bugs Bunny’s toothy mug—that have various effects in its bizarre world, most of which involve wanton destruction. Since the piece was for an exhibit titled Let Power Take a Female Form, del Sol decided that traditional joysticks were too phallic to be appropriate, and thus had a controller made in the shape of a vulva. The pad works well enough, but when the legs inevitably flip over, you have to hit the reset button, which is located, of course, deep inside the controller’s asshole. While Infinit-O proudly lacks almost all elements that would render it recognizable as a traditional game, I found its brazenness utterly charming. I certainly won’t be forgetting it, that’s for sure.