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As IndieCade loses mainstream relevance, its importance in pushing the gaming industry forward grows

IndieCade 2018 reminded me of why this is my favorite gaming convention.

I grew up in the church and while my relationship with it has changed in recent years, I still crave the earnest passion of a tight-knit spiritual community. Rarely have I felt as connected to my community and united in my ideals with others than my regular church-attending days. But for the last five years, my soul has found solace at the IndieCade Festival in Los Angeles.

Without fail, I’ve met the most colorful cast of folks who are quietly pushing gaming forward with their innovative projects. A spirit of jovialness, collaboration, inclusivity, and encouragement pervades every inch of the festival grounds. IndieCade is a place for everyone who likes to play and create. It is a picture of diversity I have seldom seen anywhere else.

IndieCade 2018 attendees playing Tetris on the Octopad.

Video Game Vagabonds

However, even though IndieCade feels more and more like home to me each year, the festival has struggled to find a home of its own. IndieCade, when I first attended in 2014, was held in an empty lot in Downtown Culver City. Enclosed by family-owned restaurants, small boutiques, and a movie theater, it felt like the centerpiece of a bustling city. Large white tents filled with computer stations and folding chairs populated the lot. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo were major supporters, bringing some of the greatest games of the weekend and passing out free swag. A stone’s throw away, the Fire Station housed the festival’s official selections in 2015.

Then the cozy lot was turned into a hotel or some other useless building and, just like that, IndieCade was displaced. The University of Southern California offered its campus to the festival in 2016. But the vibe was very different. The games were far more spread out and food options were sparse. The sense of community wasn’t completely disrupted, but it wasn’t explicitly clear which buildings were on and off limits. Since the game rooms were so disconnected, everything else felt disconnected. Unfortunately, Nintendo and Microsoft didn’t show, making Sony the last of the big three to support the festival. There was also an uncomfortable sense that the festival that year was “owned” by USC which felt antithetical to the spirit of independent game-making.

Playing Balam at IndieCade 2018
Playing a prototype of Balam at IndieCade 2018

In 2017, IndieCade invaded the Japanese American National Museum in the heart of Little Tokyo. The museum operated as usual in the midst of the festival. It was a spacious venue and the surrounding area had many places to explore and eat. Something still felt off, like the quirkiness of the little convention was clashing against the museum’s proper sensibilities. I had little confidence that IndieCade would be held there the following year. It wasn’t.

IndieCade 2018: An intimate affair

Last weekend’s event was held at the Santa Monica College, just across the street from Naughty Dog Studios. While the parking situation was atrocious, the campus layout provided a more cohesive space. You could find the signature Big Games and Night Games (games that you play with your whole body instead of a controller) in the large courtyard. The rest of the games were inside buildings on either side of the courtyard conjoined by an indoor bridge. The windows looked out at the courtyard so no matter where you were inside you could see what shenanigans were taking place outside. For the first time in years, IndieCade felt cohesive.

Our intern Daisy playing Little Bug at IndieCade 2018.
Our intern Daisy playing Little Bug.

But it also felt smaller than its ever been. In fact, each year has felt smaller compared to the last. I still remember the tacos and the beer gardens and the swag. Didn’t see any major press outlets like Polygon or IGN unlike years past. And where oh where did my “Gaming is for Everyone” tent go? That’s where I met the legendary diversity queen Tanya DePass and Craig Kaufman from The Able Gamers Foundation. With the exception of The NEXT Studio, IndieCade 2018 felt truly independent of corporate influence. Not to mention, the lines were eerily short despite the high caliber of games on display.

Gaming Everywhere

Games like The Game: The Game, winner of this year’s Impact Award, helps players navigate the complexities of modern dating through an often dismissed perspective. The Distance is a cooperative puzzle platformer that can only be played online with another player. It is intended for couples in long-distance relationships to bond and face the challenges of being separated head-on. Fire Escape VR asks you to assume the role of a detective trying to solve a murder by spying on the residents of a Brooklyn apartment building. Focus on one window too long and you might miss some key information being shared in a different apartment. Very clever.

Other games required you to interact with real life just as much as (or sometimes more than) the screen. La Tabla transforms a table into an arcade using a smart projector, printer paper, and even your body. Some of the included “apps” are a pinball machine, an animation table, and a MIDI music editor, just to name a few of my favorite configurations. Puppet Pandemonium is a public theater performance where players compete in minigames using puppets as the controllers. With just an iPad, Laser Mazer turns any real-world setting into a dangerous laser-riddled obstacle course. This is just a handful of what I enjoyed last weekend.

Less relevant than ever, more important than ever

The density of high-quality game experiences at IndieCade 2018 is perhaps higher than its ever been. However, it’s still hard to shake the notion that my favorite festival’s only got a couple years left in its system. I don’t know the financials; that’s just the sense I get. But perhaps this less grandiose version of IndieCade is the best one.

Playing Unicornelia at IndieCade 2018
Unicornelia asks players to strap on a horn and assume the role of a majestic fantasy creature.

I’ve seen IndieCade change considerably over the last half-decade. Yet despite these changes, my commitment to going every year is unwavering. What remains is what always has: a collection of gamers and game makers sharing their hearts and time with one another. It’s a place where creativity flourishes and diverse ideas are welcomed. It’s a place where adults teach kids how to create fun and kids remind adults how to have fun. It’s a place that feels safe: safe for families, safe for trans folk, safe for racial minorities like myself.

Amid the usual eclectic mix of computer games and tabletop games, games controlled through unconventional methods like actual puppets or one-button NES controllers, female-presenting folk with brightly colored hair, and tall boys with long beards, lies a community of people earnestly trying to make the world a better place for everyone. Now that’s a church I’m willing to go.

Written by Marcus Garrett

Marcus created Top Shelf Gaming to celebrate the awesome things about the video game industry while challenging the areas of the video game community that could be improved. He loves playing guitar and eating tacos, but never at the same time.

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