I was confused. This was where it was last year, but all that’s here now is hanging art and sad men. At least, on one side of the wall. On the other side are games, sure, but they aren’t the ones I was looking for. I don’t even know if it was a booth or why they were there; half of these games are already out, and nowhere is there a sign that says “IndieCade.”
Last year, this little alcove was bustling with curious patrons trying out Johann Sebastian Joust and A Mother’s Inferno while a small three-piece musical act treated us to orchestral versions of video game theme songs, but now it’s little more than where people go to stand around tables and talk business and use relatively clean bathrooms.
That, I figured, was a great place for the indie community of developers and exceedingly accommodating PR. To get to this little side area in the Los Angeles Convention Center, you don’t even need a badge. You can just walk into the west entrance, go up the escalators, and turn left and then start playing some of the most original games you’ve seen in the past few years.
So it made little sense that they would move to the South Hall, nestled deep within the realm of the forgotten. Most of E3 is rendered dark yet portentously lit by publishers and developers so as to set a gaming mood. Giant screens spanning over a hundred feet, encircling gaggles of people that stand in a pit of smells and sounds to watch trailers that are easily seen via YouTube, light up the darkness. Signs reminding you of things you’re seeing and about to see stand to compete with pulsating, rotating lights that temp you into PR pitches like sirens into the water.
There is a refuge from such a menagerie, though, if you can call it that. Consider it the unallocated space left in your hard drive that you’ve left to fill. In the space of just over half a football field, they’ve left the lights on, almost as a warning to those that wander into it that this is where the weary and the dying go. The floor is littered with folks bartering usage of electrical outlets, the walls lined with LACC staff standing in bewilderment at the zoo unfolding before them, and, strangely enough, a bar harboring dozens of people fed up with walking, gaming, and, it seems, other people.
It’s less of a bar, though, and more the seating of an outdoor Parisian café multiplied and scattered among the land of artificial lighting. Spread out amongst these loosely coordinated fold-up chairs and tables are bleary-eyed, beaten-down victims of the show, hazy from alcohol, working, or both. And rimming the entire disaster piece is still nearly 60% of the overall real estate, the bowels of E3. The haphazard and casually maniacal nature of it all makes you long for something sweet as the cacophony not 40 yards away.
And here—this place where wayward fools and soon-to-be drunks wander and never leave—is where they’ve put this year’s IndieCade. If everything else I’ve described was the desert and the scavengers of Tatooine, the IndieCade booth would be Mos Eisley where an incongruous amount of people have gathered to show off, look at, and talk about indie games. For the seemingly boundless crowd sitting in line at the Ubisoft booth to look at Watch_Dogs or standing in front of a closed door at Activision to watch Destiny in action, this small 1,000-foot plot feels infinitely more alive.
If you’ve never been to Tokyo or New York, then I’m not sure what you could possibly understand or I could ever impart what it means to be in a crowd, but this year’s IndieCade was a commensurate crash course in the intricacies of standing shoulder to shoulder, butt to butt. There were no carelessly constructed walls holding everyone in, but it reached the point where personal space was no longer a meaningful concept and that you’ve just become intimately (and biblically) familiar with the eight people currently surrounding and touching you.
No one, however, seems to mind. Whereas when you navigate the swamp of swag bags and costumed mascots on the main show floor and no one seems happy to be there, the entire population of this hub is wholly content with packing it in. Ass to ankles, people just want to see what these eclectic and interesting developers have to show.
There are those with official spaces along a ring of black clothed tables and straggling stands around their indie patch of land, and then there are those just walking around with a laptop or sitting on a translucent inflatable orange couch with an iPad. The entire right wing of the estate seems dedicated to housing a line of showgoers wanting to try an Oculus Rift game about trees and in the middle are people yelling about wormholes and asteroids as quick sessions of Spaceteam take place. To the left, at the front-facing entrance (if there is such a thing when there are no walls, barriers, or signs), is a delightfully Danish fellow trying to coerce passersby into spinning the proverbial and an actual, digital bottle in his game. That Dragon, Cancer casually shatters emotions and expectations.
I guess that isn’t so different from the main floor where games like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Call of Duty: Ghosts are being shown, but the key difference is that the people trying to get you to play and then watching you play and answering your questions are the same people that made the game. They know everything you could want to know, like how the project started, where it’s currently at, the design team’s personal and career inspirations, development troubles and anecdotes, eventual goals and aspirations for their relatively small endeavors, and so on and so on. And for even those rare show floor game’s that include such a knowledgeable representative (such as it was with LocoCycle and Twisted Pixel’s Jay Stuckwisch), the exceedingly noteworthy thing here among the lost and misfit games is that these developers can’t wait to talk to you about it all.
Their energy simply explodes out of them. Knowledge and PR-vetted answers indifferently ooze out of those working booths at Disney and EA, but even when you know they’re about to answer the same question for the 50th time that day, these indie developers are still excited. They’ve been locked up by themselves in their own world of code and ideas for so long that they absolutely can’t wait to dump everything out of their brains and into your ears. The mere fact that another human is looking at something they’ve poured their entire being into is enough, but such as it is with their already explicit drive, they want more. They want to give you the show and then lead you around behind the curtain.
It is, without a doubt, an intellectual oddity when for the other seven hours of the day, you have to hear station attendants and PR folk spit out canned responses and constantly rebuff inquires with “we’re not talking about that right now.” Even with a design lead or systems programmer a mere 20 feet away, questions have to be filtered, relayed, and scheduled for a later time, if not an entirely different date. Can I just talk to him for a couple of minutes? “Sorry, he’s about to be in a meeting,” an answer referring to the man just settling down on the floor to drink a Coke and eat a sandwich.
The physical separation—walking for what seems an interminable distance and time into an irresponsibly well-lit din of exhaustion and depression lining a beating heart of passion and agility—is indicative of the sharp transition in tone and intent. Check into your appointments, get your press kits, and politely turn down a Sprite or coffee. That’s what goes on out there. Here you’ll watch developers program and deploy fixes as fascinated guinea pigs play their games, exchange high fives and hugs instead of business cards, and answer candidly about problems and bugs. This broken exterior betrays the colorful and lively blood flowing through these thumping veins.
Walking upstairs into stark white and oppressively bland meeting rooms (save for the dark and moody CCP den), you know to expect nothing more than vocalized press releases and get nothing more.
But not here. Not in this place beyond the pines.