I love you, IndieCade

It started as a suggestion from a professor. Pretty soon, it was taking over my summer.

It was 2011. I was in the second year of a master's program I wasn't liking too much, apart from my classes on game design and criticism. It was in one of these that I heard that some kind of festival for independent games was happening across town -- my professor encouraged his students to check it out that weekend, and the rest, at least where I was concerned, was history.

My first IndieCade was a special one. I remember it was unseasonably hot for mid-October, even by Los Angeles standards. It was dry and dusty and there seemed to be a lot of teenagers running around in orange and black bandanas; players of a pervasive game called Humans vs Zombies, I learned later. Videogames featured, but quite a bit of space was actually given over to non-digital games, from board games to LARPs and massively multiplayer crafts projects. There was little to no corporate branding in evidence. The registration booth was a rented wooden pop-up hut, dwarfed by (in my opinion) the real star of the festival: an enormous plywood-and-paint statue of a Space Invaders alien.

I took a picture, of course. I took a picture, of course.

That statue got torn down a year later, if I remember correctly. Which is fitting: from the moment I set foot on its baking asphalt parking lot-turned-carnival-grounds, IndieCade put me in mind of nothing so much as a Burning Man of videogames. Well, before Burning Man sold out.

The next spring, I learned that IndieCade was hosting one of its physical jurying sessions at my university. These are for games that require a particular setup or multiple players, so they need a venue. They need some extra hands too, and I ended up signing up as a festival juror on the spot.

Despite the name, I can promise you that being a juror wasn't all that prestigious a title. There were dozens of us, scattered all around the world with backgrounds ranging from journalism and game studies to programming, all going through a slush pile of submitted games to determine the following things:

  1. Does it run?
  2. Does it run without crashing?
  3. Is it any good?

The third question is always, always going to be subjective and the part of evaluations that takes the longest. The hope is that by running the games by a diverse enough set of jurors, everything will get its fair shake. IndieCade conducts itself on the twin operating principles that nearly anything can be a game and that absolutely anyone can play them.

In my first year as a juror, I believe I evaluated about 20 games. This was a drop in the bucket compared to the total volume of submissions we got, but the festival director, Sam Roberts, also noticed that the feedback I was writing in my evaluations tended to be pretty detailed. He asked me if I wanted to be what was then called a "super juror;" what is now called a "review juror." As a super juror, my job was simple: evaluate a shitton of games and keep writing the kind of feedback I already had been.

Last year's IndieCade was held at the University of Southern California. (Photo: Daily Trojan.) Last year's IndieCade was held at the University of Southern California. (Photo: Daily Trojan.)

In my second year as an IndieCade juror, I evaluated something like 50 games. The year after that, I evaluated more than 100. I still live near where IndieCade sometimes hosts its big games/multiplayer evaluation sessions, so the organizers found me invaluable. My stint as a game critic in a commercial space may've been short-lived (next to my work as an editor, at least), but by sheer volume, I would say I've reviewed well over 300 games by now.

I took a break from the festival in 2016 to focus on my new role here at Zam, but this year I'm back in again, now as a member of the jury and award show committees. The work load, in addition to Zam and a non-profit I help to run, is honestly way more than I should have ever agreed to take on, but I love it. It reminds me of being a teen volunteering at local conventions; of being an undergrad film major and cutting through a hundred "maybes" to get at the "this is what I can do right now." It's IndieCade's 10th anniversary too, so you know, appropriate. 

"We're being very IndieCade this year," Sam said to the award show committee earlier this week, sounding apologetic. Because what he meant by 'very IndieCade' was: ad hoc, bootstrapped, stripped down to the girders. Parking lots and folding chairs. A long way from last year's award show held at a USC theater.

"What's wrong with that?" I exclaimed. "This sort of thing is why I got into IndieCade!"

You can't go to a festival for seven consecutive years and not notice the ways it's changed. IndieCade is, today, a much bigger festival than the small and scrappy thing I first visited in 2011. The sponsorship is more obvious. VR features heavily. I know many who believe the festival has "sold out" just as I said Burning Man has. (Though until IndieCade features air-conditioned mansions on wheels, I'm going to argue the comparison isn't a fair one.)

No one would deny that big brands have had a bigger presence at IndieCade in the last few years. (Photo: IndieCade.) No one would deny that big brands have had a bigger presence at IndieCade in the last few years. (Photo: IndieCade.)

Obviously, I wish the festival all the success in the world. But I'm all about being "very IndieCade." USC game design professor and former festival chair Richard Lemarchand once called IndieCade an "adhocracy" of near-spontaneous organization; a convention as rogue as the games it celebrates. It's a bit chaotic, to be sure. And I never want the festival's situation to get so volatile it ends up dissolving, at least not without our CEO Stephanie Barish and all the rest agreeing collectively it's time to put the event to bed.

But I loved the giant plywood statue of Space Invaders aliens and the impromptu stages. I loved the hot parking lot asphalt, the kids chasing each other in their Humans vs Zombies bandanas, and enthusing over a surreal first-person game for 20 minutes before realizing I was speaking to its developer. I loved my first ever Night Games and its liminal, canivalesque atmosphere that I've never been able to replace. 

That's why I continue to work for IndieCade year after year: because I want others to experience something even a fraction as marvelous as all that. I want them to have that "very IndieCade" moment. It isn't just a festival of very good, very strange games, although that is certainly a huge part of its appeal. It's also a space and a moment in time. It's also a tautology. At this point, it's kind of like family.

Night Games at IndieCade, 2016 (Photo: IndieCade). Night Games at IndieCade, 2016. (Photo: IndieCade.)

Since it's going to come up anyway, I'd like to also take this opportunity to talk disclosure.

I have personal associations with three of the developers among our awards nominees this year: Christine Love, a good friend, has her visual novel Ladykiller in a Bind in there; Sharang Biswas, who has written for our site, has his game Feast up for an award; and Laura Michet, the editor-in-chief of Zam and my boss, contributed written material to Frog Fractions 2 and served as editor on Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, which are also both up for awards. There are several more games among the general festival selections which are made by people I know, including The Tingler. Lastly, my friend and a patron of my non-profit website, Vlambeer's Rami Ismail, is up for one of this year's honorary awards.

I was not involved in the above games' or developers' inclusion in either the IndieCade festival or our awards nominees. When they came up in discussion with the jury committee, I announced I was abstaining and explained why to my fellow committee members. When it came to voting on award winners, I cast my votes for other titles. I had no input on the honorary awards and my role on the awards show committee is limited to creative producer.

Conflicts of interest are inevitable in any small field, and the world of indie games is small indeed. But I'm proud to say that whenever potential conflicts were brought up with the jury committee, it was treated seriously and any abstentions were respected. You can't always expect what's going to emerge as a favorite out of a body of submissions -- and of course I'm personally delighted to see my friends', Sharang's, and Laura's work recognized! -- but as far as my involvement with IndieCade is concerned, I removed myself from those conversations from day one.

Some of the bad jokes you're going to hear at the awards ceremony on Sunday, though, I will cop to writing those. I'm sorry in advance.

Top image source: IndieCade.