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October 20, 2014

SCA Shines at IndieCade Festival

By Aubtin Heydari

On October 9-12, Culver City became the epicenter for indie games when the annual international independent media celebration, IndieCade, returned to town. Game enthusiasts came together with industry leaders, developers, and gamer culture connoisseurs to check out the latest, greatest and most innovative new games on the market. This year, the festival featured a record setting 14 games from USC School of Cinematic Arts students, faculty, and alumni.

Sam Roberts, IndieCade director and assistant director of USC’s Interactive Media & Games Division, has been involved with running various indie game festivals for ten years. “When IndieCade was getting started by the founder, she got in touch with myself and [Festival Chair] Celia Pearce because Celia had experience with planning showcases of artistic new media and I had been involved in the indie game space with organizing conferences,” Roberts said. “Our first festival was actually in Seattle at a gallery there. There is a large amount of the industry in L.A. It made L.A. the best city and Culver the natural home. Our mission is about prompting artistry in indie games so we want to be somewhere where the developers are nearby but also we can reach out to the public.”

IndieCade occurs at several locations in downtown Culver City. The festival grounds or IndieCade Village, transforms a large parking lot into a popup convention center of sorts, composed of a wide variety of different exhibits, all with their own focus on a particular style or medium. Exhibits included digital selects, Playstation games, Wii U and 3DS games, E-sports (competitive video game playing), tabletop and card games, and ‘big games’ (outdoor games and sports played in an open space). Later that evening, the grounds are reconfigured for the night games exhibit, which feature a variety of psychedelic games only playable in the dark.

The Culver Firestation housed the award finalists. Selections were judged on a variety of criteria including gameplay, artistic and thematic depth, technical innovation, and cultural expression. The finalists included traditional video games, as well as games that pushed the boundaries of interactive media, such as Use of Force, a game designed by USC iMAP PhD Student Nonny de la Pena that combines journalism and interactive media. With the game’s use of virtual reality technology, the player experiences US/Mexico border violence firsthand from the perspective of real people, such as a man being beaten and tased to death by US Border Patrol.

“I chose this story because it was one with a spatial narrative that translated easily into an audio visual experience, as well as one that focuses on human rights issues and those who have no voice,” de la Pena said. “Through this, I can bring their voice to the public.” She said the documentary and the virtual reality characteristics of the game are key to its success. “I feel like there is no other medium that puts you inside the story. It’s such a visceral experience that brings it up to different communities that have not experienced this.” Use of Force received the Impact Award, which is given to games with a meaningful social message.

On the other end of the spectrum, IMGD MFA Student Remy Karns showcased his viral phenomenon Classroom Aquatic. In this virtual reality game, the player is a student dolphin in a classroom with other dolphins, where they use positioning technology of the Oculus Rift to move their heads around the room and cheat on their quiz. Close Your, a USC student project that was made as the final project for CTIN 492 (Advanced Games), uses a webcam to incorporate the player’s blinks into the narrative of the game. These kinds of games were designed to push the technology and understanding of the game medium to its limits, and create space for new innovations.

Walden, a game, also follows in this quest for breaking new ground. Lead by Tracy Fullerton, Chair of the Interactive Media & Games Division of the School of Cinematic Arts and Director of the USC Game Innovation Lab, this game simulates the experiences of Henry David Thoreau during his time living on Walden Pond. “I am really interested in pushing the boundaries of what games can be and what they can explore,” says Fullerton. Translating a work of philosophy to a game posed several challenges, she said, particularly because people’s expectations with games are that they are fast and competitive, whereas Walden, a game is reflective and contemplative. Fullerton adds that despite the change of pace these kinds of games have been gaining ground over the past ten years. “They are proving that games can reflect the real world, expressing different ideas and tapping into the potential of games,” she says.

This spirit of innovation was reflected across all the USC games despite their radical differences. Tumball, designed by iMAP PhD Student Sam Gorman, was a finalist game that features a sport that utilizes a tumbleweed, two leafblowers, and an elaborate backstory to create an immersive experience. Jose Sanchez, faculty the USC School of Architecture who is also an associate at SCA’s Game Innovation Lab, created Bloom – The Game, which was also a featured finalist. It features an interactive architectural garden that grows as people create their own free-flowing organic shapes with individual pink pieces.

Rob Manuel, who is on the faculty of the School of Cinematic Arts Interactive Media & Games division, says that innovation is the heart of IndieCade because indie games are at the creative cutting edge of the video game industry. “A lot of things you’ll see will be themes as well as techniques and technology which will spill over to triple A titles and smaller mobile games,” Manuel said. “Indie games are able to take risks, they are able to tell stories that aren’t looking for a large audience but a specific audience. They can try something new without worrying about the bottom line. They are able to focus on smaller audiences, people who might not have a voice in the industry and give them one.”