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Indie gamers take videogames to new levels: The joy is back in “joystick”

The joy is back in “joystick”

Kokoromi collective get their game on
Photo: Joseph Yarmush

Underground collective takes videogaming for a new spin at Arcadia

All the big guns in the gaming industry will be in Montreal showing off their stuff this week for Arcadia – the three-day non-stop videogame fest known for being a hardcore gamer’s wet dream.

While many of the commercial games at Arcadia will cater to the couch-bound dude with teenage fantasies, a small collective of indie art-gamers here in Montreal, known as Kokoromi, or "experiment" in Japanese, are intent on taking gaming to a whole new level.

The group, comprised of Heather Kelley, Phil Fish and Damien DiFede are hosting Arcadia’s big kick-off, called GAMMA01: Audio Feed, an event that has far more to do with mingling and warm fuzzies than it does with fast cars and shoot-’em-ups.

"We wanted to make an event that shows how gaming can be as expressive as any other medium," says Kelley, a game designer with A2M in Montreal. Much of Kelley’s career has been about challenging traditional macho values in gaming. Fish and DiFede met while working on the second version of Kelley’s prototype for a design challenge around sex and games. The game, Lapis, a simple interactive "bunny masturbating" game (an analogy for female orgasm) took the top prize at last year’s Montreal International Games Summit.

"Strangely enough, there’s no indie cinema or indie rock equivalent in gaming. Sometimes it’s as if every single movie was Rambo and every single band was Britney Spears. It’s a shame, because to me video gaming is the greatest medium ever conceived," says Fish, a self-described gamer since birth.

With GAMMA01, Kokoromi’s first event, expect a gaming event unlike any other – a unique experiment in gaming as a social event. "There will be a stage with live DJs and bands, including Jan Pienkowski, Taxi Nouveau and DJ Guapo. The games will be displayed all evening long on six giant PCs which are in turn projected onto giant screens at the SAT," says Fish. Designers were invited to participate on an open-call basis. All the games curated for the event use live audio input to generate some element of interactive game content, whether it’s enemies, environments, power-ups, weapons, Al, etc.

Everyone from hardcore gamers to the uninitiated is invited to take up joysticks at each of the PCs for short five-minute game stints. I Have Big Balls, submitted from a Toronto gamer Shawn McGrath, and Kokoromi’s own submission, Glee, are simple 2-D games. In Glee, players must avoid enemies and safely whisk defenceless pulsars to "home nests."

"We intentionally wanted a game where there are no points for killing or shooting. The pulsars have facial expressions, which convey their emotional states and reactions in relation to the enemy and to you, their hero," says Kelley. Since all the games are required to use a live audio input from the show, you’ll see the influence of the music played live that night on the individual games. In Glee, for example, the baby pulsars materialize in number and size in relation to the beat of the music.

Curating such an indie gaming event hasn’t come without its setbacks. "It takes a lot of technical know-how to make even simple games," says Kelley. "So it was hard to find teams willing to submit games."

While other mediums, like video, have undergone democratization – in no small part due to the Internet and the digital revolution – video games are still extraordinarily complicated to make and distribute. There is no standard operating system in gaming, cross-platform issues cause playback problems and there’s no universal language for game designers.

"There’s the prevailing thought in this industry that if you pitch a game that isn’t about fast cars and well-endowed women to publishers, it just won’t sell," says Fish.

The Kokoromi crew hope that with GAMMA01, and future events, they can up the profile of experimental games within the industry – and push for more experimental approaches to making and playing games.

GAMMA01: Audio Feed
At SAT, Nov. 9
Open to the pubic after 9 p.m., $8

Arcadia Festival
Nov. 10-12
www.festivalarcadia.com

Kokoromi
www.kokoromi.org

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