“Don’t be a fucking pussy,” says Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid and well-known firebrand. The panel he’s on is discussing the risks of the independent games development. It’s been a slow burn until now. “I went and made a game, and I was kinda hungry for four years, but that’s not a real problem. It’s not like you’re going to get bitten by a snake trying to find food tomorrow.”
Welcome to Fantastic Arcade, the new voice of indie gaming.
Headquartered in the famed Alamo Drafthouse theater and its nearby bar The Highball, Fantastic Arcade is the new wing of the insanely popular film festival Fantastic Fest – four days of game demos, industry panels, competitions, and film screenings devoted to the emerging independent game scene.
The spotlight arcade is a time warp: clusters of arcade cabinets proudly sporting track balls, vibrant cabinet art, and big buttons that go clack. Every game is a modern indie title loaded into a vintage machine. The 1980s vibe clashes weirdly with the high-swank Rat Pack decor of The Highball ballroom.
The old school presentation is a bold statement. In a year when consoles seem obsessed with using motion capture and 3D screens to change the way we interface with games, Fantastic Arcade features controls that are aggressively atavistic. It frames a unique, back-to-basics thesis that it isn’t the controller that makes a game fantastic, but the software and how it engages the player.
“Videogames are getting shortchanged as a creative medium, and we wanted to create a place where their creators could be treated as equals to the filmmakers we host,” says Tim League, Fantastic Fest’s director and beer-swilling ringmaster. In the week following our phone interview, he will sing karaoke with Elijah Wood and the RZA, and fight Michelle Rodriguez in a boxing match. “We feel like there’s a natural overlap, and we want to get the wheels turning on a crossover between indie films and indie games.”
The spotlight games are antique-shop eclectic. Heading up the pack is jury award winner Enviro-Bear 2010, the iPhone sensation about a bear driving a car, which boasts charmingly shoddy MS Paint graphics and a control scheme that’s simultaneously hysterical and infuriating. Other games include the robot puzzle adventure Machinarium, co-op heist game Monaco, Swedish redneck side-scroller Norrland, and cuddly physics platformer Feist. The smash multiplayer game of the festival, Nidhogg, is an 8-bit attack-and-defend fencing game where the players have infinite respawns, making it a sort of one-touchdown Super Bowl with swords, death pits, and a giant mutant worm.
Two envelope-pushing titles that could be broadly called socially conscious “art” games provide the best look at the potential of the medium, and reinforce Fantastic Fest’s edgy reputation. The most disturbing of these is Ulitsa Dimitrova, where the player controls a chain-smoking Russian street urchin as he goes about his daily life begging for money, selling glue to street-side huffers, and stealing vodka for his prostitute mother. If the player stops giving orders, the boy lies down and freezes to death. It won “Best Family Game.” Third place jury award winner, Every Day the Same Dream, is in a similar vein. In Every Day, the player controls a faceless, nameless office drone who repeats the same banal work commute over and over – unless the player ignores the game’s instructions and breaks the cycle.
Attendance is all killer and no filler. While the demo room gets foot traffic from Fantastic Fest at large, panel attendees consist almost entirely of industry people, journalists, professors, and garage developers. There isn’t a fanboy in sight, and in four days of events I don’t catch a single word of leet speak. At times, I feel like our small group of insiders is an Illuminati cabal, plotting an industry coup.
Even better, no one tries to sell you shit. Apart from Waypoint’s announcement of an animated series about two buddies who play Halo, dubbed Apartment 117, there’s no attempt to build hype. Hard-sell ads and promos are mercifully absent. The closest thing to booth babes are two conservatively dressed blondes from Time Warner who hand out swag while pausing occasionally to shoot desperate glances at the bar. In the primetime afternoon spot that would usually hold a launch announcement, Fantastic Arcade held an ethics panel.
It’s clear that the panels focus largely on revolutionary games. You don’t book Richard Garriott as keynote speaker unless you want to discuss pioneerism. The original indie developer, Garriott built Ultima from his living room, and is currently running his new gaming company, Portalarium, out of his lake house.
Garriott’s an interesting speaker. Not many videogame tycoons live in a self-designed castle featuring an observatory, secret passages, and a dungeon with real human skeletons, nor have they dropped $30 million to blast into space in a Russian rocket. The man is nuts for space, and brings it up often, which would be insufferable if he wasn’t so fascinating. The topic reaches nosebleed-inducing levels of surreality during a live taping of in-gamespace talk show This Spartan Life, when Garriott soliloquizes about space travel while soaring around Halo: Reach on a jetpack and beating Brutes to death with an oversized golf club.
The liveliest panel is a meet between Jonathan Blow and Timecrimes director Nacho Vigalondo, which instead of inducing the expected temporal Ragnarok from the meeting of two legends of time manipulation, focused on the topic of videogames influencing film. Watching their verbal sparring feels like seeing two Wushu masters face off.
The films are a mixed bag, but thankfully, the Alamo serves food and beer directly to your seat. “Classics” like The Last Starfighter and The Wizard go down all right if you’ve primed the pump with a few pints, but it’s no accident that the excruciating 1980s arcade sex comedy Joysticks was shown at the only Alamo location that serves hard liquor. The documentaries are a better bet overall.
Machinima makes a strong appearance, including the theatrical premiere of Red vs. Blue: Revelation, a showcase of “best of” shorts, and the entries for the 48-Hour Machinima competition. Like most 48-hour film projects, the entries are impressive, but of uneven quality. The pick of the litter is a Mass Effect 2 short featuring a space-suited hero boogieing down a Krogan nightclub owner in a deadly dance competition. Old standards make an appearance, including Leeroy Jenkins – the Stairway to Heaven of viral videogame videos.
Arcade is a 24-hour event. Every day features a happy hour and games tournament. The star attraction is a Left 4 Dead 2 mod, recreating the Alamo Drafthouse and The Highball. After dark, Arcade becomes more animated, fueled by an all-night happy hour and endless $2 pints. Halfway through, everyone’s tired and frequently hung-over. Capitalizing on the fatigue, one of the sponsors, HitFix, hands out white mints in faux prescription bottles to keep everyone sharp. They work, but look suspicious when you share them on the dance floor.
Since it’s Austin, the parties are music-centric. Nerdcore hip-hop legend MC Frontalot plays opening night, apparently broadcasting a signal to every girl in Austin who owns a pair of canvas high-tops and Buddy Holly glasses to report for duty. If you’ve never been to a party with two dozen girls flinging their hair around to a rap song about Magic: The Gathering, your bucket list just got longer. Closing night features a recreation of the game show Starcade, where contestants answer videogame trivia and battle for points in games like King in Balloon and Dig Dug 2. The 6,000-point Lightning Round consists of chugging beer.
It’s the last day of the festival, and I’m sitting with Burnie Burns, noshing custard doughnuts out of one of Austin’s famous Airstream Trailer restaurants. I ask him whether he thinks Arcade has been a success. “It has definite growth potential,” he says. “Austin needs something like this, and I think this one’s caught.”
“We’re not looking to be the next Comic Con,” echoes Tim League. “We’re looking to keep it a very intimate affair for people with intense interest in the subject.” Using that rubric, Fantastic Arcade is a huge success. E3 may have the big releases, but you’ll never get close enough to Richard Garriott to pull his rattail. An individual can make himself heard at Fantastic Arcade, rather than being awash in a crowd of thousands. The potential for attendees to interact with panelists and network with gaming figures is immense.
Fantastic Arcade hasn’t blown up yet, but the fuse is lit.
Robert Rath is a Hawaii-born novelist, playwright, and freelance journalist who operates out of his home base in Austin, Texas. He occasionally blogs about films, television, and other media at robwritespulp.blogspot.com, even though it goes against his ethic of never working for free.