Part 2 of our E3 2013 Coverage: IndieCade is No Longer on the Sidelines

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The majority of the square footage of exhibit space at last week’s E3 went to the big game producers. But a significant crowd was attracted to a small display at one end of the huge South Hall convention floor: IndieCade. Digital Trends says that the indie gaming promoter, founded by Stephanie Barish (a guest on this DnA), has gone from being “a side attraction to a. . . a force of its own.” Brent Gordon is a scientist, a keen gamer and sometime contributor to DnA. He too was drawn to Indiecade, especially a device called the Oculus Rift, and filed this report.

While catering to the familiar, E3 is still known for its innovations, and a “paragon of virtue” in this cause is IndieCade, the Culver City-based festival and organization with a mission dedicated to providing an international stage for the independent game movement.  Their Cause:  supporting values of “creativity, inspiration, and innovation,” facilitating “growth and emerging talent of independent developers,” with a goal to “secure a public perception of games as a rich, diverse, culturally significant contribution to the arts and industry” and in all its formats – PC, mobile devices, the consoles, board games, card games, just… games-games, can be witnessed by fortunate Angelenos  with their festival each autumn in Culver City and an inspiring stroll through GameWalk, NightGames, and other events  scheduled each year.

Oculus Rift

At E3, they featured a showcase of more than 40 titles on multiple platforms including the Oculus Rift – the realized return to field of view consumer-priced virtual-reality head-mounted displays.  No longer clunky, ugly, heavy VR games offered at college fairs and in amusement parks in the 90’s – which weren’t very fun. Mobile devices have pushed the requisite technology to be smarter, lighter and faster, and they begin to deliver a nascent reality of the fantasies of VR that have existed for decades.

IndieCade has showcased games that have become household names for the gaming public, but like other comparable mediums, those persons hungry and unafraid of challenging new experiences seek out “indie” development, and their booth proved a busy and popular one. With the myriad titles and their designers on the show floor — open and accessible to all interested parties, not just major media sites with private appointments in makeshift lounges– IndieCade and its offerings was a far more democratic experience.

IMG_6518IndieCade’s E3 Showcase offered me a taste of the Oculus Rift (OR), a device comprising goggles and headphones to create a virtual reality experience. Game designers create different experiences for the OR. While there I used the OR to experience “If a Tree Screams in the Forest…” by Aaron Rasmussen and Michael T. Astoli.   I also got a chance to speak with Aaron, a founder at Protagonist LLC based here in Los Angeles, where, incidentally, there is a lot of amazing Indie game development happening.

Donning the OR I found myself in a dark and foreboding forest, which I could walk through, but as I did, the creaks and sounds of movement surrounded me and grew closer — prompting me to turn my head. I  looked in the direction of the sound and found nothing outside of a tree branch, which was mysteriously closer than it was before.

Spying nothing else in the environment despite waiting and looking, I turned away to resume my trek. The moment I did, I heard sounds and sensed shadows shifting the lighting around me. I eventually discovered that the trees were moving to attack me. I tried to avoid their attacks by looking away, but the trees only stopped when I looked at them directly.

My experience highlights the unique offerings of IndieCade, which contrasts with the big name producers in a very significant way. IndieCade offered the perspective of everyday creatives, who live unique lives. Their names are relatively small, but they have big ideas and novel visions. I think it is important to reinforce confidence in these smaller-scale creatives and to demonstrate that there is an appetite and audience for many experiences that reach beyond the established mass market franchise.

Arnott’s game is more of a trance-like, immersive audio and visual experience (once in the goggle and headset, you see a swirling vortex of pattern that changes as you “om.”) His goal is for gamers to “redefine one’s sense of their ‘self’ through the use of sound.” 

DnA: So explain what this device is.

Robin: So the device is a consumer VR headset, it’s not available yet [for consumers], but they’ve been getting it out to developers to try to develop really interesting stuff with it. We’ve been developing SoundSelf since before we heard about the Oculus. But when the VR headset was announced, we immediately backed it on kickstarter because it’s such an obviously perfect match for the trance experience we are trying to create.

DnA: Define trance experience.

R: I suppose what I mean by that is transcendental. It’s hypnotic and I don’t mean that metaphorically, it’s an experience where you lose perception of self as something necessarily distinct from non-self while I mean there are all sorts of trance experiences but form we are trying to create is one where you where the line between self and non-self feels blurred.

DnA: Can you define Oculus Rift?

R: So the Oculus Rift is the VR headset we are using here at SoundSelf. And the Leap Motion Controller is another cool piece of hardware that is being used less in gaming and is more for art design. The Leap is for using your hands to control a 3d space, it reads your hand positioning. But the technology is really getting there, and I think in the next decade we are going to see a total upheaval of the way people control games, and some people are going to be using that to transform traditional game experiences into more immersive ones, and some people are going to be using that to invent utterly new experiences, which is what I’m personally more excited about.

DnA: Explain your game.

Robin: So SoundSelf, I’ve been calling it a meditative trance experience. The player wears the VR headset, and they wear headphones and use a microphone,  and you chant, and you go “ahhhhhh,” and the game dances with you. It creates tones that harmonize with you in such a way that it feels like what you’re hearing from the game is coming from your own body. What we’re trying to do is use a synesthetic relationship between that sound and the visualization so that everything that you’re experiencing is of yourself. That’s how we are doing that shattering of self that I’m talking about. It’s really ambitious and it’s a lot of work, but I feel like we’re on a very rich track.

DnA: So that seems a little removed or detached from what people think of as a gaming experience.

Robin: Yeah! It totally is!  We call it a video game and I love the word video game for describing this, because SoundSelf carries a lot of associations with the term.  It’s a self-contained complete interactive experience that you’ll be able to buy and play at home on your computer. But it’s not a complete description of what it is at all because it’s much more, it’s not goal oriented, it’s really a unique experience. But I like that. I kind  of like pushing the boundaries of what a game is, and actually this is a perfect place to be doing that. IndieCade really showcases some really challenging material for what is a game.

 DnA: Yeah, I mean you truly are redefining what a game is. 

Robin: The industry is really embracing this new technology because we’ve been in love with VR since the 80’s it just hasn’t worked until now, and now it works, and now that it works, it’s not just the mainstream industry that’s taking over, it’s the independent side of the industry with really new avant garde ideas of what a game can be, and how we can use this technology to create innovative, exciting interesting experiences, like SoundSelf.

DnA: This is endlessly fascinating. Is this the only title you’ve developed?

Robin: So my previous game before SoundSelf was a game called Deep Sea, where the player had to wear a gas mask and it monitored their breathing, and it set them in an underwater environment, and as you breathed out, you’d hear bubbles (bubble noise), and as you breathed in (breathing noise), you’d hear a regulator. And the gameplay was you have to listen for monsters and stereo and shoot them down. So it was more “gamey” than SoundSelf is. But what made that game interesting is the connection with breath, and it wound up being really terrifyin. People got incredibly scared. Somebody fainted while playing it, but he didn’t faint because it was terrifying, he fainted because he was suffocating, because our gameplay encouraged you not to breathe. So that’s what I made before this, I consider it [SoundSelf] kind of a sequel to that game, because it is using a lot of the research we used to make that game– in terms of the game’s relationship with the player’s body and with breath. SoundSelf is taking this research in a totally different direction, and instead of terrifying players, we are trying to induce a sense of euphoria.

 DnA: It seems as though the technology in console games is towards this kinetic sort of  movement, so this [SoundSelf] is taking that to a whole another level.

Robin:  There seems to be a trend towards biometrics. I don’t think any of the big consoles have announced heartbeat monitors on the controller, but that’s kind of what it would take to have that kind of biometric feedback in a console game. So yeah, things are really moving towards biometrics towards sucking people into the game environment, and the most visible way that’s happening, is this section of E3 where you know oh look, it’s bigger, it’s more realistic.

DnA: What does biometrics mean?

Robin: Biometrics are a metric of biological things that are happening with the player. So a heartbeat monitor that takes the player’s heartbeat and feeds it into the gameplay is a kind of biometric. What we were doing with deep sea was breathing, and that’s kind of on the boundary. I don’t know if that’s really biometrics but it served a similar function. It was really bringing the player’s body into the game. Other ways of doing this are neurotransmitters and people have been experimenting with things where you wear a headset and you wear all of these, I think they’re like electrodes, on your skull and you use that to play the game. And the gameplay is usually limited to calm down to make a leaf go up, or breathe heavily and make your heart go up and do this. So I think the game play in these things is pretty simple so far.

DnA: So you’re saying that the devices you wear measure body and then react to it?

Robin: Yeah, we are really seeing a trend towards getting the whole player’s body into the game. And I see this manifesting in kind of 1 of 2 ways. There’s firstly, using player biometric data and immersive technology like the Oculus Rift, like we’re using here,  to take a traditional gaming experience, something like 1st person shooter and making that more realistic or making that more intense. And that’s great, I think that’s really cool. I don’t really play shooters, but when I first played shooters on the Oculus Rift I was like oh I might start playing shooters again. And the other side of that is, how can we build games out of the Oculus Rift? Instead of adapting previous gaming styles to it, how can we create new, exciting things that use these technologies in new and exciting ways?