You know Babycastles is on the true cutting edge of avant-garde because it is located in Bumfuck, Nowhere. Not Bumfuck, New York. It's Bumfuck, Nowhere even by Midwestern standards. Potentially even more Bumfuck, Nowhere than a random spot in a cornfield in Ohio because corn implies that someone runs over that spot with a harvester once a season. To get there, I had to get on the L, off the L, onto a shuttle, and back onto the L. And then I hit the end of the line and had to walk thirty minutes. That's how far away it was. (I'm not sure that even technically counts as Queens anymore. Or NYC proper, for that matter.) I walked past the place three times before finally finding it, because the spot where Google Maps said it would be was a shitty dive bar with its sign in Spanish next to a row of derelict houses and a falling-apart warehouse.
Turns out it wasn't in the bar. Nor was it in the warehouse. Surprise! It was a random door cut into the drywall of one of the derelict houses. No sign, no windows, no lights--the splintery plywood door nearly fell off the hinge when I pulled it open. I was worried I'd gotten the address wrong and wandered into a drug cartel hideout or something, the kind of place where they tie up intruders and hit them with chair legs under the light of a single swinging bulb.
And yet. You open that door, and...sound. Light. It's something out of H.G. Wells, a portal to an entirely different slice of cake.
You ever been to one of those DIY anarchist collective houses? Those run-down residential apartments in the middle of nowhere that have been converted into art spaces, with graffiti deliberately scrawled from floor to ceiling and lofts and wall dividers erected in weird places out of plywood and homemade lamps and found art sculptures hanging everywhere? The kind of clubhousey, everything-is-homemade place where the only way to reach the second floor is a rope ladder, and the basement is accessible through a trapdoor next to the bathroom? The Silent Barn is one of those places. It looks like it was built by the kind of people who detest the conformity of carpentry, people who serve random partygoers jello shots and fresh baked semolina bread from the kitchen upstairs and don't mind having to climb through an indoor window to get to the living room.
Those people usually don't have laptops. This venue had a MacBook inside a cash register made out of cardboard. Which was painted to look like a cash register. Which actually functioned as a cash register.
Not to mention a whole row of TVs in the back fitted inside gutted arcade cabinets. Which were being used to play demos of batshit crazy art games. Which made them, functionally, actual arcade cabinets.
Double-reflexive irony. It's the best kind of irony not because it's the best kind of irony, but because it's the best kind of irony.
Anyway, that wasn't really all that shocking. What really hit me in the face like a left hook to the groin was being greeted by a female version of me. Mind you, I was attending this thing in a grey hoodie, khakis, and an 8-Bit Weapon t-shirt. I am the game industry equivalent of a hedge wizard (in fact, that's how I introduce myself) and I intend to look the part. When I go to industry events, I stand out. Other people are dressed primarily in business casual; I make no pretense of professionalism. I am the guy who looks so unpretentious that you never forget who he is.
This girl was dressed in a black hoodie, a Kill Screen t-shirt, and jeans. I would have chalked it up to fate if there were not half a dozen people chatting in the hallway also wearing hoodies and chiptune or gamer culture shirts, as if they had all simultaneously decided to sport the unemployed game industry starving-artist aesthetic. More alarmingly, they were standing around drinking cocktails out of plastic cups, talking about Ian Bogost and obscure PC-DOS titles and human-machine interaction, and a bunch of them were demoing games on their iPhones. Four of them were crowded around a homebrew Xbox game on display, mounted into one of the aforementioned dismantled arcade cabinets, in front of which they were wrestling. (In real life--not in-game.) It was as if I had walked into the headquarters of a cult for which I had already been unwittingly initiated as a member. A cult of people like me.
It's jarring enough to realize that no, you are not alone. It's even more jarring to discover that you are legion.
Gamers? No. I met lots of gamers at PAX East--the biggest such gathering in the United States, or so I hear. Gamers are cool. Gamers are a large, diverse category to which I belong. What I'm talking about is about fifty or sixty intellectual, well-read, well-played, cross-disciplinary, unemployed homebrew art-game programmers, musicians, artists, and social sciences researchers at the fringe of the New York hipster scene who have been locked out of the industry due to the recession and are not letting that get in the way of making games just for the hell of it.
No, I didn't realize there was more than one, either.
I wanted to hug everyone. I was home.
Granted, this oddly familiar demographic was skewed hugely by the presence of Babycastles' guests, the Copenhagen Game Collective. (Yes, you read that right. It's a collective. Of game design graduate students. From Copenhagen. American engineering students get roaring drunk on weekends and go to strip clubs; the Danes get roaring drunk on weekends and make video games.) The CGC is what you'd have if you took hundreds of me in college and had them live together. They're part of the thriving European indie game development scene that created the homebrew tools I work with, as well as the small-budget concept games that have inspired me to make my own--so it's really no surprise that they also listen to the same music, wear the same clothes, read the same media theory, and have the same goofy yeee-ha! approach to rapid prototyping.
Those guys wrestling in front of the Xbox? That was an actual gameplay mechanic. An emergent one, but not entirely unanticipated. In just one drunken weekend the Copenhagen guys had put together B.U.T.T.O.N. (Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now), a game that, ludically, seems like the most boring game imaginable: You drop your controllers, take a random number of steps backward, wait for a countdown to tick to zero...first person to press their X button 15 times wins. Or first person to press their X button 15 times loses. Or first person to let go of the X button loses. You have to read the text before you make your move, or you'll screw yourself over.
The great thing about this game? If people played games the way systems-focused designers are trained to think about games, it would be the worst game ever. People would politely walk up to their controllers, press their buttons, and stare at each other dumbfoundedly waiting for the game to end. The gameplay mechanics, from a design document standpoint, are impractical, poorly defined, and underwhelmingly simple. It is a multiplayer game in which competitive play is impossible. You'd never be able to organize a tournament around this game, let alone a ladder. Online play would be mind-numbingly dull, and trivially easy to cheat at, even if it weren't so impractical to implement. Everything about this game screams BORING. SIMPLISTIC. BAD DESIGN. NO SALE.
But that's not how people actually play games. And--the designers themselves marvel at this--no one ever politely struts forward to their controller and presses their button. No. The moment that countdown hits zero there is utter chaos. Everyone immediately loses interest in what's happening on the screen, because what's happening on the ground in front of it suddenly becomes vastly more entertaining. Controllers go flying. Bodies pile up on top of each other and limbs fly every which way. People end up on top of each other. There are fucking piledrivers. It is absolute bedlam. The happy cartoon graphics and nursery rhyme soundtrack are drowned out in a cacophony of obscenities and a cascade of spraying spittle. The CGC have to put cushions all around to prevent people from hurting themselves or falling onto the Xbox.
And the great thing is? B.U.T.T.O.N. never actually tells players that real-life violence is part of the game. It just happens. It always happens, always has, with every demographic the CGC has demonstrated with--friends, strangers, gamers, developers, men, women, themselves. It ties into that same visceral, physical understanding of play as that ancient game of trying to catch a greased chicken in a mud pit. And--this is, they've noted, unlike anything else in human nature--it's always good-natured. None of the verbal abuse or furious smack talk that you get from a typical Halo or CoD match. People are laughing as they take elbows to the face. They put themselves at a disadvantage and help someone out, not even bothering to stop the game, if they think they've injured someone. Better yet, no one ever plays fair--the whole point of the game is to cheat. Button-pushing hands are restrained, controllers are unplugged from the console and frantically replugged, spectators dive in and press random players' buttons. No one ever cares who wins (and, indeed, occasionally they end in four-way ties). It's all about the absurdity of seeing four ordinary, civilized strangers lunge towards a table and fall to the ground in a messy tangle of giggling silliness. And they'll do it again and again, making new rules each time: Just one controller! Teams of two! While dancing to the performance of our musical guest, Knife City! While wearing silly, Majora-like paper masks, so no one can tell who just won! Loser takes a shot of Danish aquavit! Non-losers take a shot of aquavit anyway!
This is what they mean when they talk about emergent gameplay, my friends. Designers Doug and Lau even wrote a paper on it.
I asked Lau whether it really counted as a video game (one could play B.U.T.T.O.N. without the Xbox at all, as long as you had four objects and a human referee). He shrugged and said, "Who cares?"
To paraphrase Doug: "Certainly, we wanted to make a point about the current trend of focusing more on what happens outside the screen than inside it. But we also just really wanted an excuse to get drunk and hit each other."
Bear in mind that this same group was also demoing a rich, deep, complex wizard-themed fighting game (with hacked Wiimotes) and a gorgeous point-and-click adventure, and gave a serious academic talk about the nature of their work. But B.U.T.T.O.N. was the clear crowd favorite. (The original point of B.U.T.T.O.N. was to explore the potential of a game with a system that was intentionally broken, in opposition to current game design ideology and in the spirit of Mattel designer Bernie DeKoven's book The Well-Played Game. Then the thing took a life of its own.)
Then again, that same group also demoed card game--a card game played on an actual physical table, not a card game played in simulation--called Fuck You, It's Art. Actual game concepts participants had come up with were summarized on note cards, which were assembled into a deck and passed out to players in hands of five. I suspect most of the game's rules were made up as the game went along (or perhaps the game was just deliberately excessively complex, or perhaps I'd had a little too much of the aquavit myself by that point to follow along), but the core mechanic was always the same: Each round, a player would slam down a card on the table and shout either "It's art," "It's not art," or "Fuck you, it's art!" If even one opponent disagreed, all players had to drink. No one ever wins a round of Fuck You, It's Art.
There is nothing more amusing than game designers who adamantly refuse to take themselves seriously.
But that's Copenhagen. That's the endpoint of the kind of community Babycastles wishes to foster, the kind of environment where a bunch of random game design and media theory grad students with serious aspirations of getting into the game industry can get together and just put together a game. Not necessarily for art, for recognition, or for expanding future career options (though the community will nurture those more serious intentions earnestly if they so desire), but for the sheer sake of bringing joy into people's lives.
One of the talks tonight was by an NYU professor whose research interests included haptic feedback and the psychology of play, and I think it was she who lamented that video and computer gaming has grown so complex that designers, in their pursuit of "fun" (whatever that means), sometimes forget that--that the whole point of gaming, not just video games but games in general, is to play, to enjoy oneself and bond with other people. The game is a concept understood by all cultures, by all peoples; it satisfies an impulse understood by any seven-year-old who's ever gotten in a nose-poking match with her six-year-old brother, or enjoyed hide-and-seek with a puppy. The art-game scene in Europe, even as the gaming press hails them as champions of the avant-garde, rarely loses sight of its own frivolity. (Compare with elusive hippie coder-guru Jason Rohrer's Passage, that iconic, controversial, influential work of American avant-garde game art that deliberately betrays its own purpose as a game. Jason Rohrer, incidentally, lives upstate. In a field.)
And New York? New York doesn't have to be Copenhagen. The scene here is embryonic, it is too young to have pretensions. It's still finding itself. Frank Lantz, one of the founders of area/code inc. (which you may be familiar with if you've ever played the ChainFactor ARG or Drop7 for iPhone), gave a differently-toned talk about his own early experiments fusing the game development process with Deleuze's rhizomal hierarchies (!) and how New York's obsession with novelty and identity as a cultural nexus makes us ripe, in a way the influence of the mainstream industry in Seattle and L.A. inadvertently tends to stifle, for banding cross-disciplinary groups together into creative communities, not just game developers but we and our networks of traditional-art and lit and theater and music friends, who are willing not only to take chances, but to redefine the medium in ways no one else would ever dream of. Ironically, by working against the norms of the industry we can deliver exactly what they need--which is someone to try out ideas they wouldn't touch with a 10240-pixel pole.
The one upside to having so many young, talented designers, programmers, artists, and musicians unemployed is that if they love what they do, but cannot find work, they will do it on their own. And when such things are born out of love...well, that's what art is.
Fuck you, it's art. (Slams card on table.) Anyone? Awwww, shit. (Takes a shot of aquavit.)
These are a sampling of people I met at Babycastles, as much for my own reference as yours:
- Spills. Chip musician, one of old Oberlin classmate Eric Barker's contemporaries. Speaks with great passion about the joy of composing, and is interested in doing music for future homebrew projects.
- Felecia Cruz. Spills's booker, bandmate, and ticket-taker for tonight's Copenhagen event. Dresses like me.
- Sammi, cute bartender girl with a keen understanding of the relationship between the various New York avant-garde art scenes. Taught me the glory that is Tecate and aquavit, without which I'd likely be far more coherent right now.
- Mark DeNardo, musician.
- Nien Lam and Scott Wayne Indiana. Masters in Art students; had a conversation about MakerBot/RepRap open source 3D printing devices, and the technological path to true von Neumann replicators. I forget, but I think it was one of them who modified an iPhone to function as a wireless game controller.
- Adorable British couple (never got their names, but got their emails). Figuring out what to do with B.A.s in English. Overheard me talking about Barthes, Baudrillard, Deleuze, and the other semioticians to Arthur and were fascinated; I shared some of my thoughts with them. Funny how what would be pretentious hipster mock-condescension in American English sounds witty and charming in British English. Quote: "Suicide bombing is so cliché. Everyone knows the New Terrorism is detonating empty cardboard boxes." Should get them in touch with virtualstar in case they all end up in Ireland someday, so that they can all have a jolly good time discussing media theory in Dublin or something.
- Lau and Doug. Copenhagen Game Collective. Asked Lau how he managed to circumvent the poor sensitivity of the Wiimote to produce such precise movement in his Wiimote wizard dueling game (answer: fudge it with the accelerometer). These guys make me wish I lived with other game developers.
- J.D. Cohen and Laura. Journalist and photographer, respectively, for a bunch of gaming sites. Got almost as excited as I did talking about Nick Montefort's groundbreaking text adventure history Twisty Little Passages. Fascinated by homebrew scene, as I guess it's something that as a game journalist you'd only be exposed to through an event like this.
- Luke Silas, aka Knife City. One fourth of legendary chip band Anamanaguchi (who perform at every convention ever and did the soundtrack for the Scott Pilgrim video game), and a really chill guy. Extremely humble, even immediately after having performed one of the most bitchin' chip percussion sets I've ever heard. Lamented with me the sorry state of public transportation between Queens and the rest of the world. Was, flatteringly, as interested in my work as I was in his.
- Zen Albatross and Rachel. Notable chip musician, photojournalist. Mysterious. Omnipresent.
- Arthur Ward. PROGRAMMER. (Yes! Another coder! Why are we so rare out here?) Staff member at Babycastles. Also unemployed, also has big dreams, also has read and played and made a ton, in addition to overcommitting himself with volunteer work at Babycastles. Taught a game design course for high school students, in which he stressed time management and pipelining (two things you can't learn from a CS degree, much less a programming book). Talking with him about doing a talk-radio-style podcast about the game industry. Also talking about a possible game education lab like the one Newgrounds founder Tom Fulp is setting up in Pennsylvania, in which high school and college kids get to hang out, learn, and make games with Flash, ColdFusion, and all sorts of other expensive tools they might not be able to afford on their own.
- Sayed and Kunal, founders of Babycastles. Graduates of some media theory or game design program at NYU; were encouraged by their professors to build a home for this scene so it can exist. They recently won Kickstarter funding for a three-month exhibition and indie arcade near Grand Central, and are laboring to set that up. Discussed the inherent technical difficulties in trying to present mobile games--especially DS games, with their unusual double-screen layout--to a large crowd. Admit their website sucks. Talked at great lengths with them about the beginnings of the scene and where it's going. We're all very excited.
This scene is so young. It is so young. For real. You know how young it is? I showed a bunch of Babycastles staff my most recent demonstration build of Lasers! Pew! Pew!, and two of them independently came to the conclusion that I should curate one of their exhibits on homebrew mobile development. Guys, I am a bit player in the DS homebrew scene. I don't think I even qualify as a dark horse. Under normal circumstances it would be absurd that I be asked to represent the DS homebrew scene as an expert in any capacity. But there are so few of us in New York City--for all I know I'm the only one--that I'm all they've got so far.
But there is a scene. It is the scene I have been looking for ever since I moved here--nay, ever since I returned to America. And, at long last, I have finally found it.
Let's make the living shit out of some games.