IndieCade: A Car Crash of Math and Feelings

This last weekend I was at IndieCade, a festival for independent video games held in Los Angeles (conveniently enough for me). I was specifically on the lookout for games that had an interesting approach toward music and sound, and I was not disappointed. I was also glad to find many people looking for deeper connections between music and games. On Saturday, during a talk about non-game inspirations, Naomi Clark described music as a “car crash of math and feelings.” I have a hard time coming up with a better description for music, games, or my experience at IndieCade this year.

The festival gives out awards to various games every year, and this year they also invited composers and musicians from several of the nominated games to perform. One highlight for me was the Czech duo DVA, which wrote the soundtrack to the lovely Botanicula and performed at the closing reception. It’s tough to know what to expect from a live show when a band is heavily electronic in nature, but DVA’s set was a delightful blend of beats and textures with warm and inviting acoustic sounds like clarinet, saxophone, guitar, and enthusiastic vocals. In “Russian Electro Song,” they even created an instantly infectious rhythm out of rubbing and tapping on two contact mics.

At the opening reception, I was excited to perform alongside two other soundtrack composers, David Leon (Contre Jour) and Casey Merhige (A Closed World). What was nice about this is the diversity in approach to live performance. Casey played a really fun chiptune-inflected DJ set while David played more intimate, atmospheric solo piano music. In performing music from Analogue: A Hate Story, I may have gone a little bit overboard in clinging to my chamber music roots, assembling a mini-orchestra of sorts consisting of Chris Votek (cello), John Graves (bass), Corey Fogel (drums), Hiza Yoo (kayageum), and myself on keyboards.

At Saturday’s Night Games, there were also a few featured acts that blurred the distinction between a game and a performance. Fernando Ramallo’s beautifully executed Panoramical allowed users to explore the audiovisual parameters of a projected landscape via a Korg NanoKontrol’s knobs and sliders. This was followed by Cosmic DJ, which had a few moving parts—a live DJ with a laptop running an Ableton Live session, and an iPad with a step sequencer that audience members could play with. This interface also displayed hilariously silly visuals that were simultaneously projected on the big screen. It appears that this will eventually be turned into an iOS app of some kind, but what was great about this performance is that it wasn’t an app, so you could engage with it on multiple levels. While the live DJ could control the performance to an extent (and hype up the crowd by yelling inspirational phrases like “feel the cosmic love!”), as an audience member you also had some agency. You could choose to have a creative role or spectator role by waiting in line to play with the app or simply enjoying the performance. (After this, I hear that Disasterpeace and Rekcahdam played a really raucous set, which I unfortunately missed.)

Of course, many of the games themselves had plenty to offer musically. Dyad, the winner of this year’s Audio award, was also a crowd favorite, and it’s not hard to see why. The experience of playing Dyad is hard to describe concretely, but it superficially resembles flying through a tunnel at extremely high speeds. (Hey, does anyone else remember S.T.U.N. Runner?) What makes it special is its attention to synesthetic detail—everything that happens in the game is accompanied by a simultaneous change in both visuals and music. The overall effect is mesmerizing, and completely dependent on the sound design. It simply would not work without the audio.

Other games were more subtly innovative—Beat Sneak Bandit, a rhythm game in which the player infiltrates a mad scientist’s lair, presents a clever take on a well-worn genre. Each obstacle in a level is on its own timer of sorts, requiring the player to integrate their movements into increasingly complex rhythmic patterns as the game progresses. Sonically, the closest comparison I can think of for the resulting panoply of music and sound effects is this work song from the University of Ghana post office.

Some games stood out in the audio department despite not being specifically sound-focused. In Gorogoa, a visually stunning game with an intriguing comic book-inspired mechanic, players progress by manipulating the arrangement of panels in a 2×2 grid. As new panels introduce new parts of the game world, the ambient sounds subtly change to reflect this. Especially when several panels are in play, the effect is impressively seamless.

On Saturday, the sound panel featured developers of three other audio-centric games: Aaron Rasmussen (Blindside), Richard Hoagland (Open Source), and Robert Lach (POP: Methodology Experiment One). POP boasts a novel process of creation, with a series of mini-games designed to accompany musical tracks, rather than the other way around. Open Source is a kind of live-action audio Pong, where players must discern the location of the ball from audio cues, and move accordingly. Similarly, Blindside is an “escape from zombies” game with no graphics at all, where players must rely purely on sound to survive. (Apparently Blindside originally included up to 40 simultaneous channels of audio, which they had to scale back to 14 due to iOS hardware limitations.)

Berklee professor Michael Sweet, the moderator of the sound panel, mentioned the John Cage and Stravinsky centennials in his introduction, and challenged the panel members to answer the question, “What would John Cage be doing if he were alive today?” Despite the slight absurdity of the question, it brings out some interesting parallels. Independent/experimental video games are in a position of similar social relevance to experimental music in the early-to-middle 20th century, the era when a ballet could start a riot and an avant-garde composer could appear on network television. Like the cries of “that’s not music!” leveled against Cage and friends back in the day, these days you hear a lot of “that’s not a game!”—particularly when a game has a political narrative that is outside the norm.

What’s heartening is that, at least at IndieCade, there seems to be interaction between the experimental and the mainstream, and while there is tension at times, there is also a great deal of mutual inspiration and respect. I may be reaching a bit here, but I thought I detected a deliberately contrarian bent in the awards given out—giving the technology award to a book, or the story award to a wordless game, or the impact award to a student game confined to a single campus. I hope that this trend continues, and that we won’t see an increasingly artificial divide between the experimental and the mainstream, like music in the late 20th century.

I also heard consistently from others that, in comparison to other game conferences, IndieCade is remarkably queer-friendly and diverse in terms of gender and race. I certainly found it to be more welcoming, in a general sense, than any music conference I’ve been to, and I can’t help but think that the two are related. Mattie Brice (@xMattieBrice), Patricia Hernandez (@patriciaxh), Anna Anthropy (@auntiepixelante), Daphny (@daphaknee), Kris Ligman (@KrisLigman), and Christine Love (@christinelove) have all discussed this in the context of the games community, and it’s led me to question many of my assumptions about the role of politics in art. It’s made me increasingly frustrated with new music’s often calculated distance with anything remotely politically relevant, except in the context of the occasional craven marketing push. We all know that composers are still overwhelmingly white and male, yet despite the odd “lol dead white guys” joke, the issue is still rarely discussed with much depth or nuance outside of the (somewhat marginalized) “new musicology” movement. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

It’s possible that I’m conflating a few things here, but I can’t help but think that inclusiveness, collaboration, and creativity are intrinsically linked, and that the true hallmark of a healthy, functional art scene is somewhere in the combination of all three. I don’t think we have this in the new music world right now, and I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to get there.

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