IndieCade East's “Strange Arcade” lives up to its name

IndieCade East was held this weekend at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. There were panels and exhibitions targeted at indie game developers but, for people who just want to play games, the third floor of the museum was been transformed into a “Strange Arcade” where a bizarre menagerie of interactive installations awaited. Many of these were designed around unique controllers that are intended to provide genre-defying experiences, like virtual dog butt sniffing, a Sleep Paralysis simulator, and a vagina-shaped control pad with a reset button exactly where you’d expect.

There were forty oddball games scattered around the Strange Arcade, and many more playable game demos elsewhere in the museum. Some were in innocuous little displays with standard console gamepads, but several stood out from the crowd. Butt Sniffin Pugs by SpaceBeagles is one such game. This two-player game uses giant tennis-balls as spherical controllers, however there are also plush dogs built into the cabinet. Or at least, half of the plush dogs.

The onscreen pugs run around a park, and each has several abilities like “Bark”, “Bite”, and “Pee”. Players can only equip two of these abilities at once. If they want to change powers, they must approach the other dog and “Sniff”. Players do this by squeezing the hindquarters of the stuffed dogs built into the cabinet.

Butt Sniffin Pugs review 001

On the far side of the arcade was a VR display called Anamorphic Agency. This was designed by Julie Huynh to simulate the effects of a condition known as “Sleep Paralysis” where people are trapped in lucid nightmares. Foolhardy people at IndieCade could volunteer to be strapped into an inflatable sleeping bag that held them tight, while a VR helmet and brain wave monitor were placed on them. The VR recreates the experience of lying helpless in bed while demonic monsters appear on the ceiling above. The sleeping bag tightens around the poor victim during the experience, holding them fast.

A more conventional game experience was VEC9 by Todd Bailey, Andy Reitano, and Michael Dooley. In the old days of coin op arcade games, “Vector Graphics” were a way to effectively simulate 3D objects on the primitive technology of the time. It fell out of fashion eventually, but there were many excellent vector games, including a legendary Star Wars game back in 1983. VEC9 puts players in the cockpit of a Soviet plane on a mission to destroy capitalism (The irony of the coin slot for extra lives is not lost). It captures not only the look of those old games, but also the needlessly complicated controls seen in the cabinets. There is an abundance of flashing switches and buttons, and an authentic gunner control stick from an M1 tank with six buttons to confuse players.

vec9 review

Hotaru is an experimental game by Kaho Abe that focuses on using costumes as an interface. Players take on the roles of two lightning bugs who have to collaborate to fight enemies. One player wears a backpack and gloves that are used to generate (imaginary in-game) electricity. The other player has a gauntlet which uses the electricity to attack enemies. Real LEDs are built into the costumes, and they light up to indicate when the power pack is charged, and the gauntlet is ready to fire, or when enemies are attacking.

There are motion sensors built into both costumes, and the controls are entirely motion sensitive. The person generating power claps their hands together, and their backpack slowly fills up with light. They can then transfer this power to the other player by holding hands. The gauntlet then fills up, and players “Fire” an energy blast by pointing their arm up. There are no graphics or interface beyond the lights on the costumes themselves, so this game rewards imagination and roleplay.

Dreams by Corazon Del Sol is a piece of conceptual art that defies conventional game genres and language. In it, a three-legged avatar walks around a level that is filled with objects which represent famous exhibits from the history of modern art. Players guide this awkward creature around the level and can deconstruct art quite liberally by lumbering over the in-game art exhibits. It plays much like a physics sandbox, but is riddled with insider references to art history.

dreams review corazon del sol

One of the most entertaining aspects of Dreams is the plush, vagina-shaped controller. Players who probe the anus of this controller will find a reset button to start the game, and thereafter they can control the onscreen avatar by pushing left or right on the labia. A joystick is hidden deep inside, right where the clitoris would be, and players can use this move forwards and backwards.

Hello, Operator! by Mike Lazer-Walker takes the excessively elaborate controller to new heights. The game allows players to experience what it might be like to be a telephone operator in the 1920s, back when calls had to be manually connected by the operators. The game is built into an antique switchboard, and players use dozens of working switches and cables to connect phone calls from NPC characters. Challenge comes from managing the physical interface, but there is also a form of storytelling based around eavesdropping in on the conversations.

hello operator game

Line Wobbler by Robin Baumgarten was literally the flashiest game at the Strange Arcade. It consists of a long string of super bright LEDs. It’s a one-dimensional game where the entire playing field is a series of points in a row. The LEDs can change color to simulate movement, and players have to guide a point of light from one end of the line to the other.

It is controlled by a springy doorstop, which functions like a joystick. It lets players move their dot forwards and backwards, or players can flick it to make it wobble – it’s a spring after all. This bouncy wobble command is used to attack nearby dots moving up and down the line.

Line Wobbler review

There are several levels to the game, and it is astonishing how the designer managed to create so many different game modes for this simple premise, while also indicating the rules of the game without text, images, or sound.

If you couldn’t make it out to IndieCade East but still want to check out this weirdness don’t worry. Many of these Strange Arcade games will be on display at other events in the near future.

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