While I certainly participate in the gaming world, I’ll be upfront: I am a self-described “casual gamer”. I have a long relationship with games, but I don’t quite keep up with gaming news beyond what my colleges here at AiPT tell me about (Editor’s note: We call him a noob!).
Plus, living in Chicago means that I miss out on the big conventions happening elsewhere in the country. Consequently, Bit Bash is not something I would necessarily seek out on my own. When I initially saw advertisements for the festival, however, my interest couldn’t help but be piqued. Saturday, August 12th marked the fourth year of Bit Bash, a Chicago indie gaming festival. For an event whose goal was “to make the genre unintimidating and approachable”, I think they succeed. The fest was a ton of fun, even for someone who casually games like me.
It was in fact that classification of “indie” game event that caught my eye initially. While I’m relatively new to gaming conventions, having been to many of the comic book variety, I knew that the cool stuff is usually off the beaten track, away from the San Diegos and PAXs (PAXi?), and more often at events such as this. Add to that, Bit Bash’s pitch for this event:
“This year, Bit Bash is focused on bringing back the nostalgia and whimsy of summer camp juxtaposed with unexpected, engaging, and impactful game experiences. […]
The festival features a number of local multiplayer games designed to encourage camaraderie and social interaction as well as several others that explore relationships with nature, bringing the outside world into the digital space.”
I was hooked. As someone easily intimidated by the pomp and ceremony surrounding high profile releases of Triple A games, already I was put at ease by this calmer, quieter pitch.
Then, in the week leading up to the event, I was directed to a short quiz that was developed through a partnership with Adler Planetarium and After School Matters which helped me select which type of “camper” I was. After choosing what camp activities I prefer, I was informed that I was drafted onto Team Eagle. Based on this categorization, I was provided five games that might appeal to me, so I ought to check out. It was a short, simple little quiz, but I was really impressed by the gesture it represented. Already, Bit Bash was anticipating the overload of stimuli their event would cause and made a fun, theme-consistent attempt at putting its attendees at ease. It was a good first impression.
Unfortunately, its location made for a difficult second impression. It’s an unavoidable reality that the only spaces that are big enough to house hundreds of people at a time are almost always in parts of a city that are tough for hundreds of people to get to. Chicago is no exception, so Bit Bash’s choice of location was understandable. It was, however, somewhat difficult to navigate to. Located in the Fullton Market neighborhood, west of the loop, the Revel Fulton Market event space is actually one of the best choices of slim pickings. The space is upscale, attractive, and had an appropriate amount of square footage for the event. The downside is that it’s in a pretty industrial part of the city. While it’s decently accessible by train and car, a transit trip requires some walking through active shipping routes and parking in the area is a roll of the dice whether on how close you can get to the venue. While nothing about getting there is the organizers’ fault, nor did it seem like much of a deterrent for those who went, I do worry that it’s a barrier to less-dedicated participants; people who would otherwise be interested, but “don’t want to go through the hassle of getting there.” While I’m sure there weren’t too many missed sales this year, it may impede on future growth of the event.
Thankfully, I had my car and I was lucky enough to get a close spot. With that obstacle easily handled, I made my way to the festival, excited to play some games.
Any strategy I came in with regarding my Team Eagle-suggested itinerary went right out the window as soon as I walked in. I was bombarded with all sorts of things to see and do, and I immediately began to wander. In a very clever move, the organizers made use of the white walls of the venue and most games were projected up on them, giving players 8 to 10 foot screens so that people were able to walk past and easily observe without breathing down the neck of those playing. It also had a side effect of giving the whole event the feel of a hip gallery opening. It was as if these games were art on display. Intentional or no, it lent a cool air of sophistication that made the event all the more indie-stylish. Just as everyone who was there respected video games and took them seriously, the space reflected that ethos as well.
Like with other gaming events, Bit Bash required a certain amount of patience, as playing any game require waiting for a turn. This necessary evil was mitigated by Bit Bash’s follow through of their Mission Statement. Since many of the games were indeed multiplayer, it provided many more opportunities to jump in. Almost immediately, I was able to walk up and tool around in Digital Bird Playground by Sokpop Collective, out of the Netherlands. As the title suggests, it’s a goofy little game where you tool around as a duck in a sandbox world, riding bikes, shooting some hoops. You know, duck stuff.
What made the exploration of this game that much more fun, however, was the other advantage of Bit Bash’s focus on multiplayer games: the second player. For that minute and half, a random stranger and I briefly connected over figuring out what the rules of the game were, laughing with pleasure as we biked around. Once he saw as much as he wanted, he left, and when I had my fill, I moved on as well. It’s not like we exchanged twitter handles and will be lifelong friends, but as someone who went on his own into this crowd of strangers, I was very appreciative of how easy it was throughout the day to walk up to a game and quickly find someone who was just as curious as I was to share this little moment with. I was never on my own for long, which that had a lot to do with the smart game curation and the quality crowd that Bit Bash had attracted.
Another element to the day that wound up being a ton of fun was the handful of non-video games they had. Sprinkled throughout the space were such games as Light Pong, where you bounce a point of light between handles the ends of a plastic tube:
There was also RainboDisko, where you take turns placing your pieces on a spinning record, all the while the needle moves slowly closer, threatening to wipe you off the board. Example:
And finally, Hermitug, my absolute favorite thing about Bit Bash 2017:
If you can’t quite tell what’s going on there, you wear plastic tubs on your back, like a turtle shell, but you can’t use your hands to hold onto it. You and your team then scuttle your way to the center of the field, try and grab the “bag of laundry” (that surprisingly heavy orange sack in the picture) and score a point. You either win the round by getting the bag into the other team’s endzone, or knocking the shells off of everyone on the opposing side. Each round lasts about 45 seconds as you all bash into one another and sprint around with a bucket on your head. It was impossible not to belly laugh every single time. I was legitimately sore afterwards for more days than I was proud of.
These all spoke to an impressive diversity Bit Bash had not only game genres, but other elements as well. The festival’s games had a range of scale, from short little text-based story to a full out VR rig. Not only were there multiple “read world” games like Hurmitug, but video games like Hi-5 Heroes, in which you held a handle, a teammate held a handle, and you would get points each time you completed the circuit by hive fiving one another on the rhythm in your headphones.
By having these games that required special equipment, it added to the uniqueness of the day and made it feel all the more important to be there live, rather than exploring these games on my desktop back at home. While it’s unlikely that I’d cross paths with any of the games on display, regardless of accessibility, it was these in-person interactions that I had the most fun with throughout the day.
Really, the last thing I was wanting from the experience was to learn more. Going along with the art gallery feel, all the games had plaques to accompanying them, but all the plaques had were the developers’ names. Some games were left with instructions, some you had to explore on your own. While certain games did have representatives to act as guides (usually the more hardware-heavy ones, like the aforementioned VR rig), and other games were international submissions, making a trip to Chicago prohibitively expensive for the developers, I think some standardized, consistent way of hearing more about each project would have been that much more engaging.
As it was, it was fun to experience these games on their own, and Bit Bash’s website makes it easy to track down any game you liked after the fact. But being able to contextualize the games as you play them, hear about the people behind them, be able to ask questions, and learn about the development would be that much richer of an interaction and make each of the games that much more impactful. Plus, as I found out after the fact, it seems most of these games are still being worked on, so I would have loved to hear about what the future has in store.
Having bought some fancy mac and cheese from Mac Dynamite, one of the two food trucks out front, and grabbed the beer from Pipeworks brewing that came with my entrance ticket (They also had Tell Tale coffee earlier in the day), I was winding down. Another couple rounds of Hermitug, and I was ready to head home. I left at around 7:30, but the festival kept going until 11 and with a DJ booth and some nighttime specific games in store, I think I might plan on staying later next year to check out what nightlife Bit Bash has to offer.
Making my not too far of a walk back to my car, I couldn’t help but smile as I thought back to all the fun I had in the hours I had spent poking around at all the fun games at Bit Bash. It was an excellent example of how much the medium of video games can provide not only as entertainment, but also as art. Not only as easy amusement, but a way to make quick friends. As a casual gamer, I had a total blast, and four years in, Indie City Collective, the people behind the festival, are making the right moves. I look forward to how they grow and change in year five, and where Bit Bash with go from here. I suspect, only up.