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USC Faculty, Students Shine At 2013 IndieCade

Will Federman |
October 7, 2013 | 9:52 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Alex Beachum and Sarah Scialli show off Outer Wilds at IndieCade. (Neon Tommy/Will Federman)
Alex Beachum and Sarah Scialli show off Outer Wilds at IndieCade. (Neon Tommy/Will Federman)

IndieCade may be an annual celebration of the best indie gaming has to offer, but the Culver City-based venue has also become big hit within Trojan family.

Founded by USC alumna, Stephanie Barish, the independent gaming festival has quickly morphed into an annual showcase of the best and brightest from USC.

Although 850 indie games are submitted to IndieCade each year, only 111 actually make the cut. An even smaller number of games get space in the Digital Selects tent, which housed several offerings from USC students, graduates and faculty.

SEE ALSO: IndieCade Closes, But Future Of Gaming Wide Open

Outer Wilds, directed and produced by two former USC graduate students, was one of only 19 games hand picked for the Digital Selects showcase. The innovative, open world space exploration game took a team of nearly 30 people to transport from director Alex Beachum’s imagination to IndieCade. 

For producer Sarah Scialli, the best part about bringing Outer Wilds to IndieCade was enjoying the point in which players realize they’re on a tiny planet in a giant solar system – something Scialli refers to as “The Reveal.”

“That moment is very rewarding,” Scialli added.

Beachum, a self-professed backpacker, merged his love for camping and video game design into the quirky, inventive game. Beachum credits the creative environment at USC for allowing games like Outer Wilds to incubate and believes IndieCade is a perfect showcase for the imaginative project.

“People at USC want to make wild, crazy stuff,” said Beachum, “And IndieCade happens to be a place where you can show off wild, crazy stuff.”

Less than two feet away, Graham Matuszewski, a Viterbi undergrad, was busy transporting gamers into alternate realities. 

Matuszewski, a computer science major, is the “Build-master General” for Project Holodeck – a virtual reality system constructed with off-the-shelf components. The team, comprised mostly of students from USC, is eventually hoping to transform the clunky mish-mash of cords and controllers into “a fun, accessible consumer gaming platform.”

Unlike the Oculus Rift VR headset, Project Holodeck allows players to literally move within virtual environments. When it was running optimally, Project Holodeck made everything at IndieCade feel obsolete.

“If people aren’t nervous about using the tech and they don’t hold back, they really enjoy it,” said Matuszewski.

FREEQ was yet another Digital Selects title showcased by a fellow Trojan, adjunct faculty member Jesse Vigil. The iOS title, developed by Psychic Bunny, is best described as an interactive Choose Your Own Adventure audiobook if imagined by Philip K. Dick.

Each 45-minute play through is unique, as players listen to various phone calls, audio casts and sound bytes to determine how to best meddle with future events. FREEQ actually encourages gamers to play the title over-and-over again, propelled by its excellent cast of voice actors and a well-crafted narrative.

Vigil said that developing for the iPhone and iPad provided a unique opportunity to promote an aural experience because “they’re also amazing personal audio devices.” 

“We knew the one peripheral that comes with all of them is a pair of headphones,” Vigil added, “So we wanted to make something that was for listening and experience something that isn’t very visual.” 

At $4.99, FREEQ is a relative bargain at the cost of an overpriced latte.

A short hop, skip and a jump away, the Culver City fire station was converted into a gallery for the top 36 games submitted for IndieCade. 

Two of the games showcased were the work of Trojans.

NIDHOGG is the work of USC part-time lecturer, Mark Essen. The innovative two-player fencing game, which is like tug-of-war with swords and giant flying worms, has been a crowd favorite at IndieCade for two years running.

Spectators queued up for lengthy periods of time to play NIDHOGG, which took home IndieCade’s Best in Game Design. Essen, who developed NIDHOGG for fun, acknowledged that it was rewarding to see people “come out and enjoy the game.”

Just a few tables down, Rambod Kermanizadeh, an interactive entertainment undergrad at USC, was showing off [code]. The ingenious puzzle game was a surprise hit amongst the IndieCade crowd, finding an audience among like-minded peers that “really love code.”

Kermanizadeh said the inspiration for [code] came from his experimental game design class at USC.

“We just came up this idea,” Kermanizadeh said, ”What if we made a game about code using code?”

The result is [code], where players navigate an “@” symbol around a maze of code, utilizing subtle hints to alter code and progress to the next level.

Kermanizadeh and his team are young, bright and are still kind of shocked that [code] landed such a highly desired spot in one of the most competitive galleries at IndieCade.

“It’s mind blowing,” said Kermanizadeh, “Just to have your game up there with [NIDHOGG]. It’s still surreal. It doesn’t feel real.”

“We’re just trying to wrap our heads around it,” he added.

Kermanizadeh is already eyeing other festivals and hoping to roll out future builds of [code] at shows like PAX and IGF. Like others, Kermanizadeh credits USC for fostering an environment that rewards risk takers.

It was a sentiment echoed by Outer Wilds’ game director, Alex Beachum, who offered some parting words of advice to any Trojans attending IndieCade in the future.

“Take risks and try to do something that has a substantial chance to fail,” Beachum said, “Because you get to fail in school.”


Reach reporter Will Federman here or tweet him at @wfederman.



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