IndieCade, ‘the Sundance of independent games,’ takes over downtown Culver City

By Christina Campodonico

A scene from IndieCade-nominated game “Donut County,” designed by Ben Esposito, bears striking resemblance to the iconic Randy’s Donuts shop on Manchester Boulevard Image courtesy of

A scene from IndieCade-nominated game “Donut County,” designed by Ben Esposito, bears striking resemblance to the iconic Randy’s Donuts shop on Manchester Boulevard
Image courtesy of

For some, video games conjure up images of mustachioed plumbers in overalls, pixel-munching Pac-Men, gangsters in sports cars or soldiers in battle.

IndieCade challenges such stereotypes about the world of gaming by celebrating independent games and game designers from all over the country and the world. From board games to scenarios set in virtual reality, IndieCade welcomes games of all stripes — as long as they might open your mind.

The festival takes over downtown Culver City next weekend with a mixed program of talks, networking sessions, workshops with industry innovators and, of course, some sweet games.

The public is invited to play any of the 36 IndieCade award-nominated games at Culver City Fire Station No. 1 (9600 Culver Blvd.) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday for free.

Festivalgoers with passes allowing varying access levels can sample keynote conversations with speakers such as Megan Gaiser — known as the “UnBarbie” game maker, she pioneered intelligent games for girls — or talk shop with reps from PlayStation, Nintendo, Microsoft and the National Endowment for the Arts. Gamers can even play under the stars during Night Games, an annual event that transforms downtown Culver City into a live playground.

This varied program, like IndieCade’s mission, is meant to challenge the definition of what a gaming festival is supposed to look like.

“It’s not exactly a conference, but it does have a conference.  It’s not exactly a meet-up, but it’s really about meeting and networking. It’s not exactly a street fair, but it’s kind of a street fair. So even the very structure with which we approach our event is trying to create something new and that can reflect the future,” said Indie- Cade founder and CEO Stephanie Barish.

IndieCade’s free-form style stems from the festival’s foundations. Barish first dreamed up the concept with a group of friends 10 years ago in her living room in Santa Monica. At the time there wasn’t anywhere to present or discover independent games, says Barish, so they decided to create their own. It’s since been dubbed the Sundance of independent games.

This year’s lineup carries on IndieCade’s independent spirit by presenting games rooted in individual experiences.

“I do think, to me, this year’s selections are, more than any other year, about very specific experiences. And they’re experiences we’ve never seen before … or [haven’t seen] really in depth, deep representation[s] of experiences that we think about all the time, but maybe people haven’t made games about,” IndieCade Festival Director Sam Roberts said. “And so many of this year’s games, their whole goal and struggle is to get people to understand or be comfortable in a different experience than they might typically have.”

USC Game Innovation Lab Director Tracy Fullerton’s transformation of Henry David Thoreau’s literary classic “Walden” into a first-person simulation of the author’s experiences at the historic pond into “Walden, a game” is one example of making a unique experience more universal, even timeless.

Plopped into Walden’s forested landscape in the middle of summer, the player must figure out how to live in nature as well as draw inspiration from it. Food, fuel and shelter are the player’s main prerogatives for surviving, but the woods also hold hidden secrets and beauties that can boost creativity, explains Fullerton, whose game has been nominated for an Indie-
Cade award.

“One has to balance one’s focus on the basic needs of life with the more ephemeral needs of life,” says the Mar Vista native of the game’s premise.

As winter approaches, maintaining that equilibrium grows more difficult, challenging players’ notions of what survival truly means. It may have less to do with acquiring necessities or completing tasks and more to do with allocating one’s time wisely.

“The conflict in our game is about how to spend one’s time,” says Fullerton, who encourages users to “play deliberately,” “slowly” and “with consideration.”

“I actually think that’s a much more modern dilemma, how we spend our time here. How do we balance between the grind of daily life and … keeping of
the flame of our inspiration?” she muses.

Even though “Walden, a game” is set in centuries past, its central struggle is a highly contemporary one that challenges gamers and non-gamers alike to rethink their relationship to time. IndieCade’s emphasis on exploring open-ended subjects like this is what allows Fullerton, and independent game developers like her, to keep pushing the envelope for experimental game design.

“If there were no venues like IndieCade, no communities like they’ve built, then it would be really lonely and really hard to make a game like I’m making,” she says. “This makes a kind
of experimentation that I want to do possible.”

IndieCade starts next Thursday, Oct. 22, in downtown Culver City and runs through Oct. 25. Tickets are $20 to $525. For the full lineup and schedule, visit

Last year’s event: