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The secret histories of indie games: What was uncovered at IndieCade
The secret histories of indie games: What was uncovered at IndieCade
October 13, 2014 | By Bryant Francis

October 13, 2014 | By Bryant Francis
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Business/Marketing, History



There is that old adage that history is written by the winners. In conventional discussions on game history, names like Nolan Bushnell or Hiroshi Yamauchi rise to the top.

But in all histories, there are also secret histories.

At IndieCade in Culver City this weekend, these secret histories were excavated for several purposes: To reframe the biggest narratives, to reveal forgotten events that echo our modern age, and to re-establish voices and identities for individuals long-rendered voiceless.

On reframing what we know

The Secret Histories of Indie Games panel began with the unfortunate revelation that this would be John Romero’s first missed IndieCade in years.

But he could still do a talk. From a boat.

His videotaped panel was a reframing of the earliest video game developers not just as company employees, but programmers and developers working independently and creating the foundation for greater games history.

Romero began with developers like A.S Douglas and his game OXO, the earliest known game to display graphics on a monitor. He traced a path from early developers to the foundation of modern publishers, with designers like Bill Budge and BudgeCo’s Pinball Construction Set. Roberta Williams’ graphic adventure games gave birth to On-Line Systems with her husband Ken, and Minecraft’s procedurally generated worlds were seeded in Beneath Apple Manor.

All these games were sold directly to computer stores, eventually growing to become part of independent publishers and then larger publishers like Electronic Arts, which gave birth to the modern triple-A industry.

Today, with digital marketplaces hosting so many different games of various types, a new kind of game industry has taken shape.

"Finally, now, it is mind-boggling to see the number of indie games that are out there in the app stores," Romero said. "...There are hundreds of thousands of games available...and I have to conclude that the games industry is really the indie games industry, and it always has been. If you can make indie games, you will have an audience."

When an ad matters more than a game

Following Romero, Laine Nooney with the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University took the stage. Like a storyteller summoning attention around a campfire, she began "I want you to hear the name of a person you've surely never heard of: Brian Wilkinson."

Brian Wilkinson was a photographer 33 years ago as an editor for the Sierra Star in Oakhearst, CA. Wilkinson was friends with a man from Romero’s history named Ken Williams--he and Roberta Williams had established their company OnLine Systems, later to be known as Sierra Entertainment, in Oakhearst, and Williams needed a favor. “He needed a photograph."

"The photo that Brian wound up taking for Ken has become lodged as a remarkable piece of of video game trivia. It was the photo that became the package art of Softporn Adventure, an erotic text adventure game released in September of 1981.” To Nooney, though, this advertisement was far more important than the game itself.

“Some games we remember because they pioneered technical innovations, others because they defined genres, because they've suffused us with a sense of mystery, because they've created worlds we can't forget, or they've shaped habits of play into cultures of experience. Softporn is a game that is least interesting as a game, and is most interesting as a piece of social theatre.”


Box art for Softporn Adventure.


Thanks to new photos Wilkinson dug up and showed to Nooney, we saw how the photo was shot and the weird atmosphere it was shot in. "These people were friends, they were screwing around in a time before Twitter and Instagram, doing regrettable things they really couldn't fathom the ultimate reach of." As Nooney said, everywhere the ad went in 1981, it "pissed somebody off." Coverage of the ad went as far as Time Magazine and back to Oakhearst, where local letters to the editor lobbed jabs back and forth between OnLine Systems and the townsfolk.

The arguments ascended to the pages of Softtalk magazine, who ran the advertisement, where letters to the editor waged for months. Nooney argued, "The dialogue around Softporn was perhaps the first time a cultural debate was happening in and around a computer gaming community itself." As she noted, unlike other debacles like Custer’s Revenge, this was the first time a debate occurred between educated readers and the industry publishing the information.

There wasn't an uninformed public here; the men and women in this space had informed voices. "They're asking questions that are bigger than games themselves," she said. "What is this technology for? What is its potential? What is our responsibility to human good versus human freedom? Why is our society the way that it is?"

"The most important thing you leave behind may not be your games, but something that has no material referent: Your relationships and your opinions."

The similarities between this old discussion and our constant new ones wasn’t lost on Nooney or the audience, but Nooney also wanted the audience of developers to think about their own games’ place in a larger timeline. "The most important thing you leave behind may not be your games, but something that has no material referent: Your relationships and your opinions," she said.

"I think of the kind of work I do is a complement to game history that focuses on the game, and rather I think of this as something that uses the game as a metal detector, to draw lost conversations up out of the sand."

When history must be reclaimed

The final examination of hidden histories was delivered by Anna Anthropy, in an examination designed to destroy myths and reclaim lost identities. Anthropy began by establishing three myths she wanted to tear down:

First, that Cave Story, released in 2004, was the first indie game. Second, that the hypertext tool Twine created the personal game, and that personal games emerged in the 2010’s. And third, that Twine also "invented queerness," or that "there were no queer games until Twine came along."

Anthropy's history was one that began laced with sarcasm but evolved into a partly personal one dating back to BBSes and shareware. She argued that trans women invented indie games, and that they "have been involved in indie games and indie game development in a lot of avenues and ways." Her story was about ZZT.

ZZT was released in 1991 by Kotami computer systems, (now known today as Epic Games), and was developed by Tim Sweeney. Anthropy guided the crowd through ZZT’s history, from its name possibly designed to stand out on sorted lists, to its shareware business model engineered for BBSes to sell expansions to the base game.

In those BBS boards however, something else happened. ZZT wasn’t just a game, it was an editor---one with the basic toolkit necessary to create an object oriented programming language. Anthropy showed how far other developers could take it.

These included a side-scrolling platformer and a Final Fantasy-inspired battle system as well as experimental works by Anthropy herself. But this scene exploded even further when a toolkit called Super Toolkit. Super Toolkit became an essential tool for people creating on ZZT. Supertoolkit was created by Alexis Janson, a trans woman now working for Wizards of the Coast as a lead designer on Magic the Gathering.

And here, Anthropy's meditation on ZZT and the act of mythbusting came full circle, as too did the idea of exploring secret histories. "So even though the games I've shown so far aren't from authors I know to be trans women, because I know how fraught it is to show works created by trans women under their birth names, you can see that everyone who has created ZZT games has done so using tools built by trans women," she said.

"Trans women's presence in gaming, and DIY gaming scenes is nothing new," she said. "When John Romero was designing the first levels for Doom, trans women were building gaming's first DIY gaming community. Trans women have always been at the forefront of populist game creation. And their often unsung labor is one of the secret histories of indie games.”


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