In a Queens neighborhood, the birth of indie video games


Reporting from New York

The vibrant independent video game scene is nearly invisible to the wider world. When most people hear the word “gamer,” they tend to think of characters who’d rather spend a Friday night with World of Warcraft than hit the town. But like the music industry, the game space enjoys its own vibrant counterculture of hobbyist programmers, developers and players, driven by a passion for games as art.

Formerly inhibited by the very mechanism that helped indie games grow and thrive — a globally distributed and diverse Internet community that rarely converges face to face — a group of devoted, bootstrapping indie gamers are forging an underground home for themselves. In what’s perhaps an unlikely twist, one place it’s happening is near the epicenter of the ultra-hip wildland neighborhoods where the Brooklyn indie music scene makes its home.

On a city block in Ridgewood, a Queens neighborhood that lies so close to Brooklyn’s edge it feels more like the latter borough’s careless spill-over, sits Silent Barn, a hub within Brooklyn’s DIY music scene. It’s a music venue and art and community space where local bands nightly play alongside a kitchen in a packed room of twentysomethings drinking cheap beer. In Silent Barn’s low-lit basement, a cool refuge from the noise-rich and sweat-slicked music shows that pound the ceiling overhead, there is a small indie arcade called Babycastles (which declares its presence with a yellow neon sign).

It’s the first collaborative effort from New York City’s designers, curators, bloggers and fans to gain major steam, in spite of — or perhaps because of — its handmade quality. . Scrap hardware, old monitors and the husks of arcade cabinets, deftly pastiched and equipped with generic game controllers, play host to inventive titles from designers such as 2010 Independent Game Festival prizewinner Cactus or the widely popular Messhof, in carefully curated installations from fans and local developers who want to see these games reach their local community.These titles showcase sometimes-baffling visuals or subversive game mechanics in defiance of the dominant paradigm: bullet-addled war fiction or mainstream-inspired action-hero dramas.

Babycastles is largely the brainchild and brow sweat of friends Kunal Gupta, 27, Syed Salahuddin, 27, and Arthur Ward, 26, who wanted not only to showcase games made by global indie stars and local hobbyists but to create a convergence point for the medium of independent games — a space which, when not centered on the faceless and globally distributed Internet, tends to be associated much more strongly with Silicon Valley and the West Coast.

“The purpose of Silent Barn is to cultivate different subcultures, and, like, even though it’s primarily a music venue, it’s been open to other organizations which support community building, whether it’s in the video game or music space, or anywhere else,” Salahuddin says. “This is why it was the perfect spot to have an arcade here — it’s because we would get such exposure.”

The three programming grads wanted to go beyond simply discovering other New York Web developers and programmers interested in games; the fledgling industry in New York City is largely centered around mobile and social platforms, which tend to be highly driven by ad revenue, and succeed by imitating one another’s simple, proven design mechanics. Graduating from Columbia and NYU into an environment where games weren’t conceived as art, Babycastles’ founders wanted more.

“As soon as I left Columbia, I worked for this tiny mobile games company and my work was no longer art,” says co-founder Gupta, who has created a quirky title Meowtron featuring odd, bright colors and a focus on the inner life of a cat, shown at Babycastles. “It was a really awful experience. I stopped making games.” Instead he immersed himself in Brooklyn music and was inspired by its energy to gather the like-minded, such as Salahuddin and Ward.

The co-founders say their effort is mostly about building a relationship between the developers who show their games at the arcade and the surrounding community, whether that means turning music scenesters on to the idea that games are equally valid art, or making the industry more accessible to urban youth (Babycastles recently was an unlikely destination for a field trip for local middle-schoolers).

It’s also about seeking a channel for indie game developers to monetize their work — something Gupta says is currently a steeper challenge than it might be for more familiar art and music in the neighborhood. It’s common to charge nominal door fees to see bands in the community, and the Babycastles crew is still ironing out the details of how best to navigate this tricky economy.

Though renowned in Internet communities, the names of the game designers and their titles on show are little-known to the venue’s common music cohort. But Messhof’s Nidhogg, an eerie two-player fencing title, has drawn crowds since it’s been playable at Babycastles, suggesting that the kind of interest that could sustain economics is beginning to take seed.

Game and music fans seem surprised by the convergence of their two worlds. But perhaps it’s not surprising that those two scenes are finding a common audience here — just like much of the music biz looks to Brooklyn’s DIY underground for the next big thing in music, it’s to its indie designers that the highly commercial, risk-constrained video game industry looks for the next great innovation.

On a recent hot Thursday night, Silent Barn hosted a party in Babycastles’ honor; the house was packed with all stripes of the local crowd, taking turns donning 3-D goggles to play on a giant projection screen the stunning Super Hypercube from renowned designer Phil Fish and his team, while others sweltered and danced to the pounding music of Glomag, a chiptune musician whose sounds come from hijacked video game hardware.

In the basement, a Binghamton, N.Y., student’s jaw dropped upon being casually introduced to attendees who turned out to be the developers of games he’d played online; on the sidewalk, another independent designer propped his laptop on a concrete stoop to show a select group of friends his latest top-secret project. Someone warned someone else to keep the noise down, lest they offend the neighbors; declared the respondent: “This is the CBGB of video games.”