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Playing with sex: This year's IndieCade shows how games are getting intimate

Playing with sex: This year's IndieCade shows how games are getting intimate
“Cibele” is inspired by real-life events from writer-designer Nina Freeman. She stars in the game, which features full-motion video, as Nina. (Star Maid Games)

Kissing. Sex. Breakups. Games today are getting emotional — and sometimes even sexy.

"Cibele" tracks an online-to-real life relationship, complete with clumsy Internet flirting and the awkward fears of commitment that too often follow. "Apartment: A Separated Place" begins with a relationship that's already ended, asking the player to embark on a quest for emotional normalcy.

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And then there's "Stellar Smooch," in which two outer space probes just want to kiss and be friendly. Or "Consentacle," a frisky card game that has two players — one in the role of an alien, one as a human — trying to navigate an unexpected sexual encounter.

These are just some of the more than 200 games that will be on display in downtown Culver City this weekend as part of IndieCade, an annual event dedicated to what's next, what's experimental and what's risky in gaming.

While the breadth of games on display at the weekend festival is wide — IndieCade will showcase mobile games, board games, virtual reality titles and even family-friendly playground games — a number of IndieCade's featured games are moving into more personal spaces. There's plenty of silliness at IndieCade (see "Butt Sniffin Pugs"), but the heart of the festival is indicative of how games are increasingly entering more grown-up, and sometimes adults-only, territory.

A space less consumed with adolescent violence and raunchiness, if you will.

Need evidence? One can explore a full human relationship via the games at IndieCade, from the first kiss to the days alone wondering what went wrong.

"In the last three or four or five years, games have been progressing into this slightly more mature teenager hood, where a lot of different topics are being explored," says Naomi Clark, a game designer and an assistant arts professor at the NYU Game Center. "There are more games about people's lives. We have more autobiographical games and games that are about relationships that are nuanced."

Indeed, "Apartment: A Separated Place" may have even ruined my week. The game's creators, Robyn Gray and Richard Emms, warned me that this might happen. "We recommend a one-month waiting period between breakups and playing 'Apartment,'" says Emms. I didn't listen.

In the first-person "Apartment," a book, an airline ticket, a once-shared glass, laundry — all of them are potential triggers for memories of better days. The game felt claustrophobic; everywhere I directed the game's protagonist, Nick, there was the potential for a disastrous mope session.

And yet I couldn't look away. Having just gone through a breakup, Nick and I were going to get through this. His apartment wasn't going to be an emotional minefield forever.

"One of the big concepts behind the game is that the space that you share with someone can start as yours but is transformed into something completely different," Emms says. "The whole idea behind the game is sort of reclaiming that space back."

On track for release on home computers in early 2016, "Apartment" had me reflecting on past relationships because it felt so routine. Neither Nick, the dumpee, nor Madison, the dumper, was necessarily at fault.

The game is simply about a relationship that didn't work. Sure, maybe the game's characters confused the difference between complacency and contentment, but there's no great drama that drove the schism between the two.

"It's like an interactive novel or movie," says Gray. "You can't fail. You just engage with it."

That represents a relatively recent shift in gaming.

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One can explore a full human relationship via the games at IndieCade, from the first kiss to the days alone wondering what went wrong.


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IndieCade, for instance, explores the art of play rather than the act of competitiveness. While much of the festival is geared toward burgeoning game developers, IndieCade is open to the public on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons and includes a Saturday evening session.

Throughout, there's a game called "&maybetheywontkillyou," which is live action and explores the experience of being poor and black in America, and there's a virtual reality game titled "Job Simulator," in which robots of the future attempt to simulate the work experience. And speaking of robots, on Saturday night players can sample "Maze of Heart," a motion-sensor game in which a robot needs a soul.

The goal isn't always to be the best. In many modern games about love, for example, there aren't necessarily winners or losers, and sometimes there aren't even clear objectives.

"There's an increasing comfort amongst indie game designers about expressing parts of their life in a kind of authorial way," says Cara Ellison, a journalist turned game writer who helped organize a Friday IndieCade discussion on intimacy in games.

"One of the final frontiers waiting to be explored is a lot of the softer emotions," adds NYU's Clark. "How can games push us or challenge us? They often involve some sort of struggle. Intimacy is a really difficult and fraught area, but one we don't often associate with games because other types of conflict and struggle have been dominant in the space."

"Cibele" is one of the newer deeply personal games. Developed by Star Maid Games and written by Nina Freeman, the game is based on a true story inspired by Freeman's life and aims to have players get into her headspace. It's an interactive account of the first time she fell in love and had sex, and stars a character named Nina.

Uncover personal secrets and discover the history of a relationship in "Cibele."
Uncover personal secrets and discover the history of a relationship in "Cibele." (Star Maid Games)

Set for release on home computers on Nov. 2, "Cibele" is all about the nerves of falling for someone and the panic of possibly losing that person. There's a game-within-a-game, as the couple in "Cibele" meet in an online game, and there are short films that give a glimpse into Nina's dormitory lifestyle.

It's vulnerable. When Freeman asks the object of her affection if he wants to meet up in real life, "Cibele" becomes anxiously voyeuristic. It's easy to forget you're playing a game rather than spying on moments that two characters think are being shared in confidence.

Players poke around Nina's computer, scroll through her selfies, read her homework and look over her chat logs with her friends. Thus, "Cibele" becomes a game about discovering one's most private thoughts. The interactive elements — we're made to feel as if we are, in fact, playing an online game with Nina's would-be boyfriend — give the illusion of control.

Ultimately, to progress in "Cibele" is to make the decision to poke around someone's secrets, to try to make them our own.

"Culturally, we're not really supposed to talk about personal stuff like that," Freeman says of "Cibele's" subject matter. "It is considered awkward or weird. That makes it intimidating to then share it. But I think it's important to share it. People can relate or feel empathy for you. Those are powerful feelings."

"Stellar Smooch" deals with love in a more excited manner. It's a mobile game, available now, and asks players simply to tap the screen in an effort to have two tiny satellites lock lips. They spin around planets, forever lost in orbit, helplessly alone until the player intervenes. It's more of a puzzle game but one dealing with the difficulties of finding love.

Naomi Clark's "Consentacle" is a card game that aims to simulate the sexual experience, in this case between a human and an alien.
Naomi Clark's "Consentacle" is a card game that aims to simulate the sexual experience, in this case between a human and an alien. (James Harvey and Naomi Clark)

"Consentacle" is a card game designed by NYU's Clark, and IndieCade will be my first chance to play it. In the game, somewhat sexy cards — at least if something involving an alien with tentacles can be considered sexy — are used by each player to negotiate a sexual encounter. Drawing and playing cards can earn trust and satisfaction tokens. The goal is to earn as much satisfaction as possible, without talking.

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"The card game lets you play with communication, and not being able to say everything that you're thinking but still try and get across your intent," Clark says. "It really has this idea at the heart of it that you're trying to be intimate and have a consensual sexual encounter with the other player in simulation, in the form of cards, but the thing that's getting in your way is your ability to communicate."

While such games represent a fraction of the 200-plus titles at IndieCade, they signify something of a burgeoning moment within the indie game sphere. Recent years have given us "Gone Home," in which a young woman learns of her sister's struggles with her sexuality, "Dark Room Sex Game," an erotic rhythm game using only video game controllers, and "Ute," a game available for free online in which a woman tries to have sex with as many men as possible before she gets married.

Yes, there's a point. "Ute," says Ellison, is "a game that's really about how sexuality treats women, in particular" — men will reject the woman if they get a sense that she was intimate with someone else.

If there's a common thread among the games at IndieCade and the indie movement beyond, it's that we're only at the beginning of where games can take us.

"We've reached the point in the last one or two years where suddenly it's dawned upon everyone: 'Oh, my gosh, there's romance! There's sex!' There's all of these topics," says Clark.

"It's a bit of an awakening," she adds. "We don't have to be scared of it anymore. It's not gross. It doesn't have to all be porn. We can become a mature medium."

IndieCade

What: A festival dedicated to independent games

When: 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, 9:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday

Where: 9300 Culver Blvd. Culver City

Price: Day passes, $30; Saturday night pass, $20

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