Fantastic Fest has grown into quite the film festival. It started out sizable right from the get-go what with Tim League of Alamo Drafthouse and Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News backing the entire proceedings, but it sure has grown regardless. Just look at the Wikipedia page and check out the immensely impressive list of premieres from last year.
Yet at the peak of this expansion, there is a setback. This is the first—and hopefully only—year that the event has not taken place at the Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Austin. This year, it all takes place 17 miles north at the Lakeline location. It’s barely Austin; the northern region of the Texas capital is nothing like the bustling, manic college town most people are familiar with. Deer roam at night and everything is a chain restaurant.
It’s a stark contrast to the usual setup because now, everything is centralized into a single theater due to some, uh, poorly timed demolition. This, unfortunately, includes the Fantastic Arcade portion, an incredibly tiny and intimate affair of indie developers from all over the world hanging out, drinking, talking, and playing games.
Last year was an absurdly small show, which was rather commendable. The entire event was squeezed into the back room of The Highball where a stage, tables of demo stations, and a few full cabinets were housed. As I sat at a booth table (this was, after all, a restaurant as well), developers came by and showed off their laptops chock full of in-progress games.
Just one table over, Phil Fish of Fez fame sat and roused a lot of rabble. It was just fantastic, especially considering it ended with a house party of drunken indies playing games, projecting stuff onto the side of the house, and juggling fire. The entire weekend felt like hanging out with your cabin at summer camp, except everyone wants to talk about video games at high volumes.
This year, Fantastic Arcade got an entire theater at the Alamo Drafthouse where dev talks and tournaments took place. In the lobby of the building, between the concessions and the branching pathways to the other screens, there was a row of anchored PlayStation Vitas and a smattering of standup cabinets. Stuck along the back wall were two laptops from Devolver Digital showing Shadow Warrior and Luftrausers as well as a table where video game wares were being slung.
One of the cabinets was a somewhat of a non-game called Panoramical from Fernando Ramallo and David Kanaga. It’s an installation piece where you move sliders and turn knobs to control a continuous sound mix, which also changes the visualizations flowing in front of you. (It’s also the thing that was being projected on the side of the house last year.)
For the most part, it looks a bit like Proteus but with a sound deck. It looks like you’re flying over foggy mountains, but as you change the mix, flowers bloom into trees and sun-like orbs flit in and out of existence. The sky pulses with color and rhythm while stars streak in as it fades into night.
People would come by, stare for a spell, and keep walking. But those brave enough to put on the headphones and venture into the pastel-colored unknown began to figure it out. Few people futzed about for more than a few minutes, but they would always tweak things as they saw fit. Some loved the faster tempo and dizzying scroll of the peaks below while others loved seeing stars lazily bob past over a slowly undulating plane.
And then they would linger. They would hang around or walk away and come back, tempted to always see if other passersby would appreciate their creation. Place in the midst of hundreds of movie-watchers milling about, this was perfect. Watching people go through the entire cycle of intrigue, confusion, accomplishment, and pride was utterly entrancing.
That is, of course, if you can look past the gaggles of people standing together playing Samurai Gunn. Developed by Teknopants, the pen name for the singular fellow Beau Blyth, it’s a super fast side-scrolling multiplayer brawler. Each character has a sword and a three-shot gun and dies in a single hit.
Jumping in, the surface level seems very simple. Don’t get hit by bullets or swords and hit other players with whatever you can. But then layers emerge.
Button mashing the sword almost always ends poorly; timing the swipes maximizes your chances for surviving an encounter. Keeping track of the shots fired by other players informs whether or not it’s safe to jump over them. The edges of the stages connect Pac-Man-style, so you can surprise unsuspecting players from looping vantage points. Two players slashing each other negates both attacks, arousing a Bushido showdown sensation.
There’s actually a showdown situation that can occur, too. It’s the first player to 11 kills that wins, but ties are settled with a one-on-one battle against a low-hung sunset. And it is predictably tense. There were never sweatier hands.
The speed of the game informs the design and it all comes together to make a quick and aggressive game of yelling a regret. Many deaths come at the hand of poor decisions. “I shouldn’t have jumped, dammit, I knew he had another bullet.” “I can’t believe I got baited into the middle of the stage.” It’s a game as much about creating opportunities as it is about capitalizing on those presented to you.
Just on the other side of Samurai Gunn is a game called Starwhal: Just the Tip, a four-player, neon-drenched game by Jason Nuyens. It has a real Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon look to it with four space-bound narwhals that can only be described as, well, floppy. You point your horned sea mammal with the left stick, propel yourself with the A button, and direct sharpened end with the right stick.
Each narwhal has a heart, and each round starts with the bright and explicit directive of “pierce the heart.” You have a certain amount of hits you can take, and the last one standing wins the round.
It’s a very simple game, but when you have such ridiculous and imprecise controls with three other people next to you laughing and yelling, it’s a ton of fun. The game slows down when killing collisions are imminent, adding drama to the proceedings and absurdity to almost every lunge.
Four floppy neon whales stacked on each other, slipping in and out of time warp as the person on the bottom futilely waggles its horn up and down with the faint hope of scraping a hit out of the dog pile. (Whale pile?) There’s not much more you can ask for from the video game medium.
Among the other cabinets was Vlambeer’s Wasteland Kings, which continues to be amazing. It’s a post-apocalyptic top-down shooter roguelike wherein you play as a mutant—selected from many with different attributes and abilities—fighting for the throne (presumably bearing the title of Wasteland King).
Played with the WASD keys and the mouse, you fire off your weapon to eliminate all of the enemies in the stage. Your weapon can range from your base starting pistol to a laser gun to a sledgehammer, each one with its own strategy associated with it. You can carry two at a time and open chests to find new armaments or ammo, which is essential because running out often lands you in a pickle.
When you’ve cleared out all of the baddies, which can be desert bandits or giant mutated rats that spew out more rats or tiny little maggots, you’re sucked into a portal and thrown into the next arena. In between, you select a character upgrade like faster movement speed or upgraded special ability (like a dodge roll or crystallized shielding) or just a restock on health and ammo.
It’s a frantic game and forces you to judiciously use your resources and plan around being under-equipped. The crossbow especially forces you to consider your attack since it fires so slowly. The challenge is that you and the enemies move so quickly that taking that time is often a bad idea, so you have to toe a line between being methodical and being reactionary. It’s simply fantastic.
There were also two Ouya games shoehorned into arcade cabinets: No Brakes Valet by Justin Smith and TowerFall by Matt Thorson. No Brakes Valet is still ludicrous (it’s about trying to park cars without using the brakes, natch) and TowerFall is still absolutely manic fun. In fact, those two adjectives can also be applied to the other cabinets as well: Stephen Ascher’s breakdancing Q.E.D. and TheCatamite’s strange anti-dungeon-crawler dungeon crawler Goblet Grotto.
Just as interesting as all of these weird experiments in busting a move and flopping sea creatures are the talks going on just down the hall in theater nine. It’s easy to miss, but just a glance will point you in the right direction as a Devolver Digital banner grabs your attention and laughter lures you in like a siren’s song.
Through the four days of Fantastic Fest, developers and players would get a chance to get up in front of everyone and do their thing, which is either talk or design or play (or maybe all three). Davey Wreden walked us through the indescribable and perfectly honed nonsense of The Stanley Parable while Steve Gaynor described what it was developing the narrative of Gone Home. Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman did live development for Wasteland Kings while a cabal of indie developers and organizer Wiley Wiggins did dramatic readings of Choosatron Deluxe Adventure Matrix, a box that allows for choose-your-own-adventure stories to unfold and be printed out via four buttons and a receipt printer.
And when the talks winded down, daily tournaments for Pistol Cat and VideoHeroeS would take place, as would daily challenges for Spelunky (with commentary!). There were always activities planned for attendees, keeping those from all over Austin, the United States, and the world entertained. And all within a couple thousand square feet.
If you turned any direction, you would see someone playing a game or talking about a game. If you were lucky, you’d see some sitting down with a laptop to pull up code and show what they were working on next. But it never felt as safe as it did last year. Unless you were looking for it, you would have never found it in that little bowling alley.
But within the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse, even those dedicated to maximizing their movie-watching schedules found time to stand amongst the nonsense in our little digital alcove. Few wandered back into the theater, though. Fantastic Fest attendees walked out in the light, perusing menus of movies and games and libations.
Theirs was a process of consumption, waiting to be fed another serving of cinema. In our little cave, we interacted, created. The kiddie table of raucous laughter and buzzing chatter, the island of misfit toys where ideas and people that don’t fit into holes made for square pegs go to be appreciated. Ignore the schemers in the corner. Talk over their wide-eyed optimism and stomp around their blooming possibilities. No, don’t mind them. They’re just changing an industry.