This past weekend, while Riot Fest was amping up for its first day in Douglas Park, a different kind of alternative experience was happening in River West, with Bit Bash’s Fabricade. In lieu of its annual titular summer bash, Bit Bash has been busy curating new experiences this past year, with pop-ups and bigger events like Initiation that have certain themes or directions. Fabricade was all about the alternative—focusing on alternative controls in games, either handmade or repurposed in some way from their original format, and other game experiences you aren’t able to have at home. Many games involved heavy co-op, and in at least 2 cases, attendees to Bit Bash’s Fabricade got to take a first look at heavily anticipated games by local developers that haven’t been released yet.
The party happened at mHub Chicago, a space billing itself as Chicago’s “first innovation center for physical product development and manufacturing” and consists of “a co-working community of designers, developers, engineers and manufacturers “who are, by all indications on the company’s website, incredibly enthusiastic about involving themselves with new, independent creative ideas and being an integral part of Chicago’s innovation scene. It’s no wonder then that BitBash found and hooked up with them for this event, and it seemed a perfect fit. mHub Chicago offered tons of space as well as a technology-friendly, super trendy open workspace, and allowed BitBash to really think about their layout. This paid off, allowing for comfortable spaces for co-op play, more of a party atmosphere with a bar and DJ in the main space, and quieter areas to explore games on one’s own in smaller corridors.
There were some familiar BitBash experiences on the floor, including the 100 Button Project, which is a perfect fit for Farbricade. As you’d expect, it’s a controller which features 100 buttons. It’s hooked up to a fighting game and allows you to frenziedly mash buttons to your heart’s content to defeat your opponent. But it’s part of a larger project and a challenge to designers and gamers to imagine what could be done, too. Part of a larger project, the 1000 Button Project by a Kentucky developer known as Amanda Throws Rocks, it asks developers to imagine what else they can do with that many individual control possibilities.
There was also Sashimi Slammers, a silly but fun game about “fish who fight for honor” where you’ll duke it out against your fishy foe in a sort of neon industrial battleground to a driving techno beat using actual rubber fish controllers to beat out the competition. Perhaps because the controls were so unique, this game by local developer Zac Mascarenas got quite a bit of attention, and we have to admit it was one of the most fun games to observe, as people smacked, smushed and damn near performed CPR on their controllers trying to put the smackdown on their opponent and knock them out of the arena.
Mashing up workout time and game time was SymGym, a company whose sole focus is alternative controls. Their concept is to bring video games and workouts together, and their product is a sort of elliptical-machine-meets-new-age-controller that’s about the size of your average stairclimber/treadmill and uses body motion controls to play different types of games. Despite it being already incredibly warm with all the bodies attending Fabricade, we decided to sweat it out a little more. The demo was a sort of endless runner that incorporated ducking–which you’d control by lunging forward with your arms–and jumping, which you’d do by pushing down emphatically on the foot pedals of the machine. While it was amusing and the game quickly ramped up to the point you can’t help but get a workout. SymGym promises more games using a variety of controls including haptic feedback and incorporation of game level and action into play, it is a rather bulky solution to the “getting moving while gaming” dilemma, which to date can be solved with many smaller things, like VR headsets, or even JoyCon controllers and a copy of the latest Just Dance. Still, it’s definitely a more fun way to get in some workout time, and we wouldn’t mind matching real-world results with in-game achievements instead of binge-watching House Hunters while we run on the treadmill. You can check out their website at Symgym.fit if you’re interested, and if you’re a developer they hope to incentive you to make games for their machine–look at their website for more information.
Fabricade even had a little bit of tabletop flavor on tap, with a French game called Gaze featured at the event. We touched on it in the preview, but Gaze has players use their tablets or mobile phones to capture anamorphoses created by a 3D game board, and it’s a fun one to watch in action, as people prowl around the bi-color game board thoughtfully before finally spotting the place where the angles meet perfectly to create the image they’ve been looking for and suddenly turn things fast-paced again, as they try to be the first to nab 3 verified images.
A real eye catcher was on display on the big screen behind the bar, and its controls were almost as beautiful as its art style. Nour, a game that had its beginnings on Kickstarter, calls itself a “virtual ramen simulator” and uses motion controls to provide an “interactive exploration of the aesthetics of food.” It has no real objective or goal except to consider that food is a privilege and to take the time to simply enjoy the aesthetics of it. There are levels which involve boba tea, popcorn, toasters, and of course, ramen, and the player’s one job is to simply enjoy playing with their food. You accomplish this using a colorful MIDI Fighter 3D controller, usually reserved for DJs and other musical creations. This features four rows of four multicolor buttons, each of which controls a different aspect of whatever is on screen.
Nour has a beautiful art style, a relaxing soundtrack and interesting interactions, and we could see it being something fun to sink some time into just to relax. If you don’t have your own Midi Fighter, though, you can also use any midi controller or keyboard to get the same results, with the Razer Chroma SDK having special LED responses for Nour already incorporated. Nour’s KickStarter campaign is now over, but it’s still available to pre-order via their Kickstarter site.
Another eye-catcher was Ossia Glow, developed by R25th, which describes itself as a room-scale rhythm game that uses a custom built turntable as its controller. Ossia Glow attracted long lines all night, and in practice looked like a sort of Daft-Punkesque Guitar Hero sort of game that uses a rainbow of LED strips rather than a screen for its visuals. The custom turntable lends a certain cool-factor to the experience that makes it feel more like you’re actively creating the music instead of interacting with it, and it was great in a party atmosphere.
When the focus wasn’t on alternative controls, it was on the “experiences you couldn’t get anywhere else” factor. Fabricade was truly exciting for some of the premieres it brought to its attendees. Liquid Bit, based in Chicago, had great success with its imaginative arcade co-op experience, Killer Queen. As we mentioned in our preview, this first of its kind 8 player arcade experience was such a big deal the New York Times did a piece on it. When it came time for a follow-up, Liquid Bit decided to bring the large group co-op fun to consoles, including the super co-op friendly Nintendo Switch.
Killer Queen Black takes the same intense gameplay from its arcade predecessor and introduces it to console with a few extras, including online play. Killer Queen Black has been highly anticipated, and Fabricade marked only its second appearance pre-release, with the game making a surprise appearance at PAX West just before we saw it at Fabricade. BitBash set aside an entire area for Killer Queen Black, and that area was constantly full of teams of four on either side battling it out—laughing, talking and high-fiving each other—so we think it’s a safe bet that Killer Queen Black might be a big hit when it releases on Switch and via Steam this winter.
Another local developer we’ve come to know and love on the Chicago video games scene was there with a highly anticipated follow-up too. Jackbox Games, which is frequently a sponsor for BitBash events and consistently supports games as art and the indie games scene, busted out Jackbox Party Pack 5 pre-release for Fabricade. If you haven’t gotten a chance to play any of the Jackbox Party Packs yet you’d almost have to have been actively avoiding them, as it’s frequently a feature at any video game related events in town and out of town, from C2E2 to the Chicago Public Library’s International Games Day celebration and more.
It’s easy to join in on the action with the smartphone you already have in your pocket, and every single one of the minigames is always as much fun to watch as it is to play, so lurkers have as much fun as players, and as much control over the outcome. Jackbox Party Pack 5 is extra exciting to us, since we found out via clever reveal at C2E2 that it would include the return of the acerbic trivia game we grew up on: You Don’t Know Jack. Seeing the Party Pack in action at Fabricade was a real treat. If the return of You Don’t Know Jack wasn’t enough though, look for four other new games (making this the biggest party pack ever), including Split the Room, a game of hypotheticals, Mad Verse City, a robot rap battle game, Patently Stupid, a brand new drawing game, and Zeeple Dome, dubbed an “outer space fling fest.” Up to 8 people can play couch co-op, but an impressive audience of up to 10,000 can be involved directly too, making this a truly massive multiplayer experience–and one you can’t fit entirely on a couch.
BitBash has always carefully curated its events, but lately, it’s seemed that they’re distilling focus down to a single theme for each of their events–beginning with the influence of “traditional” or “classical” art on video games with Interactive Influence at the Art Institute, subverting norms and resisting at Initiation, and alternative controls and one of a kind experience at Fabricade. What’s great about this is that it gives you a thread to follow, much the way a museum exhibit would, as you experience the games, as well as giving you something specific to look for and think about. BitBash draws a curious, open-minded crowd and actively encourages that perspective by continuing to provide new experiences and by approaching games critically as art while embracing experimental and novel ways to place. BitBash events typically subvert and exceed expectations, and it’s likely that if you participate and learn more, you’ll find yourself leaving with a new perspective on games in general. With a medium like video games that’s still so actively fighting to be recognized as art and is still so heavily stigmatized, we think this is incredibly important, and we’ll continue to look forward to what BitBash brings to the table. If you want to stay up to date with BitBash’s events in Chicago, be sure to follow them on Twitter and check out their website from time to time.
Contributing author Antal Bokor
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