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No Quarter dares you to look at games as sociological artifacts

A look at one of indie gaming's most fascinating nights of the year.

The first thing that comes to mind when recalling my experience at this year's No Quarter, NYU Game Center's annual curated indie game exhibition, is rain.

Not because any of the games on display featured precipitation in any sense, but because the weather that October night was so incorrigible. It was the first heavy rain I'd seen yet this fall, and it felt almost like a conscious effort on nature's part to deter me from attending the event.

But I'd already trekked all the way out to Brooklyn and was blocks away from the loft space where the games would be making their debut when the storm really picked up; the venue, appropriately enough, was on Water Street.

I'd never attended No Quarter before, despite this year's event serving as the Game Center's sixth iteration of it. Just from reading about it, though — from researching the exhibitions from years past, to perusing the confirmed list of designers — I was determined to go, alone and despite knowing no one else who would be attending.

The annual event is a celebration of a diverse array of game designers, always independent, often international. New York University's game design school, the Game Center, organizes the exhibition by way of appointing a curator and handing them free reign to assemble a cohort of interesting artists, thinkers and gamers to create work exclusively for the event.

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Despite the Game Center serving students both undergraduate and graduate, No Quarter struck me as a distinctly adult event. Perhaps it was the free flow of alcohol and concomitant party atmosphere that truly drove that sense home. Just as likely, however, was that each of the four games on exhibit strove to capture some philosophical concept, some ideological construct; each game boasted a sociopolitical element, not in the least bit overbearing but instead thought-provoking without obscuring the inherent entertainment element.

Looking at gaming in this way — as a phenomenon with broader cultural import than just entertainment — has always fascinated me, and as someone still fairly fresh out of college, to stand in the center of a room filled with games that dared you to look at them as sociological artifacts, alongside their creators and fans who were eager to engage the work in that way, felt great.

An open community of designers and gamers

It was easy to get caught up in the conversation of gaming as some socially important body while imbibing white wine, but ultimately No Quarter is meant to hand players a controller to try out new, fun, well-crafted games - games that were, in one case, being worked on up until the doors opened.

While previous No Quarter exhibitions featured the work of such designers as Zach Gage (Spelltower) and Kevin Cancienne (Home Free), this year's big name was Nina Freeman. Bum Rush was developed by a team consisting of Freeman and collaborators Emmett Butler (the programmer), Maxo (composer) and Diego Garcia (behind the lovely pixel art). The game shares only the most superficial of similarities with previous Star Maiden Games titles, like Cibele and How Do You Do It (a game she's discussed on Polygon). The entire team stars in the 16-bit eight-player game, which you play using Super Nintendo controllers. (This input method was chosen due to the cheap cost of the controllers, Freeman told me.)

no quarter

The objective of Bum Rush was to successfully drive yourself and your date back to your shared apartment before your roommates — and their own dates — beat you to it. It was a fast-paced bumper cars-like experience which easily led to repeat play. As the most accessible game on display, the pure fun of Bum Rush made perfect sense as No Quarter 2015's marquee title.

Having her game feature in the exhibit was a sort of homecoming for Freeman, whose profile has exploded since her days as a Game Center student.

"The game started as a prototype that I made in Bennett Foddy's prototyping class at NYU in 2014," Freeman shared with me following the event. "The original prototype was about riding your bike to a booty call, and the controls were kind of awkward to make it seem like you were nervous."

Looking at games as cultural objects

Translating the anxiety inherent in the lead-up to a date didn't make for the most fun gameplay, Freeman admitted, so the idea went on the backburner until curator Yang reached out to her to come up with something for this year's No Quarter.

"I'd been going to No Quarter for a few years," Freeman said, "and I wanted to emulate some of my favorite No Quarter games, which all had many players — games like Speed Chess and Killer Queen," titles which allow for up to 16 and 10 players each. After browsing through her old prototypes, she happened upon the discarded "booty call biking" idea and reworked it to fit the mold of the frantic multiplayer titles she admired.

Bum Rush was definitely the fastest paced game in the show, but the other three titles offered multiplayer experiences, too. Looping back toward the entrance of the loft space, I found two distinct crowds gathered around Beads of Orange Glass and The Promised, by Loren Schmidt and Ramsey Nasser respectively, which were placed back-to-back. Each of these titles were more abstract than the familiar Bum Rush, but found their fans all the same.

The Promised was a compelling title with perhaps the most intriguing backstory; Nasser was coding the game up until the doors opened that night. Unfortunately, some technical glitches prevented the game from being fully playable; designed for two players, my controller was unresponsive when I went to check it out. Instead, I watched as the opposing foot soldier shot at a defenseless me while maneuvering around the battlefield.

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Despite the hiccups that befell it, The Promised managed to attract a sizable audience of both players and those who wanted to play but were unable to, due to the technical difficulties.

On the opposite side of The Promised was Schmidt's Beads of Orange Glass, which enthralled a group so large I never was able to actually get my hands on it. Instead, I stood near the back — next to its designer, actually, which was a happy accident — and stood on slight tiptoes to admire the lucky pair of players who were traversing its distinctive world over the many heads in the crowd.

I'd never really been exposed to something like his game before, which prides itself on its minimalist, pixelated graphics, its abstract art style. Two players work together within the game's environment, which is shaped by one of the players and navigated by the other. This explorer character can take the form of a deer, a bird and other creatures as they swoop through the natural world generated by the other player.

"The experience is about exploring — exploring the space itself, exploring as the textural space the two players create together," Schmidt explained. "Instead of focusing on verbal narrative, it's more about things like tactile experience and colors."

I'd been intrigued by another one of his works, Strawberry Cubes, which has been described as "a Lynchian platformer" due to its bizarre, grotesquely combusting pixel art. Beads of Orange Glass is at once different yet reminiscent of this other work thanks to its unique usage of space, untethered to the conventions of reality.

A variety of unique multiplayer titles

Interestingly, like Freeman's project, Schmidt's game was built upon the vestiges of an abandoned project.

"I started this project specifically for No Quarter, but I didn't start entirely from scratch," he told me. "I had an earlier abandoned project haunting me, a space exploration game."

Trading in space for nature, Schmidt revamped that prior work for his exhibition piece, which he worked on for around a month and a half.

Like Strawberry Cubes, Schmidt plans to release his full No Quarter project to the public. "I've already made some addition to the game which I'm very excited about, like falling stars, erosion and growing moss," he said. "I can't wait to get the final game out into the world."

But the No Quarter showing was a victory in its own right: "I was so excited to show the game," he said. "It was delightful."

no quarter

Part of that excitement comes from the striking representation that No Quarter features year after year. As a first time patron, I marveled at the population playing the games, and was taken aback by the slate: three of the designers were female, and two were people of color.

Schmidt praised the diversity of games and designers when I talked to him both during and after the show. "Since the very beginning, there have always been interesting games, games by underrepresented folks, games which are artistically amazing," he said. "That's not new. But there is a huge shift in terms of numbers right now - the tools are more widespread, and many people who couldn't make games before are making them now.

"I love seeing the medium broaden into thousands of amazing new forms."

I talked to curator Robert Yang — who not only is a member of the Game Center's faculty, but is a developer in his own right (you might recall his Rinse and Repeat, which found controversy on Twitch back in September) — about the exhibition's unique roster, as well.

"I [looked] for designers who have developed a voice," he said. "They have something to say and they know how to say it, and they could just use some time, money, space and support to do it."

"I wanted a diversity of experiences and backgrounds, and I think we achieved it!"

"A diversity of experiences"

Each of the games had a remarkably different visual aesthetic, but one title stood out for not being a video game at all: Leah Gilliam's Lesberation was the sole title on display that didn't require a controller to play.

When Yang asked Gilliam to participate, he had no idea she'd be bringing the tabletop, paper-based Lesberation to the show. "Since we commission artists, and not usually specific projects, I actually didn't know what Leah was going to make," he told me. "But I'm happy with Lesberation, [and] I think conversational tabletop games are more relevant to games culture than ever before."

The multimedia artist wasn't present during the exhibit, but a team of moderators explained the game in her stead: A sort of Mad Libs with an obvious feminist mindset, teams collaborated to use the picture-bearing cards in their hands in order to problem-solve a crisis that had befallen an exclusive lesbian colony.

The political implications of the storyline were rendered more comic than anything else, and the community-building spirit of Lesberation made it perhaps the most entertaining game of the lot. The series of tables hosting sessions of the game were consistently packed, yet the speed of play allowed for a regular rotation of players, meaning that unlike some of the video games, which were more limited in terms of number of controllers available, almost everyone in attendance had a chance to check out Lesberation.

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I somehow took charge of crafting my group's narrative, which involved us deliberating over whether to allow straight men to join our ranks for the sake of re-populating, and as any good board game should, it left me feeling at once bonded to my teammates, who were a group of strangers.

That was my overall take from the event, too; I left feeling more comfortable in a world I had only ever watched from afar. The array of games on display were exciting in their novelty, and in their exclusivity, but what was most appealing was that the people behind the content were interesting thinkers belonging to a variety of groups, representing many different lines of thought and types of game design.

As a young adult in her first major experience with gaming outside of her own bedroom, it was a novel experience. The best part? The Game Center hosts numerous events just like No Quarter throughout the year. There's lectures, and academic conferences — I attended one, Practice 2015, back in November, where game designers shared their ideas on the field — and a whole slew of playtest sessions where anyone can try out games developed by Game Center students and indie designers.

An exciting space for indies

On Dec. 10, the semester concluded with the annual NYC Arcade event, which brought more than 70 games to the Game Center to be tested by the masses.

It's an exciting venue that highlights the equally exciting world of indies, which only grows more visible with the help of services like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Getting the chance to interface directly with these designers is a one-of-a-kind experience not to be taken for granted, to be sure, but the simple pleasure of playing a well-crafted experience is what was most celebrated at No Quarter and is the feeling I will continue to chase.

And, of course, the designers invited to participate expressed how much they enjoyed the event, too.

"I never dreamed of having a chance to show a game at No Quarter," Freeman told me, "having gone to it and really admired the designers who've made games for it in the past."

Schmidt felt especially strongly about the show's specific importance to the industry, saying that No Quarter and events like it "have the potential to help change how people think about games. People love games as pure entertainment, but people also love games which are experimental [or] overtly political [or] deeply personal.

"It's important for there to be public venues which enable the creation of games like that and expose them to the public."

Images by Robert Paul