The Rumble is the work of Babycastles, a game development collective and exhibition space in New York City. Babycastles volunteers say that the collective's goal is to promote diversity in the gaming community by amplifying the voices of marginalized artists. And you can't amplify a voice without making a whole lot of noise; there’s almost nothing Babycastles does louder than the Rumble.
There have been at least four Hot Ronny Rumbles before this one. The first was put on by Ronny Nunez, an active volunteer for the collective in its early days. Nunez eventually drifted away from the venue, but the name lived on — partially as a joke, but also to keep up tradition.
Game developer and musician Frank DeMarco organized this year's Rumble. He said he felt that today’s indie gaming scene lacked a crucial element once integral to the arcades he recalls from his youth in the‘90s. "There’s a lot of spectacle that’s missing — Bally and Midway-type stuff that grew out of casino culture," he said. "Those machines had elements that were just meant to grab your attention. But to people of a certain age, they were a part of the game."
On the morning of the race, the murky grey sky threatened rain without delivering. The race began along the East River, between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. A mile downtown, at the heliport at Pier 6, was an actual, physical, whirling helicopter. In about fifteen minutes one winner would be boarding this helicopter for a tour around Liberty, Ellis and Governors Islands.
Five representatives from various corners of the New York gaming scene, and one visiting from Oakland, CA, arrived in headbands and shorts to do their respective organizations proud. The contestants were author and professor of digital media at MIT Nick Montfort, Gwynna Forgham-Thrift of the NYU Game Center, Toni Pizza of IndieCade East, Mark Kleeb from Death by Audio Arcade, Nick Fortugno of annual street games festival Come Out & Play and Oakland-based Tim Rogers of Action Button Entertainment, developer of the minimalist multiplayer game Videoball.
That day, DeMarco wore a pastel polo shirt decorated with flowers, butterflies and watering cans. At times, he typed on two phones at once as he coordinated each of the Rumble’s moving parts. Two huge stuffed animals were slumped over his shoulders. One was a dinosaur, and the other was QWOP Bear, Babycastles’ mascot and the inspiration for their logo. QWOP Bear’s name refers to his original purpose, which was to house a playable version of the clumsy ragdoll track-and-field game. Today, however, his stomach was full of stuffing to allow for easy portability, and he was dressed in a Babycastles t-shirt.
Despite the promise of an exclusive helicopter ride, no one seemed too dead-set on beating anyone else, and only a few had prepared physically for the race. MIT’s Montfort was the most experienced runner, Come Out & Play’s Fortugno changed up his workout schedule a bit, and Death by Audio Arcade’s Kleeb sprained his ankle the previous week while running a 5K.
Right before the countdown, Kleeb asked, probably facetiously, if anyone wanted to ride his bike to the pier so he wouldn’t have to retrieve it later. He had to split afterward to attend a wedding, and couldn’t stay for the tournament. While I was looking forward to taking a Lyft to the finish line in style, the challenge was too tempting to pass up. "I’ve got to warn you, it’s a fixed gear," Kleeb told me. What I did not know was that meant: One: I would have to continuously pedal the thing. Two: The seat nearly reached my chest. To clarify, I am 5-foot-10. Still, I figured I would still easily beat all of the runners with my own set of wheels, so I got on the bike and rode.
I pedaled down the bike path for a few minutes when some chalk writing on the sidewalk led me astray. A yellow arrow pointed down a side street, and the text near it read "BABYCASTLES INDIE RACE."
A few feet ahead of that sign was another that said "Just kidding, turn back."
By then, it was too late. Montfort and Kleeb were closing in behind me. Kleeb looked at me, shrugged, and mouthed "Sorry!" before passing me up. I wasn’t even a contestant and I had already lost.
When I crossed the finish line, carting the bike beside me, Montfort was already making his way to a bright red copter off in the distance as the race’s winner.
At first glance, Babycastles’ location in the city doesn’t seem to fit its audience. It’s on 14th Street, where Manhattan’s rigid, navigable grid system ends and the jumbled web of Downtown begins. It's flanked on either side by the West Village and Chelsea, where art is typically housed in museums or white cube gallery spaces.
According to DeMarco, Babycastles chose the building because of its location in the relative center of the city. People could come from any of the five boroughs without having to set aside a whole day to travel, as it’s accessible by many of the city’s subway lines. The landlord who owns the building inherited it from his parents and chose to rent it out to artists.
Babycastles itself is structured much more like a venue of the DIY punk scene than any traditional gallery space. Its history reflects this, too. When the collective started out, it was part of the Brooklyn music venue, Silent Barn, which still regularly holds experimental and hardcore shows. Babycastles’ hand-painted murals and un-messed-with black floors recall that location, and those of the same vein.
But today there is a projector for every wall, each glowing with characters preparing to jump, crawl, fly or beat the hell out of each other. Five homemade arcade cabinets were spread throughout the room, too, blaring with neon light and sound. A ladder in the corner led to a tight loft space above.
What looked like a giant chicken leg made out of cardboard and duct tape hung from the ceiling by a thin thread. A sort of metal flower, that seemed to be molded out of clothing hangers, sprouted from the top of the chicken leg. By the end of the day, this whole contraption would be scattered on the floor in pieces.
After an hour or so of mingling, the marshmallow eating contest commenced, which actually had no eating involved whatsoever. Instead, all three contestants had to fit ten jumbo-sized marshmallows in their mouths and say, as audibly as possible, the words "Hot Ronny." The contestant that won claimed to have never eaten a marshmallow in his life, and clinched the victory by using the age-old cheek stuffing technique.
Finally, the tournament could begin, though it was only a tournament in the loosest sense of the word. DeMarco assigned everyone at the show to one of three teams, each representing some of Babycastles’ resident stuffed animals: QWOP Bear, GIRP Bat and Soda Drinker Pro Penguin.
Nine games were on display at the Rumble, and tournament goers could play any of them at any time. In order to score points for their team, players simply had to agree beforehand that the game would be a ranked match. On the main projector, however, every game counted for points. There was no set roster, and players could switch in and out whenever they liked, so long as each team had at least one representative. Most players held their controllers in the air after each round and looked from side to side for anyone who hadn’t gotten a turn. From the loft, frequent Babycastles visitors and volunteers acted as commentators, grabbing microphones and remarking on each of the matches.
To open the tournament, the announcer, Coach Kyle, introduced Ronny Nunez — the original Hot Ronny.
Performing in games
Before the games began, I met with Nunez to discuss the origins of the first event.
"The first one was kind of a hot mess," he said. Nunez came to Babycastles originally only intending to help the group move from Silent Barn to their 14th Street location. He ended up becoming the venue’s videographer, but felt they had lost their focus on games with the move. "I wouldn’t call it an identity crisis," said Nunez, "but there was certainly a lot of programming that was designed to meet the needs of the space, not so much the needs of Babycastles itself."
He decided to plan his own tournament — one that would take inspiration from the competitive fighting game scene, of which he was an avid follower, and bring the games to the forefront. That was the Hot Ronny Rumble.
At first, he struggled to think of a name for the event. He didn’t view himself as the person self-aggrandizing enough to attach his name to his own tournament. Then, he backtracked and thought, what would be the Babycastles thing to do? "As gamers, we’re used to performing in games," he said, "We’re used to being in the virtual space and not so much embodying the physical space. I realize now in naming it after myself, I was able to do something I wouldn’t have otherwise: to share games with other people by performing outside of myself."
"It’s about doing shit for shit’s sake ... because, why the fuck not?"
Nunez sees this fourth Rumble as an extension of that grandstanding attitude. "The helicopter is so much more Babycastles to me. It’s about doing shit for shit’s sake — not just doing it because that’s just how things are done, but because, why the fuck not?"
Nunez volunteered with Babycastles between 2013 and 2014, then took some time off to focus on his job as a courier. He is currently working on his own game, which he refers to as a "eugenics simulator."
"Being Hispanic," he said, "there’s this concept of ‘good hair’ and ‘bad hair’ that’s very racist and based on skin color. Basically, the blacker your hair is, the ‘worse’ it is." His game focuses on that concept of essentialism, and involves quickly choosing mates based on several factors. Focusing on a few traits requires others to fall by the wayside. "It tries to put a light twist on something very serious. It’s a weird experience to try to achieve a very specific trait while making choices about who you want to be with and have children with."
After attending this Rumble, Nunez said he is considering returning to Babycastles.
Let’s get ready to rumble
Snacats was first up in the tournament’s ranked matches. It’s a multiplayer version of Snake where players take control of adorable animated cats, which grow longer for each fish they eat on the playing field. Yo Fight My Mans was next, a clunky 2D fighting game which appeared at a Babycastles show in February curated by Ashok "Dapwell" Kondabolu, formerly of the defunct hip hop group Das Racist. One of the game’s arenas takes place in a virtual recreation of Babycastles itself. Particle Mace came third, an Asteroids-style action game where neon spaceships battle each other using long clubs the vessels drag from behind.
The main event and final game of the day was Videoball, for which developer Tim Rogers made a special course specifically for the Rumble. The QWOP Bear emblem was stamped on center court. The Babycastles wordmark appeared in the top left corner, and in the top right was the logo for Chick-fil-A, a fast food chain with no ties to Babycastles whatsoever. DeMarco explained that Rogers had made Videoball arenas for his friends that featured the logos of their companies. Rogers had yet to make one for Chick-fil-A, so DeMarco requested the addition.
As it turns out, a robot beauty pageant is exactly what it sounds like. Throughout the day, a small group from Hack Manhattan, a community hacker space which shares the building with Babycastles, labored behind a door marked "ROBOT MAKING IN HERE." They were attempting to build the sexiest robot possible using only household items like wood planks, spare electronics and duct tape. The judges declared Dave, a remote control and circuit board hybrid, as the most gorgeous machine in all the land.
By the end of the tournament, team QWOP Bear emerged victorious, having gained a significant lead thanks to their early sweep in the marshmallow round. Joshua DeBonis and Nikita Mikros, creators of the ten player arcade game Killer Queen, led the closing ceremonies.
Pinata of loot
Once the applause died down, Tim Rogers took a long plastic broom handle and walked over to the chicken leg hanging from the ceiling. As it turned out, the chicken leg was supposed to be a helicopter, and it was also a piñata. Rogers readied the broom handle over his shoulder like Donatello winding up to clobber a Foot Clan goon. After just two very loud whacks, the whole thing split open, spilling its goodies out the bottom. Contained within were:
- About six sheets of owl stickers
- A few plastic jewels backed with adhesive
- Three drink umbrellas
- A single-ride Metrocard for the New York City subway
At any other event, I would have been upset at the lack of candy. Yet, in the context of the rest of the day, there was no better way to cap off six hours of dynamism. I picked up a sheet of stickers and tucked it into my backpack.
"Babycastles lacks formality," Nunez told me, "It lacks uniformity. The people will support you if you have an idea and you’re willing to work for it. That allows people to come in with ideas that don’t have mass appeal or follow tradition. Babycastles encourages people to make an event that they would want to be a part of."
In its mission to defy convention and tradition, Babycastles has established its own in Hot Ronny’s Rumble.
This isn’t something done easily or without thought. "Babycastles is a struggle, it’s a hassle," DeMarco said, "We want to do big budget stuff, but we have just a little bit to spend and we have to pay rent. A lot of our developers are struggling too. As a group, we need to face that and work together."