Celebrating the Super Weird With Austin’s Indie Gaming Champions
Juegos Rancheros is a home for the fascinating handmade oddities existing at video game's extremities.
The first game I play at Juegos Rancheros, tapping away on an oversized laptop, leaning over a rickety table in a darkened event space, is about donuts. Well, sort of. It's called Donut County, and it certainly features donuts, though their centrality to the gameplay might be questionable. After clicking on every donut I see, I'm taken into something like a physics sandbox, a set of short stages where I control a chasm in the desert, dragging it to suck up everything I can find, growing so I can devour everything in sight. I am the ever-expanding donut hole at the centre of all things.
Donut County is the sort of game Juegos Rancheros loves to show off. Made by Ben Esposito, designer of the lovely The Unfinished Swan, it's all bright colours and absurdism, a playground pretending at a cartoon. And, more importantly, it's a small, personal work, a game clearly shaped and cared for by human hands. Juegos Rancheros is dedicated to these kind of games – and to the people who make them.
Based in Austin, Texas, Juegos Rancheros ( juegos is Spanish for "game" – it's a breakfast pun) is a bit hard to describe. Billed on its website as an "independent game collective," Juegos is a community hub, a meeting space dedicated to showing off the new, the exciting, and the strange. Every first Thursday of the month, Juegos meets at the North Door, an Austin event space with the half-lit, well-worn aesthetics of a punk venue. Here, the founders of Juegos show off small games from their friends and the community at large.
"IT DOESN'T HAVE A REALLY DEFINED THING"
"I think we basically just said, 'Let's start drinking every Thursday,' so every Thursday, we'd meet at Liberty over there, for a super informal let's-get-to-know-each-other-and-keep-this-going thing," Brandon Boyer, one of Juegos's founders, tells me. Boyer is the chairman of the Independent Games Festival, which highlights the best and most innovative work done in that space. In addition, he runs games culture site Venus Patrol and has a penchant for throwing parties, including That Venus Patrol & Wild Rumpus Party, a late-night and brightly coloured blowout that occurs during GDC every year.
The other part of the "we" here is Adam Saltsman, an Austin-based game developer who Brandon befriended in 2008. Linking up with a few other indie developers in town, the two of them formed an inner circle that would become the basis of Juegos.
"Always in the back of my head I thought it would be cool if we could do a show, and show other people what we were working on, just, like, the general public," Boyer continues. As time went on, their drinking sessions grew into something like a scene, pulling in other members of the Austin dev community.
After the first Fantastic Arcade in 2010, an independent gaming arm of the Fantastic Film festival put on by the Alamo Drafthouse, an Austin-based chain of movie theatres, Tim League, the Drafthouse's CEO, offered Boyer and his crew a space at a venue called the Highball in downtown Austin to start putting on regular indie events. The idea was to expand the Fantastic Arcade brand, building a year-long showcase to support the budding independent games community. And so Juegos Rancheros began in 2011, as a small, boozy gathering of creators, enthusiasts and supporters.
Since then, it's grown steadily, accruing members and moving into its current space after the Highball was shut down and moved across town. In its present incarnation, Juegos is run by a five-person band they call their Board. Alongside Boyer and Saltsman, it's comprised of: Rachel Weil (aka Party Time! Hexcelent!), an artist who creates glitchy, ultra-feminine games for the Nintendo Entertainment System while also running Femicom, which she describes to me as a "digital and physical archive of femininity in 20th century games", and lecturing at the University of Texas; Jo Lammert, who manages a company called White Whale Games and also works at the Thinkery, a children's museum; and Wiley Wiggins, game developer, director of Fantastic Arcade, and actor (best known for his roles in Dazed and Confused and the fever dream that was Waking Life).
Talking to them all, there's an easy back-and-forth between members of the group, with long tangents devoted to fond reminiscences and excited explanations of the favourite games. And that's what Juegos is, really: five friends sharing their enthusiasm about games with as many people as they can.
"It doesn't have a really defined thing of what it is," Brandon concludes. "It's just the collective of us here in Austin."
Last time I was at Juegos Rancheros, it was the first week of March, during GDC. As such, the leadership was a bit thin, with everyone but Lammert and Weil away in San Francisco. They took the opportunity to do something a little different. Normally, Juegos shows are devoted to the new hotness. This time, though, they dipped into the past. The centrepiece of the showcase was Zero Zero, a 1997 PC game by the late Theresa Duncan. Duncan gained notoriety in the late '90s as a critic, an early blogger, and a creator of adventure games aimed primarily at young girls.
Unlike most games created for girls at the time, Duncan's games were (and remain) vibrant, nuanced and strange. Zero Zero is set in Paris on the 31st of December, 1899, and it follows a young girl as she goes from door to door, soliciting for firewood. It's a hallucinatory, playful experience, an outpouring of Duncan's eclectic interests (like the history of perfume and the development of electricity) alongside budding Y2K anxiety and hope for the future.
"So, Rhizome [a New York-based contemporary digital art society] recently Kickstarted a digital preservation project for these games," Weil explains. The newly preserved versions, designed to be playable in web browsers, are slated for debut in April 2015.
"Working with Rhizome, we agreed to do a little promotion before that happened. It's really cool... Theresa Duncan was getting a lot of notoriety and press, but she was still, like, stuffing the jewel cases herself and selling the games by phone. So it's a really interesting moment in game history and I think there's some connections between that and the indie scene today that were worth exploring."
The crowd, for their part, seemed fascinated. Duncan's unique art style, which teeters somewhere between Twin Peaks and Pee Wee's Playhouse, lends itself to this sort of group appreciation. Alongside Zero Zero, Lammert and Weil picked two games by contemporary developer Nina Freeman, How Do You Do It and Space Dad, to round out the show, explaining that, for them, Freeman's work, which also largely targets young girls, felt like a natural companion to Duncan's.
"AMBASSADORS FOR THE WEIRD STUFF"
Despite most of Juegos's Board being away, the crowd wasn't any thinner than normal at the Zero Zero gathering. The people I talk to come from all walks of life, and a surprising number – maybe even the majority – aren't involved in games at all. One guy, hunched over the computer housing How Do You Do It, trying to figure out how to make a pair of anatomically challenged dolls, well, y'know, said that his girlfriend brought him. Another told me that this was his first Juegos, and it was something that he'd been meaning to check out for a long time. He wasn't a game person, he said. It was just neat.
Later, a scrawny dude comes up to me and introduces himself as a member of a team working on identity theft prevention at the University of Texas. He makes games, or at least game-like things, but for narrower educational purposes, teaching about online security. (He looks, appropriately, nervous.) For him, Juegos seems to be a chance to get in touch with the larger scene.
"Our local group is kinda weird," Saltsman explains to me. "It's not very games-y. Like, there is that, but there are also chiptunes people, and robotics people, and, like, seaweed farmers." Juegos Rancheros isn't the only one of its kind – it takes a lot of inspiration from other video game art groups, like the Hand Eye Society in Toronto. But something does seem unique: the degree to which Juegos Rancheros is, for a space centred around video games, not really a video game space. It feels more like a community built out of crossover. Austin, after all, is home to a lot of independent art movement – as I write this, South by Southwest has taken the town over, carpeting the streets with musicians and filmmakers trying to share themselves with anyone who'll pay attention. Juegos feels like a space where those people can connect with those sharing similar values on the fringes of the video game industry.
"The idea is to be ambassadors for the weird, artsy stuff made by one or two people to a wider audience that likes that in other art forms," Saltsman says. "They already like weird one-person electronic music and movies made by three people, and maybe they don't know yet that you can find super weird video games made by two people, too."
Making those connections, and making them in a local, intimate space, is what the Juegos Board will tell you they're most proud of.
GAMES FOR HUMANS, BY HUMANS
There's a little desert town about seven hours away from Austin called Marfa. (In Texas, we always refer to distance in hours driven.) Since the 1970s, Marfa has become an art world hub, a beautiful place in the middle of nowhere that's eager to accept any artists willing to roll through it. Last year, in conjunction with the yearly Marfa Film Festival, Juegos came in to set up shop for a little while. When I ask, it's the moment that they seem most proud of, the most quintessentially Juegos thing they could think of.
"We set up in an abandoned dollar store and blocked out all the windows," Weil says. "We had Christmas lights and black lights and it was so dark in there, and so cold. It was in the desert in July, so being out in the heat and walking into this super dark, calming... There's this spacey music floating through the building."
They brought with them the results of the Space Cowboy Game Jam, ten to 12 submissions littered around the darkened old store, the hum of computers filling the space. For a time, an old Dollar General store became a portal to other worlds, to the adventures of cosmic gunslingers in deep space.
"And the majority of the visitors who came into the show didn't really know a ton about indie games or anything," Lammert adds. "But [they] had such a great experience exploring all the games that were there."
Wiggins chimes in, emphatic. "That's a really great thing to take to people. It's one thing to explain indie, but it's another to explain that these are homemade games that somebody did in a week. That comes across to people a lot more than trying to brand them, like, 'Oh, these are cool games.' No, these are..."
He pauses for a brief moment. "People made these things."
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All photos by Carlos Matos