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The Stinking Beauty of Barfcade, a Refreshing New Game Fest

I thought I saw one of the contestants vomit, but as Wiley Wiggins explained to me, she was just spitting up the anchovy ice cream into a garbage bin.

by Zack Kotzer
Oct 3 2014, 9:00am

Thu Tran. Image: andres lombana bermudez/Flickr

I thought I saw one of the contestants vomit, but as Wiley Wiggins explained to me, she was just spitting up the anchovy ice cream into a garbage bin. Now, before you start thinking the Barfcade game jam was a bust, you should know that soon after the ceremonies ended, both contestants, Alexander and Jessica, rushed off-camera to the washrooms to blow chunks.

"I'm not sure what did it," said Wiggins, "I think eating a whole stick of butter. I'm from the South, so that seemed like an easy enough challenge. That was the first thing they did and it was really difficult for both of them, while sort of setting the stage... I think they knew what they were getting into. Someone's gotta put the barf in Barfcade."

Barfcade was a stunt-gaming/stunt-eating combo competition that served as a centerpiece for this year's Fantastic Arcade, which is part of Austin's Fantastic Fest. Wiggins, a writer and actor who's appeared in Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, and Computer Chess, has organized the arcade for the last three years.

He tried a similar concept based on the 80s show Starcade (think Nick Arcade if you're a 90s kid, or Video & Arcade Top 10 if you're a Canadian 90s kid), but when the people supplying their retro multi-cabinets started raising fees, Wiggins decided it was time to take the event somewhere else.

"I was kind of sick of that event in its original form anyway," said Wiggins. "I love old games, but it's not the direction I want Fantastic Arcade to go. That's such an easy kind of thing that I feel we've been doing it long enough, we can challenge people again."

Barfcade's game cabinet. Image: Angela Doestch/Flickr

He had been hoping for an excuse to collaborate with food personality Thu Tran, and after learning she had been involved in the game circuit, slinging food at Babycastles and making a Kinect game with Ivan Safrin, he was confident they could imagineer something original.

Barfcade launched with a call to arms from other strange game makers. Starcade had vintage fares, but by harvesting short, independent oddities it meant the event would showcase games synonymous with the rest of Fantastic Arcade.

The entries simply needed to have consistent controls and be competitive two-player games able to be won in 30 seconds. They also needed to incorporate shrimp in some way, which was Thu's idea. On that note, Wiggins can't remember where the barfing came in exactly, just during an idea rush, though he thinks Thu's responsible. She's certainly the one to thank for the actual vomiting.

Butter eat-off. Image: andres lombana bermudez

The Barfcade itself, which was livestreamed, can be broken down into three components: trivia, which included questions related to both games and food (the diets of Burger Time, cartoon Sonic the Hedgehog, and so on); gaming, which required winning points by locking horns in one of the submissions; and lastly, eating, won by chowing and keeping down on the assortment of gross things cooked up by Thu Tran.

"The stunt eating was all Thu's thing," said Wiggins. "She always does disturbing food stuff. She once did this thing that was so grotesque, she made mayonnaise in her mouth. She took a swig of olive oil and cracks an egg in her mouth. She spit it into a dish and some people actually tasted it, which even now is making me sweat and feel queasy. We toned that down a little bit."

While the menu began with a stick of butter, contestants moved on to delicacies like popsicles, flavoured with durian or anchovy paste. (Wiggins said the latter smelled like "a million undead assholes.") 

But the thing that offended Wiggins' sensibilities the most was that the anchovy baloney tacos were served on raw tortillas. "What fucking Yankee got in there and served us raw tortillas?" he asked.

While it's hard to get over the barf, or even the smell of barf, Barfcade Is part of an evolution and solution to the game festival circuit

The games themselves, while loaded up with images of food and upchuck, probably won't make their audiences pull out the barf bags as quickly as the delicacies. They were selected randomly during the show, but the entire lot, played and unplayed, are available online

Wiley's favourite is Lovesick, where a newlywed couple experiences the magic of food poisoning. Mine is Kuru-kuru! Kuru!, which looks like an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet inside Keita Takahashi's imagination. Wiggins's own game, which has Guy Fieri rebranded as automat ambassador Chad Ravioli, didn't make an appearance during the festivities.

While it's hard to get over the barf, or even the smell of barf or thinking about that smell-o-barf, Barfcade seems to be part of an evolution and solution to the game festival circuit.

The highlights of these showcases usually become the titles least accessible anywhere else. Unconventional interfaces, such as the infectious hype of the screen-less Johann Sebastian Joust (which is now available in Sportsfriends), Robin Arnott's sensory deprivation romp Deep Sea, or Takahashi's own Tenya Wanya Teens, which is played on a grid of colour and function-changing buttons. 

At last year's Gamercamp, I played A Fishing Game With Actual Water, which used bowls of H2O, tinfoil and your body as a conduit-based controller.

"I would like to see some games that involve eating actual weird things," said Wiggins. "I like weird local multiplayer stuff, anything that plays with that, incorporates smell-o-vision, or some haunted house crap where you have to reach your hand into something awful while playing a game. Looking for a controller in a bunch of Jello, I would be into that."

Presence-involved gaming is an indie scene inevitability, and one of its most defining qualities. But beyond that, what speaks to Wiggins about having made Barfcade a game show is that it removes, or at least diverts attention away from, cash prizes.

Many game festivals have rewards to some of the games submitted, best-in-show sort of things, which can get that game a needed spotlight, but can also blanket a sour mood over everyone involved. By having a bunch of goofs stand around, barfing and gaming, the publicity generates itself. That can be a new incentive, even if it doesn't mean walking away with a fresh cheque.

Wiggins doesn't think he'll do Barfcade 2 next year. Not because it made people ill, but because he'd rather do something new. But he and Tran are on the right track, given how many people it got excited. And queasy.

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