The film and video-game industries have had a strange coexistence. Separate though they are (for now), their impact on each other is unmistakable. Many big action movies, including the biggest of them all, "Avatar," look like shoot-'em-up video games. And games, as they've grown in technical sophistication, continue to ape film genres and visual styles (the recent Western-themed hit "Red Dead Redemption" and the "Halo" series, to name just two).
There've been very few successful crossovers. Game adaptations of movies are typically disasters, while movies based on video games are often even worse. (Summer's video game-flavored "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" earned good reviews but underperformed at the box office.)
Navigating this rocky middle ground of entertainment is Fantastic Arcade, a new festival branching off from Austin's popular film-focused Fantastic Fest. The four-day Arcade begins today for what organizers hope will be many years of panels, game-related film screenings, music and a carefully curated showcase of independent games.
Festival organizers say they're expecting about 2,000 attendees, including attendees of the film side of Fantastic Fest, who'll have an open invite to attend the Arcade events.
Featuring celebrities of the gaming world such as Richard Garriott and "Braid" creator Jonathan Blow, Fantastic Arcade is sprawling and ambitious for a games festival in its first year. It'll try to retain the vibe that has made Fantastic Fest well-known among film geeks while blazing its own digital trail.
Tim League, owner of the Alamo Drafthouse franchise and founder of Fantastic Fest, had been trying to get a spinoff games fest off the ground for several years when he hooked up with Mike Plante. Los Angeles-based Plante, who would become lead curator of Fantastic Arcade, has worked for film festivals including Sundance and had originally tried to put together a games festival to go with Las Vegas-based Cinevegas in 2008. That effort didn't get off the ground, but with League's help, Plante was able to make it happen in Austin.
In keeping with Fantastic Fest themes, the emphasis will be on fantasy, action and monsters. Plante says Fantastic Arcade exists to give smaller, lower-budget games a chance to get in the hands of gamers.
"When it really gets down to it, we don't give a (expletive) how much money went into making a game as long as it's fun to play and it fits into the theme," he said.
Plante himself is still firmly rooted in the film world, and that might separate Fantastic Fest from events like Los Angeles game-industry-focused conference E3, the game-culture-centric Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle and Boston, and IndieCade in Culver City, Calif., which focuses on smaller, off-the-radar games.
"We're very interested in crossovers between the video-game world and film world," Plante said. He points to one of the 29 games featured in Arcade's Showcase, the beautiful puzzle game "Machinarium," as an example of that cross-pollination. His references go straight toward the film world while describing it.
"It looks like Terry Gilliam or David Cronenberg did the artwork for it," he said, excitedly.
A packed lineup
Fiona Cherbak, one of the main organizers of Fantastic Arcade, has been working with curators, game developers and filmmakers across the country in addition to reaching out to local talent.
She says Arcade wanted to bring far-flung indie games here, but also to spotlight talent in the area. "Austin has its own challenges," she said. "It's not considered a top-20 market. But we have an enormous game development community here. There are fresh ideas and designers you've never heard of or met doing exciting things on their own the industry should be aware of."
The fest also includes:
• A keynote speech today from Austin's Richard Garriott, famed developer of "Ultima" who this year launched a new social and casual gaming company called Portalarium.
• Sunday screenings of winners of a recent "48-Hour Machinima" challenge hosted by Burnie Burns, founder of Austin's Rooster Teeth Productions . Machinima filmmakers use the graphics engines that power video games to create their own works of art. Rooster Teeth will also be debuting its own new Machinima work, "Red vs. Blue: Revelation."
• Panels and game demos .
• An Xbox Live games showcase, as well as a preview of six new Xbox Live Arcade titles with Microsoft developers in attendance.
• Music events kicking off with a performance tonight by nerdcore musician MC Frontalot .
• Game tournaments for "Street Fighter IV" and "Left 4 Dead 2."
But perhaps the biggest attraction will be the 29 hand-picked indie games displayed at the Highball. Eight of those games will be housed in upright arcade-style cabinets with game art displayed on the sides.
Plante says the festival's curators sought out games that were being produced on shoestring budgets in garages as well as indie hits that have broken out to the mainstream like "Braid," "Limbo" and "Trine."
For its first year, the festival didn't take submissions but instead sought out games that had gotten attention at games festivals or were getting buzz in the indie game world.
Greg Costikyan , who's on the board of advisers for the fest and is editor-in-chief of the indie games-focused Web site Play This Thing!, said indie games tend to explore genres that major publishers have neglected, such as retro games, hard-core strategy and adventure. Sometimes, they take chances that designers of big-budget games can't afford to.
"If a company is spending $15 million on a game, they don't want to hear you're going to innovate in terms of gameplay," Costikyan said.
But the indie label itself can mean many different things in the video game world. Typically, indie games sell for $5 to $20 and have the greatest chance of selling well on PC distribution services like Steam or on console download services like Xbox Live Arcade, Nintendo's WiiWare or the PlayStation Network.
"Braid" creator Blow, who'll be at the festival, said even indie game developers aren't sure what the term means.
Blow added: "I don't really care that much either way. I'm really more concerned with whether people are making interesting games than whether they are indie or not."
Costikyan says that Fantastic Arcade is only the second time he's aware of that a major independent film festival spun off a games fest. The last time it happened, with the Slamdance Games Festival, a backlash erupted in 2008 when organizers tried to remove a controversial game, "Super Columbine Massacre RPG!," from the lineup.
That game is included in Fantastic Arcade, along with games with titles such as "Operation: Pedopriest" and "McDonald's Video Game."
Plante said he's aware of the reaction games like this might provoke, but said, "At the very least, we aren't showing those games simply to be controversial, but to address larger social issues that happen in gameplay. And mostly being under the Fantastic Fest banner of genre and extreme films, I think the audience has both a high threshold level and knows when satire and social commentary are at play."
Eddo Stern, one of the festival's other curators, said video games need to break way from the perception that allowing players to play as a gangster, killer, or even a pedophile represents an endorsement of those actions or a trivialization of the issues.
"Both of these assumptions about games need to be challenged u2026 I think it's very important that we as curators and game developers explore and present games that show more complex views on controversial issues to help break the stigmas about gaming," Stern said.
The documentary "Playing Columbine," which details the uproar over "Super Columbine Massacre RPG!," will be screened at 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Alamo Ritz.
Video games that play off major news events have become more widespread since that game was created as free tools and online services have popped up to create and distribute home-made games. Earlier this year, a game called "Tax Time!" appeared online after an Austin man crashed a small plane into the Echelon I building in Northwest Austin after a dispute with the IRS.
When: Today through Sunday. All ages 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, 18 and older for evening events.
Where: The Highball, 1142 S. Lamar Blvd., and Alamo South, 1120 S. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: $10 for single-day game demo and arcade passes; $20 for single-day all-access pass for parties, films, panels and parties; $60 for all-access four-day pass.
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