No Quarter Expo. Credit: NYU Game Center
Last Friday, I was an alien, a corporate vandal, a dog, a queen bee and a girl with some particularly aggressive dance moves. I was at No Quarter, an indie-game exhibition hosted by New York University Tisch School of the Arts' Game Center and held at Waka Waka, a co-working space for the New York indie-game community located on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
The games at No Quarter ran the gamut of indie-game varieties: a dance-inspired game played on a sideways TV; a self-described "dog-'em-up"; two non-digital paper-based games, played with cards and stickers, respectively; and a five-versus-five game played on two enormous arcade machines.
The five No Quarter games all had one thing in common: Each emphasized collaboration just as much, or more, as it did competition.
Corporate Vandals at No Quarter Expo. Credit: Shawn AllenThe first game I played wasn't a video game at all. Designed by indie developer Shawn Alexander Allen, Corporate Vandals is played on a square poster showing part of downtown Manhattan. Players are divided into four teams and move by placing stickers on the poster.
Each group — the Corporate Vandals, the Indie Vandals, the Anti-Corporates and the City Cleanup Crew — had to follow a certain set of rules, but if something wasn't explicitly addressed in the rules, Allen told us, it was probably fair game.
In the match I played, I was the only representative of the Corporate Vandals. I couldn't figure out if I was a corporation or a vandal. I think that was the point.
Around turn two, the City Cleanup Crew guy tried to use his team's ability to pull up one of the Indie group's stickers. One of the Indie guys, noting that physical conflict wasn't expressly forbidden in the rules, grabbed the City guy's arm and tried to restrain him.
I watched from about three feet away as the two young men's grins quickly became flinty, then forced, then disappeared entirely. They stopped grappling and started yelling at each other — not as aggressively as in a real fight, but as if they were arguing over whether a double in baseball had been fair or foul.
Then, suddenly, the grins were back — slightly sheepish this time, but with a genuine geniality to them. They laughed about the scuffle — even though City still looked a little indignant about the red mark on his arm — and shook hands and introduced themselves.
The City guy still pulled up the Indie guy's sticker.
As for me, I had a strategy from the beginning, but I realized about halfway through that I had seriously miscalculated the game's pacing. I ended up coming in dead last. I shook hands with the other guys, thanked Allen and went off to find a drink.
After that, I headed back to the front of the room to play Kevin Cancienne's Dog Park.
Dog Park at No Quarter Expo. Credit: Kevin CanciennePlaying on a wide-screen TV right at the venue entrance, Dog Park is a four-person game in which each player is — wait for it — a dog at a park. Your objective is to romp around and have fun.
The controls were as simple as the premise: Aside from steering with the directional stick, the dogs could jump, paw, mouth (like biting or nuzzling) and sprint. "Fun" is literally the scoring system: Combinations of running, jumping, pawing and mouthing earn you points, and at the end of the game, the dog who has had the most fun is the winner.
The dogs themselves move quite similarly to real-life dogs, with wriggling bodies and pokey noses. Their bodies are less realistic-looking: angular and low-poly. The style evokes early 3D video-game graphics, but it also makes the dogs look like rough-hewn wooden carvings come to life.
Dog Park's controls were a bit sluggish, and sometimes dogs trying to wrestle would get stuck in an upright position, their front paws suspended in the air. But at other times, I thought the slightly unresponsive controls were actually very effective at making me feel like I was trying to control an actual dog.
It seemed as if the four players could theoretically work together to earn more fun points, but the match I played with three strangers at No Quarter was just a free-for-all of button-mashing and low-poly romping.
After that it was time to go flirt with an alien.
Playing Consentacle by Naomi Clark. Photo Credit: Steven TzeA human girl and a tentacled alien try to have a sexual relationship in Naomi Clark’s Consentacle. Stay with me here.
In each game, two players (one playing the human, the other the alien) interact by drawing Action Cards from a deck and playing one card per turn. The cards represent physical actions, from "Wink" and "Kiss" all the way up to "Penetrate" and "Release." If the two players play compatible cards, they will earn more Trust Tokens, which can later be converted into Satisfaction Tokens.
But unlike most games, Consentacle isn't a competition. The two players aren’t competing to get the most satisfaction out of the encounter; rather, both players are trying to achieve the highest possible shared satisfaction score.
Consentacle has two modes: an "easy" mode, in which players can discuss their cards before playing, and a "Universal Translator Breakdown" mode, in which the two players cannot speak out loud or show their cards, though they can use their eyes and other signals to communicate.
When I played, I sat down with a middle-aged man whose name I'm not sure of (it was loud in that room). We decided to play "easy" mode, except in one way: We both seemed to nonverbally agree that we were going to treat this like any other game, without any jokes or awkwardness or color commentary about the sexual content. I was very grateful for this.
After the game, we consulted our rulebooks to determine our results: a mutually satisfying encounter with "a few lasting tingles." We nodded, laughed, shook hands and went our separate ways. It was probably the most mature and interesting treatment of sex in a game that I have ever played.
Slam City Oracles
Slam City Oracles at No Quarter Expo. Credit: Jane FriedhoffNear the front of the room, another wide-screen TV stood on its side, towering over the audience. On it, two mischievous-looking female characters — controlled by two players standing in front of the TV — jumped, smashed and slammed their way across the screen as houses, benches and enormous doughnuts crumbled and collided in their wake.
Designed by Jane Friedhoff, Slam City Oracles plays kind of like old-school Ice Climbers — the game involved jumping and bouncing higher and higher, starting from the ground and leaping into the smiling platform-like clouds. But the game also has a Katamari-like vibe in its bright, chaotic and almost childlike two-dimensional graphics.
Playing the game means turning the gameworld into your own personal trampoline: Players will bounce up and down the field, pressing "X" to slam themselves into the ground in order to propel themselves to greater heights. The amount of bric-a-brac you displace or destroy along the way earns you points.
Though two people can play, Slam City Oracles isn't a competition; players earn one score for their combined play, and can also work together by throwing each other across the field.
I didn't get a chance to speak to Friedhoff at the event, but in an interview with arts-and-culture-news website Animal New York, she said the game's gleeful wreckage illustrated her frustrations as a female game developer in an industry that hasn't always been welcoming.
I got in only one quick game of Slam City Oracles, as the line was long. Of all the games I played at No Quarter, Slam City Oracles was the most overtly joyful. That may be ironic, considering it was also the most destructive.
Killer Queen at No Quarter Expo. Credit: Joshua DeBonis and Nikita MikrosThe last game, Killer Queen, wasn't debuting at No Quarter, but it still attracted its share of enthusiastic gamers. Developed by Joshua DeBonis and Nikita Mikros, the game is played on two enormous arcade machines — one orange, the other blue — wedged into the back corner of the venue, next to the bar.
I pressed my way through the bar crowd until I was standing just behind the people grouped around the consoles, standing on tip-toes so I could see the screen.
Killer Queen is a two-dimensional platformer featuring retro '80s-style graphics. On each of the two arcade screens, a group of orange bee-like characters and a group of blue bee-like characters were competing against each other, though at first I didn't understand the rules.
After a few fast-paced rounds at the orange machine, the people playing it moved on, and I and a few others took a turn. Each Killer Queen arcade machine needs five players, who take the roles of one queen bee and four worker bees. It took me a few minutes to realize that the people at the orange machine and the people at the blue machine were playing each other.
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To add to the mayhem of 10 players buzzing around on one screen, Killer Queen has three different possible win states: if one team kills the other's Queen; if one team gathers a certain number of berries; or if one team steers a snail at the bottom of the screen to its side of the field.
Twice in the handful of times I played, my teammates and I noticed too late that our opponent had almost claimed the snail. All three times that I was Queen, I was slain by an opposing worker bee.
It seemed to me that teamwork is critical for Killer Queen; my teammates on the orange console appeared to mostly be strangers, and we didn't talk much, or strategize at all, while playing.
Not only did I lose every match of Killer Queen — I lost every game at No Quarter that was possible to lose. But each of the five games on display did something unique.
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Jill Scharr is a staff writer for Tom's Guide, where she regularly covers security, 3D printing and video games. You can follow Jill on Twitter @JillScharr and on Google+. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.