To understand video game designers as artists, look at Milwaukee's indie gaming scene
Walking out of Art*Bar after a pop-up arcade night, I realized how fitting this setting was for showcasing video games for what they truly are: art.
Though the event was called No Controllers, in reference to the many arcade-style cabinet games featured, plenty of the video games did actually have controllers, too. But what they all did have in common was that the games—from the concepts, to the music, to the software or hardware—were all made by Milwaukee developers.
Our city has quite a few. You can find a lot of Milwaukee independent game devs at events like these organized by Paul Zimmermann of Mooncat Arcade, by Joe Bunda and Ross Klettke of the Miltown Game Developers group or simply creating in their bedroom, like Milwaukee musician LUXI.
With games like "Storm Knights," "Bomb Sworders," "The Moon Fields," "Mage Fort," "Perigee" or professional studios like AntiCrunch and Releaux that are popping up as proof, Milwaukee's indie gaming scene is growing.
I spent a month following it, meeting creators, mashing buttons and expanding my understanding of everything a video game can be. Here's who I met and the games I played.
The Miltown Game Developers
I'm someone who had previously played a limited number of games, but I'll try to force a video game reference anyway. If the Milwaukee indie gaming scene was Pokémon and I were Ash, Joe Bunda would be Professor Oak. He organizes the Miltown Game Developers meetups and he's the creator of a game called "Perigee." He was my guide to the local scene.
He describes being a video game developer as the "Batman" to his "Bruce Wayne." He created the Miltown Game Developers on Meetup.com to see how many other hobbyist or professional game developers he could find in Milwaukee. He ended up connecting with the original Local MKE Gamedev Showcasers and eventually took it over. Now, the combined group has over 700 members and about 50 people who are actually regulars to the events. Every month they get together for two types of meetups: the first focuses on more technical presentations and workshopping and the second is an open event to showcase and simply play the games.
Joe's own game "Perigee" is a perfect example of how these meetups are important in the development process.
In his game, the great world-ship Perigee is powered through deep space by the different color matter its generating core collects. As captain of the utility ship's compass needle, the player's objective is to shoot the bubbles of matter onto the playing field with the aim of grouping the greatest number of like colors to create energy, score points and keep matter away from the center (where it could cause a chain reaction and destroy the ship). I think of it like a combination of "Candy Crush" and "Asteroids."
When Joe originally debuted "Perigee" to the group, they all began to catch on to the game, except one player. After the group watched him play, they realized he was color blind. Now, Perigee has a colorblind mode for players who have one or more of the three forms of colorblindness. In a room full of developers, the workshopping can often get more technical than this, but it shows how important feedback is to the process for indie devs.
"The Moon Fields"
My nerdy boss Tarik and I visited one of the Miltown Developers meetups at 42 Ale House—a geeky pub in St. Francis—and Raphael Azcueta's "Moon Fields" caught our attention right away—not only because we had heard of it before, but because of its graphics and custom controllers. The game is a multiplayer fantasy brawler game featuring different landscapes and characters with special melee weapons and spells.
Raphael considers himself a designer and artist first, before calling himself a coder. And though the pixel art and graphics are captivating, he means more than visual art.
"I like to work on the moment to moment gameplay evoking different kinds of emotions many times in a second," Raphael says.
With that perspective, his game becomes more than a stylized "Super Smash Bros." It makes it easy to see video games as their own art form—like an interactive, multimedia performance piece.
He says, "Generally indie games thrive around art, music and technology. The majority of the Midwest seems to treat those things separately, but I think if as we connect more with artists and musicians and galleries and venues and event organizers...we'll grow."
To him, growing a scene, developing games and getting exposure...it's all about making connections.
"It's really important for any creative to connect with other creatives—especially when they've got a different perspective," Raphael says. "Also, hanging with people who understand your weird niche is always good feels."
Even so, he says his biggest challenge is still promotion. "Midwesterners are generally very modest and we don't exactly have a thriving video game industry or promotion industry here in Milwaukee for it."
He has a good start though. "Moon Fields" has been shown at the Midwest Gaming Classic, Daisho Con in the Dells, Anime Milwaukee, Madison's M+Dev regional gamedev conference and featured in an entire indie showcase at Chicago's Anime Central that he curated.
"Bomb Sworders," a multiplayer game filled with a series of parkour-like movement puzzles and strategic hits, is the product of this community created by the Miltown Game Devs. In 2016, Ross Klettke presented a prototype of a game called "Zcuffle" to a meetup. Dan Graves, creator of "Walk the Light" approached him about teaming up to create a full game out of it. "Bomb Sworders" was born out of that collaboration. But the team wasn't complete until the two met Ray Toler (aka Releaux), a composer who created the soundtrack to drive the action of the neon graphics in the addicting game.
Ross Klettke talks about the collaboration: "It requires a whole bunch of fields to come together and each contains really interesting problems. But, in the end, everything has to fit together in a compelling way. So while the end product is a game, the actual process of making it is almost like a game too—some sort of alternately frustrating and rewarding puzzle where you have the freedom to carve the puzzle pieces into whatever shapes you want."
One of the major pieces of the puzzle is music. That's where Ray comes in. "It’s very similar to the process of writing for film—finding the right emotional tone, setting the mood, driving the action—but with its own unique challenges," he says. "For Bomb Sworders, we wanted to create a soundtrack that was energetic, fun, frenetic and memorable—music that can be looped indefinitely, but that doesn’t get annoying after repeated listening."
With Ray as an example, the title of game developer does not always mean programmer. Milwaukee's devs are graphic designers, musicians, writers, builders and yes, there are also coders. But that's what the meetups are all about—bringing people with a wide range of expertise and interests together to create.
And the scene in Milwaukee is growing. Ross says the indie game devs here are more active than most people are aware of.
"We're regularly surprised to come across people we hadn't met before," he says. "And it's been really helpful—for advice, feedback and inspiration."
One of those surprise newcomers who showed up to the meetup I attended was Will Matthews. It's his first time there, but he brought his game "Storm Knights" to showcase.
Will is a musician who makes games for himself and for his music.
"I make games simply because as a child, I dreamed of it," he says. "I often made up characters for fun and wanted to see them in an actual game. Now, I actually start by making a song, then the backgrounds and then the levels."
The music leads his vision for his games, but the rest of it lives up to the sound. And although he's clearly got the skills, he says he doesn't think he wants to be a professional game designer.
"Game design is such a personal thing to me," Will says. "It's so time consuming...Plus I wish to make a game for myself. If others like it, all the better. However, others are rarely in my mind."
Because of that, he's never collaborated on developing a game. And for the same reason he says he'll probably only make one more game. After that, he says he'd rather focus on music. There he's more open to collaboration.
"Music collabing is much more fun 'cause the time from inception to completion is much shorter. Making a soundtrack for others is an idea, but we'll see if I go in that direction."
For the time being, his musical career still involves games. Recently, Will's been making covers of video game music with a blend of piano and 8-bit sounds, like this retro "Octopath Trabler" remix.
Erica Scheelk fell into making games four years ago after being laid off and deciding to try something new. Now she owns Fuzzy Code Studio.
"I wanted to do something that was mine," she says. "So, I started making games and found that some people actually liked playing them! That gave me a lot of encouragement to continue. I guess I keep making them because it seems like a chance at freedom. I get sense of purpose from it and it's a nice reliable outlet for anxiety since there's always work to do."
Erica was inspired to make "Mage Fort" because some of her favorite gaming memories are centered around games you can play cooperatively with friends in the same room. The multiplayer game is set in a dark magical realm where mages defend themselves against zombies by building towers, using magic beams and shooting cat cannons—that's right, cannons that shoot cats as ammo.
Though she also works solo, she's not completely alone because of the local indie game community.
"I don't really have any friends or family that really understand what I do. It's a place where pretty much everyone understands the struggles and joys of game development. If things aren't going well, (for example: maybe there's a difficult bug I couldn't figure out yet) that really kills my mood. After working on a project long enough it becomes a big part of me. I hear this from other developers too, so I don't think I'm crazy...we get really emotionally invested in these games. It goes the other way too though, when things are going well it's an amazing high."
For the indie game scene in Milwaukee to continue growing, she'd like to see it stay inclusive and to make sure any leadership makes the community welcoming to all sorts of people and ideas.
So what's next for Fuzzy Code Studio? Erica says she is currently working on her next game called "Miner Lou," an RPG-style game centered on Lou's journey to save the star babies. It's hard to top a cat cannon, but that sounds pretty promising.
Mooncat Arcade is not a game, but many arcade games that Paul Zimmermann builds. He's the one behind the No Controllers events. He's an indie dev inspired by bar acades and game development conference parties.
"My Mooncat adventure really started with how much I appreciate a particular kind of environment for games," Paul says. "If we go down that road then we get into fond memories of visiting places like Galloping Ghost in Illinois, Ground Kontrol in Portland or my time playing pinball around Milwaukee."
He loves indie games and he loves arcades, so he wanted to connect them.
"Arcade bars are popping up all over the place and that's awesome. The one gripe I was having with the whole situation is that they usually rely solely on that nostalgia factor. Don't get me wrong, I am more than happy to be surrounded by old cabinets from the 80s and 90s, but I can only play "Galaga" so many times. I live in the world of indie games, so my little dream was to blend that world directly into the arcade. Take new indie games, put them in arcade boxes and put those in the hands of people where they're already hanging out. Indie devs are making good stuff right now, there is so much room to break away from pure nostalgia."
Paul started making pixel art at ten years old and has been in the indie game scene ever since. Through it, him and Raphael (from above) have known each other for some time. Paul started helping him show "The Moon Fields" at events and conventions. There Paul realized that two things: one, he liked making the hardware of arcade cabinets and two, game developers throw good parties.
After building more and more cabinets for other game devs and for conventions, he wanted to make use of them—and throw parties.
A bar filled with board games and nerd culture, Oak & Shield was a natural fit for his pilot run event. Some people showed up explicitly for the games. Others, who were there for some flavor of nerdom anyway, were excited to see a game showcase.
Art*Bar was the true test. Paul booked a number of Thursday evenings at Art*Bar, inheriting the time slot that used to be for Drunk Bingo nights.
"It confused a lot of people when Mooncat Arcade banners stood over the room instead," he says. "But I loved seeing people look around the room in confusion while they process what's happening, then quickly transitioning to a big smile when they realize what they're looking at. I remember one of the first people that came through Art*Bar's doors checked out the arrangement, looked at us puzzled and asked what was happening. When he heard it was an indie arcade popup, he blurted out a 'Hell yeah. It's about time.' and walked off."
Milwaukee musician, producer and game developer LUXI is working on a new album with an accompanying video game/interactive experience called "Lost Letters (of Seraphina)."
To accompany her electronic witch-house sound, "Lost Letters (of Seraphina)" is an immersive game following a young woman named Elle in her scavenger hunt to find letters in her eerie post-internet world in a town called Seraphina. You explore her bedroom and her hometown with each song on the album moving to a new room or "level" where you can click on new things to try to piece together Elle's world and the story of what happened in Seraphina.
For LUXI, creating computer or video games is just another way to help get her ideas or visions across.
"It's definitely a more encompassing experience for the person participating with the artwork," she says. "I see all the senses working together to develop the story or feeling of the piece, almost like when you dream. I definitely see releasing this first game experience as more of a new starting point for my own work in the next coming years than the end to a project."
Her game also features artwork by Nicole Lilyquist, Shawn Stephany, Anna Rodriguez and Travis Egedy (aka. Pictureplane). Clicking on the artwork on the walls will show the title and artist of the piece with links at the end of the game. If you needed any more literal of a metaphor to show games as art, this is it. The town of Seraphina is a virtual art gallery inside LUXI's own work of art.
Milwaukee's indie gaming scene includes many more games, developers and groups than I could fit here. Throughout the events I played a VR game, board games, a spelling game that one developer made for his son who is just starting to read, visited a game jam for Milwaukee's youth and was introduced to a handful of games from indie devs from Madison, WI.
And the community keeps growing and connecting with new people. As Ray of "Bomb Swords" puts it, "Fostering awareness of local game dev is important. When people are aware of opportunities, more opportunities will be created."