Inside Austin's Weird and Wonderful Fantastic Arcade

And the Alamo Drafthouse's awesome annual mashup of art and games.

Keita Takahashi, Adam Saltsman

Like any regional video game art collective, Austin’s Juegos Rancheros gives its city’s creative community a distinct flavor. Started as a series of monthly events designed to get local artists and supporters excited about Fantastic Arcade, the interactive arm of the Alamo Drafthouse’s annual genre film festival Fantastic Fest, Juegos grew into its personality quickly by virtue of its eclectic and inclusive approach to games as well as art. And you can’t talk about Fantastic Arcade without it.

Wiley Wiggins, Arcade’s director and one of Juegos’ founding board members, has had the goal of showing artists from other disciplines the varied types of expression cropping up in games over the past several years; it’s not hard to see that philosophy has spilled over, subconsciously or not, to Arcade’s programming.

“For a lot of reasons we’re all acutely aware of, games have been forever kind of stigmatized, even though they’re really the dominant art form of our culture right now,” Wiggins says. “Really early on they got kind of shanghai’d by marketing people. [But] anything can be a game. It’s a superset of every other sort of art.”

As for Arcade, which occupies space in the South Lamar Drafthouse’s bar The Highball, that translates into a variety of independent game selections like you might find at Indiecade with the added bonus of specially commissioned new arcade-style games and interactive pieces from local creators.

For Wiggins, its personality was strongly influenced by a similar exhibition at Sundance – organized by Arcade’s original director Mike Plante – who ran the festival for its first two years.

“[Mike] had been doing new media programming for Sundance, with [what was] called New Frontiers, kind of a lounge you could go into with all sorts of really cool interactive art,” Wiggins says. “It was a bunch of stuff that made a big impression on me.”

After checking out New Frontiers, Wiggins started talking with Plante and ended up getting involved with Arcade as an event host. Around the same time, he began to realize Austin was teeming with gaming artists, developers, and other creators spearheading various group meetups around the city.

“A bunch of game people were all meeting each other around that time,” Wiggins says. “And then we all kind of fused our groups of people together.”

Among the merging parties were Venus Patrol’s Brandon Boyer and Canabalt developer Adam Saltsman, who had had their own developer meetups happening around at local bars. With Plante soon taking on a fuller plate at Sundance and the burgeoning creators group ramping up with new, monthly events designed to get local creatives excited about Arcade — which evolved quickly into Juegos — it didn’t take long for Fantastic Fest’s Tim League to ask if Wiggins would take over running Arcade.

Today, Juegos’ board also includes Rachel Weil, who founded and operates Austin’s FEMICOM museum, and Katie Kizziar, associate director of research and innovation at kids museum The Thinkery. Juegos’ five members each bring a different kind of aesthetic taste to the collective, which has been echoed in the varied crowd that’s become regulars.

“It’s just kind of Katamari’d over the years into this interesting subset of games culture that seems really kind of peculiar to Austin,” says Wiggins of Juegos. “It’s definitely not [just] an industry thing.”

Juegos itself has been an integral part of the yearly process to put together Arcade ever since. This year’s festival, happening at the end of September, will feature a selection of small team-developed games playable both on laptops and in custom-built arcade cabinets, chosen from over 200 submissions the collective’s board goes through to narrow down.

The cabinet games this year are especially exciting to those who follow the independent scene — Alphabet, a co-developed new game from Saltsman and Katamari creator Keita Takahashi with the cabinet itself featuring new art from Takahashi’s inimitable anthropomorphized style — as well as a new, to-be-announced title from Downwell creator Ojiro Fumoto and his collaborator Momo Murakami will be featured, among others. (The non-commissioned selections showcased include Mountain creator David OReilly’s new game Everything and Manifold Garden, to name a couple.)

“My main goal with [the cabinets] was just trying to give the festival a little bit more of an identity,” Wiggins says. “You see a lot of different indie events kind of having a lot of the same games — people aren’t necessarily going to go all the different events, so there is a regional aspect to it, but it’s also really nice if there’s something unique going on at each event.”

2015 was the first year Juegos commissioned original games in new tabletop cabinets themselves; before that, they had retrofitted old arcade machines with curated selections, but ran into some problems with the aesthetic presentation.

“Nine times out of 10, the developer would be like, ‘oh, you know, we don’t want to use arcade controls, this game was developed for Xbox controllers,’ so we’d end up in these situations where we’d have these cool-looking arcade cabinets, but we’d have these Xbox controllers laying off them,” Wiggins says. “Or worse, a keyboard and mouse. Which ruins the effect a little bit.”

For new commissions, Juegos just asks developers to consider arcade-like controls.

“Anything arcade-like goes,” Wiggins says. “It could be sticks and buttons, it can be trackballs, it can be a wheel.”

More offbeat controllers are okay too, but they aren’t always the best for an event with as much foot traffic as Arcade. Wiggins remembers a game featured last year called Alea, which, unpredictably, used a moss controller.

“[Alea] had this experimental controller that was just a bunch of moss that you stuck your hands in,” Wiggins says, laughing. “There were these flexible resistor strips under the moss — and it sort of worked. [But] what would’ve been maybe fine in a gallery space or a one-night party — that thing just got hammered and there were bits of moss everywhere. We had to do work on the cabinet and replace the moss with arcade buttons.”

Arcade stays true to its name with other similarly minded additions from local creatives as well. Attendees this year can expect new work from Alan Watts, who works under the name Claw Amusement Technologies, best known for the one-button Eye of the Pyramid; Mickey Delp, a DIY electronics artist working on a wall-mounted game, and, Wiggins hopes, Estil Vance, one of the top arcade cabinet collectors in the country who also makes recreation machines for film adaptations like The Last Starfighter, which never actually existed.

The arcade area itself is only part of the festival — Wiggins says the real draw is the theater Arcade takes over at the Drafthouse for the last half of Fantastic Fest.

“We have four days of talks and tournaments and different weird stuff going on in the theater,” he says. “But the nice thing is you have to buy a badge for the film festival — and Arcade has up until now been totally free, including the stuff that goes on in the theater.” (Wiggins says he is doing everything he can to try and keep Arcade a free event, but it may well change after this year.)

Typically, one of the biggest draw is the Arcade Jam, which usually involves making small two-player games that end up showcased in a mock arcade cabinet and subsequently used in a game show where audience members will play the games against each other.

“We usually have people make 30-second two-player Warioware-style games,” Wiggins says.

He remembers the Barfcade jam from 2014, which was hosted by Thu Tran, the host of IFC’s surreal cooking show, Food Party (who is also involved in the New York gaming community).

“It was all games about cooking, eating, and barfing,” Wiggins says. “So we had people get up and play those games, then we made them eat disgusting stuffs in between — like a whole stick of butter and doughnuts with mayonnaise in them — it was pretty funny.”

Though the jam is taking 2016 off, Wiggins promises it will return next year —and this kind of bizarre creativity is also a cornerstone of Juegos gatherings outside Arcade as well, attracting non-games artists in growing numbers.

“What we usually get is people getting involved who come from other modalities of art and end up finding a place for doing that sort of work inside games. We’ve seen some pretty cool collaborations,” Wiggins says. “Brandon [Boyer]’s been pretty good at getting weird things made by hooking up artists with developers — like MuscleCat Showdown.”

(For background, MuscleCat Showdown involves kids getting into scrapes on the playground. Instead of fighting, they pit their bodybuilder cats to strike poses.)

“There’s a lot of cool, weird stuff getting made,” Wiggins says.

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