Since 1995, the Slamdance Festival has offered an “indier-than-thou” film competition for filmmakers to compete with Sundance. Slamdance recently started accepting submissions for a “Guerilla Gamemaker Competition” as well. This year’s crop of finalists include some fun-looking titles, and at least one title I know about—Jenova Chen’s Flow—because it was the result of an MFA thesis. One game is noticeably missing from the list of finalists, however, because it was on that list until a short time ago, and still deserves to be there: Super Columbine Massacre RPG!.
I know, I know—the name sounds really bad. That’s part of the point. If you’re interested in this kind of thing and you want to know more, you owe it to yourself to read this Kotaku interview with the game’s creator. Long story short, though, this is not a shooter with realistic graphics, but a step-by-step puzzle-solving game about picking up clues and exploring the events around a real-life tragedy. You are meant to question what the hell you’re doing. You should feel awkward and maybe even a little anxious. This is exactly how video games can be used as an expressive medium, probing complex ideas and helping players to look more deeply than other media might demand of us.
All of this, however, generally gets overshadowed by knee-jerk reactions to controversy. And so, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! has been pulled from the finalists list at Slamdance, leaving no politically daring or subversive games. The “Guerilla Gamemaker” label is so pathetically ironic that the festival should seriously consider changing it.
Kotaku and Game Politics have reports about how Slamdance dropped the game due to pressure from sponsors, though recent reports indicate that the founder of the festival, Peter Baxter, made a “personal decision” without any outside pressure. Game designer and theorist Ian Bogost was asked to advocate for the game to any skittish sponsors, but the game was pulled before he had the chance, suggesting that Baxter just wanted to avoid potential conflict. The basic issue here, Bogost suggests, is that Baxter wants to push the envelope with film, but games are more of a side project.
Simply put, this is short-sighted and shameful. If practically any other arts organization were put in the position to make such a decision, I could sympathize more. But a festival that was founded basically to assert that Sundance isn’t sufficiently cutting edge..? No, if you want to have any claim for indie and artistic credibility here, you have to follow through. If Bogost is right, and Baxter would support film more than games, it could just be a reflection of Baxter’s personal tastes. It could also mean, though, that film is slowly becoming too “safe” as a medium to really challenge the status quo. To really get people heated and conversation going, to really be cutting edge, maybe you need a video game.