While the Call of Dutys and Grand Theft Autos of the world aim for ever-growing complexity and the narrative language of Hollywood, Whitaker Trebella’s video game strives for the opposite. Called PSHNGG!, it’s a digital fencing game as imagined by a minimalist painter.
“I think a lot can be said with very little,” said Trebella, an independent game developer based in Lakeview. “A lot of times games try to force so much down the players’ throat, like backstory and watching cutscenes. I just want to get past the story and play the game.”
This less-is-more philosophy guides much of the playable fare at Bit Bash, Chicago’s alternative video game festival, making its second annual run at Threadless in the West Loop on Saturday. Bit Bash’s curators say they had a few different criteria in mind when selecting the 50 locally and internationally made games—high fidelity and complexity were not among them.
“We’re focused on experiences you can’t replicate at home,” said Rob Lach, Bit Bash lead curator. “Some of it more avant-garde stuff you probably haven’t heard of or local multiplayer games you could play on a couch shoulder to shoulder with several of your friends.”
Attendees can play PSHNGG!, which was created by Trebella and three other indie-game developers while on a two-day-long “Game Jam” Amtrak trip to San Francisco in March. It’s a stripped-down sword-fighting game—”stripped-down” meaning the exclusion of everything you’d expect from a sword-fighting game aside from needlelike blades. Two players represented by orb-shaped avatars attempt to knock each other to the end of a simple sine wave positioned against a monochrome background. PSHNGG! ignores the many buttons on a standard controller in favor of two control sticks used to move your sphere and swing the swords. When the blades smack against each other they create the metallic sound effect from which the game takes its title. There’s little else to it—no characters, no story, no ending.
Videoball, like PSHNGGG!, is a game in which the physical characteristics of a sport is reduced to near abstraction. Published by Lincoln Park studio Iron Galaxy, Videoball features triangles that shoot a ball into an opponent’s goal; it’s a slightly more advanced four-player version of Pong. Thumper is a trippy rhythm game that resembles a 70s prog-rock music video, one in which players race a space beetle toward a confrontation with a giant head from the future. Compared to Butt Sniffin’ Pugs, Thumper seems tame: the former is a “pug simulation” in which you wander around Central Park and smell back ends of other dogs by using . . . yes, a giant trackball controller with a pug’s ass attached to it.
Some of Bit Bash’s games take the “video” part out by removing display monitors altogether. The “Choose-a-Tron” plays like a classic “Choose Your Own Adventure” book that spits each bit of new fiction out of a receipt printer. Johann Sebastian Joust is a screen-free game of tag played with motion controllers. Constellation—made by Joel Corelitz, a Chicago sound designer—isn’t technically a game at all, but a way for attendees to interact with electronic music by tapping into a website accessed by mobile phone.
Lach is confident that Bit Bash can match or surpass last year’s attendance of 1,300, which is why this year they’ve added three times the space at Threadless and more entertainment (including an area for alternative board and card games) while retaining the food trucks, beer, and DJs playing video-game-related EDM.
“We’re kind of taking everything good about the first Bit Bash and doubling it,” said Lach. “We think there’s something for everyone.”
Bit Bash, Sat, Aug. 22, Threadless, 1260 W. Madison, 2 PM to 11 PM, $20 online and $25 at the door.