Concealed in an old warehouse through an unassuming, unlabeled metal door, local multiplayer magic happened on December 7th, 2013. Death by Audio, a Williamsburg indie music venue mere steps away from a previous Babycastles installation, played host to the arcade cabinets of two competitive local multiplayer gems from New York City devs, the fantasy sports game, Crystal Brawl, and the minimalist hockey-like game, Field-1.
Two single elimination tournaments were held on that below-freezing night, the soundtrack was supplied by thrumming bass-heavy laptop-DJ known as Maxecho. Deathmatch by Audio, they called it. Thankfully, there was someone smoking outside the venue, or else my wife and I would have had to try every door on the grungy block.
“Is this Death by Audio?” I asked the tall,
slenderman slender man leaning against the brick wall.
“…my wife was concerned that these games would be above her skill level. How wrong she was.”
“Oh, yeah, right through this door.” He eagerly opened it part way for us, and we dashed out of the bitter cold winds. A chalkboard sign immediately confirmed that we’d come to the right place. It read: “TONIGHT: FREE DIY ARCADE INSTALL! 5-8 PM!”
A bouncer confirmed our drinking legality, scribbled circles on our wrists and ushered us along a dark hallway that wouldn’t be out of place in Outlast. We pushed past a dirty sheet hanging between the hallway and what can only be described as an acid-fueled mural haven, nightmare creatures melting into one another.
Yelp reviews exclaimed, “AVOID THE BATHROOMS AT ALL COSTS.” It was that sort of venue, somehow the perfect place for an indie sports game tournament. I cracked a smile, taking it all in. Where else but here?
After much online stalking, I met Ben Serviss of Studio Mercato, responsible for Crystal Brawl. A co-founder and key player of this event, Ben is a trumpeter of NYC indie goings-on, rallying gaming cultural events and writing fervently on his blog about development. He rallied everyone to register their two-person teams on the poster board.
I asked my wife to join a team with me, and she declined. Having not grown up with video games, my wife was concerned that these games would be above her skill level. How wrong she was.
Persistently, I encouraged her to try the Crystal Brawl arcade machine. We took our station, and, soon after, another couple wandered onto the set, also never having played before.
Scrolling through the characters (Rogue, Wizard, Knight, Archer), she settled on the Knight, noting that this would be closest to her Diablo 3 experience, where she played a Barbarian. Ever the griefer, I chose the (“Tricksy”) Rogue. We began.
While I planted trees around the opponent’s base, my wife used her dash attack to quickly get to the ball, immediately getting the hang of the game and mastering the two primary buttons while the other team struggled to get their bearings straight. It was over almost before it even started, and we quickly secured a 3-0 victory. She looked at the victory screen, a grin spreading over her face.
“Let’s play again!” she said, the other team agreeing emphatically as they vowed to redeem themselves, having only just learned the controls for the first time. This time, there was some back-and-forth as we exchanged blows for possession of the ball, weaving in and out of burning trees, but we again swept the field. At the end of three games, I asked my wife again if she would join a team with me.
“Okay,” she agreed, “let’s do it.”
— NYC Games Forum (@NYCgamesforum) December 7, 2013
But before we signed up, we hopped over to Field-1, mirroring our experience almost exactly. Strangers wandered to the controllers, couples among them, and we piloted our players to victory with all the grace of figure skaters wearing giant hockey puck costumes.
Bashing aggressively into hapless players, we found easy victories in the stripped-down hockey sim. Team Stormageddon (Dark Lord of All) was formed.
“We’re going to win the whole thing. Both games.” I was surprised to find it wasn’t me who said this.
The venue swelled with bearded twenty-something gaming enthusiasts and a smattering of ladies. We were called first round to compete in Crystal Brawl. Sticking to our Rogue/Knight combo, we secured an easy 3-0 victory round 1.
“We’re going to win the whole thing. Both games.” I was surprised to find it wasn’t me who said this. Rather, it was my wife. So we were both surprised to find ourselves lose handily in our first round of Field-1, learning the lesson that we actually didn’t even know how to play in our practice rounds and just sort of got lucky. It wasn’t until right before our defeat that we started to get a grasp on the strategy and appreciation for the deceptive simplicity of the game.
But nevertheless, like any sport, we had fun spectating. So many of the games were close, the timer adding drama and urgency to score. Cheers. Applause. Excitement all around. This was history in the making.
Our next two matches in Crystal Brawl were easy victories as well. My passive-griefing combined with my wife’s ultra-aggressive playstyle served as the perfect compliment, genuinely surprising opponents who seemed otherwise more in-sync, more determined to space their attacks in manners that would keep us perma-stunned. And yet we got back on our feet and scored with such assured vigor, making it all the way to the finals.
Our opponents chose a Rogue/Wizard combo, something we’d yet to see, and this time, it was us who were surprised; though the Rogue mirrored my every move in planting trees to bar our path, it was the Wizard’s freezing of the trees that really funneled the ball in the direction of their choosing. Too busy battling for the ball to break through the icy trees, we lost footing early, struggling to keep the ball away from our opponent’s goal. At 2-2, our opponent just managed to sneak through my dense forest for their first win.
As this was best of three, we felt good about our odds. We took an early lead, this time both my wife and I playing offense, wasting no time to move the ball towards our goal. But like the previous match, our opponents set up icy walls, barring our path and taking control of the direction of the game.
After intense back-and-forth, the growing crowd cheering on both teams in this dramatic match, we found ourselves once again tied 2-2. And then I made a grave mistake. I had an opening, but was milliseconds away from getting hit. I tried to kick the ball towards our goal so I could counter-attack and move the ball far from the opponent’s goal, but my aim was off by a single pixel, and I blasted it right into the mountain, allowing the opposing team access to the ball. Just two hexagons away from their goal, we changed possession at least five times, the crowd roaring — but we lost it, and team Toasty Ghost scored their final goal.
“Could a tournament-fueled, indie, NYC, local multiplayer arcade be on the horizon?”
We were so energized by the thrill of the game and how well we’d done, accolades flew fast and true. Handshakes, congrats all around. With no entry fee and nothing on the line, everyone in attendance was a freaking winner. Oblivious to the tournament, a huge crowd was still formed around the Crystal Brawl arcade machine, their own cheers and screams of excitement filling the venue.
Congrats to tonight's Crystal Brawl Tournament Champs, team Toasty Ghost! Practice up for your shot at the title next time!
— Studio Mercato (@StudioMercato) December 8, 2013
A week from now, arcade cabinets for Killer Queen Arcade and SlashDash are going to be featured at the Museum of the Moving Image for several months, two of the all-stars of IndieCade 2013. Babycastles is fundraising for a gallery space. Could a tournament-fueled, indie, NYC, local multiplayer arcade be on the horizon? I would pay good money for that, and Babycastles is banking on it.
These are exciting times for local multiplayer enthusiasts, especially considering how brilliantly accessible these games are, and yet they have such impressive depth, so many emergent strategies, so much gratifying teamwork. These are true arcade classics, the shot in the arm the arcade scene so desperately needed. Let’s get together and play, shall we?