It’s fitting that this summer’s Bit Bash chose summer camp as its theme.
Although it only lasts a day, Chicago’s festival for alternative and experimental video games really does have a chummy, communal feel, not to mention plenty of group activities. It even had tents set up between the games, for anyone who wanted to take a breather.
Returning to Revel Fulton Market, the fourth annual Bit Bash brought attendees to the West Loop on Saturday to play dozens of games from indie creators near and far alike. Chicago may have a history of producing iconic titles like Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam, but the games seen at Bit Bash each year are quite a bit more out-there in concept and execution.
For example, Not Your Father’s Khakis is a rapid-paced collection of sports mini-games that you play as—you guessed it—a couple of pairs of pants. Meanwhile, the locally-developed Battle Chef Brigade blends fighting and puzzle game elements with fantasy and cooking, and The Cat in the Hijab challenges players to deal with hateful discrimination while crammed into a subway car with other anthropomorphic cats. It’s a diverse bunch, to be sure.
Bit Bash also provides an ideal opportunity to try out games with specialized hardware—like Light Pong, which makes players on either side of a physical tube press a button to send the pulsing light back the other way. The 1000 Button Project, on the other hand, uses a custom controller with 100 (not 1,000) arcade-style buttons, which you’ll mash to yield odd results in an anarchic fighting game. And like every previous Bit Bash, nightfall draws crowds outside to play party favorite Johann Sebastian Joust, a frantic multiplayer game about keeping your own motion controller steady while trying to tactfully disrupt foes.
Most of the games at Bit Bash are designed for multiple players, and Revel’s open space encourages collaborative play. Many games are projected onto the walls inside the venue, drawing bystanders near to watch or play, and the friendly vibe throughout the festival ensures that even strangers feel comfortable jumping into a game together.
Keeping that tone has been a key focal point for Bit Bash’s organizers since the festival debuted in 2014. Besides the large anchor event in the summer, the team has produced smaller themed events, such as last year’s Cool Jazz in spring and Little Bash of Horrors before Halloween. But the goal always remains the same: establishing a home in Chicago for non-traditional games while maintaining that inviting sensibility for anyone willing to engage with these creations.
“It gives the community here a place to be themselves, for sure—a place to come out and enjoy that stuff,” says Lena Masek, Bit Bash’s project manager. “Over time, I’ve seen lots of friends who would never go to a video game conference or some con of any sort, but this block party of independent games is a fun experience. It allows people from outside the community to come and experience not only video games in general, but also independent games.”
Each flagship Bit Bash event is a significant undertaking, with the core group of a dozen people spending about five months turning the initial vision into a reality. That means curating games and live music performers, designing the theme of the event, sorting out the layout of the large venue, engaging sponsors, and plenty more. A small army of volunteers helps ensure that things go smoothly on the big day, from the early family hour for parents and kids all the way up until the last DJ set concludes and all of the free beer has been claimed.
Above all, the team ensures that everybody feels welcome to enjoy themselves as they soak in all of this creative, interactive expression. “Our biggest objectives are to create a space for this community to exist,” affirms Masek. “Diversity and inclusion are really important to us, and also putting Chicago on the map for video games. Alternative art in general elicits a lot of different people, so we want to make this a safe place.”
Bit Bash has certainly put itself on the map, as well, as the Midwest’s must-attend event for trying out new and inventive play experiences. No further events have been confirmed just yet, but with smaller fall and spring fests often on the schedule, keep an eye on the Bit Bash website and @BitBashChicago for potential announcements.