Each year, Indie Grits Film Festival brings a host of short films to Columbia with screenings, panels and awards. However, that’s not all the festival has to offer. The event expands beyond its roots in film to offer a multi-day multimedia explosion of visual art, live music, interactive exhibits and more.
The Nickelodeon Theatre, the main screening venue for the festival, calls the festival a celebration of “visionary and experimental culture of the South" on its website, and this year’s festival delivered the new, the meaningful and the unexpected.
While film serves as the framework of the festival, other less traditional events are woven into the fabric of the creative space that Indie Grits brings to Columbia for a few bustling days each year.
One of the festival offerings is Indie Bits, a multimedia arcade featuring video games, board games, mobile apps, traditional arcade games, interactive exhibits and more.
This year’s Indie Bits lineup was diverse, not only in platform, but in subject matter, with work from developers from across the Southeast. Games ranged from old-school pinball machines to virtual reality experiences to multiplayer fantasy extravaganzas.
From Cupcake Studios’ simple “Hexca,” a colorful Tetris-esque game, to Paralax Visions’ “Depression Simulator,” the games ran the gamut from simple to complex.
“We exhibit work about mental health, domestic abuse, and racism alongside traditional arcade shoot 'em ups and puzzle games,” said Cecil Decker, Indie Bits co-director, in an email interview. “It's a fine line to dance, but it's important to eliminate the hierarchy between casual couch play, the "hardcore" gamers, and fine art games. All of these experiences are valuable and deserve to be elevated.”
Leslie Leonard, an arcade staffer and returning member of the Indie Grits team, spoke to the challenging nature of some of the games.
“I think one great thing about this is we don’t have just the typical game, like we have "For Today I Breathe Again," which is an art game, and we have "Pre-Shave” which is about a specific issue, a social justice issue someone faces. I think games can be more than just shooting something,” Leonard said. “Games can be a lot more than what a normal person thinks.”
Saam Pahlavan’s “Pre-Shave” wasn’t the only game in the arcade to consider more serious issues; one computer game, “The Planet is Exploding,” imagines a sudden and violent end to the earth and forces the player to make critical choices about what they value most in these final moments.
“Depression Simulator” presents a warped, surreal black and white terrain pocked with uncertain forms and physical manifestations of phrases like “why don’t you just pop a Xanax?” accompanied by disordered ambient music.
Yutsi’s “Geography of Robots” was housed in a small, intimate room independent from the rest of the arcade with houseplants, soft ambient lighting, a cozy chair and a box television that give the effect of a nostalgic childhood bedroom. However, the space belied much darker themes. Footage of a real-life oil refinery explosion in Louisiana and a text-based adventure game brought forth stories of Southern towns ravaged by poverty and environmental exploitation.
“Geography of Robots” wasn’t the only part of the arcade to draw on regional themes and concerns. “Bugs ‘N Boo Hags” is a platform-based adventure game set in Beaufort, South Carolina with deep roots in regional lore. The protagonist rushes to cover doors and windows in light blue paint to protect them from evil boo-hags, avoids roaches and fire ant beds and even gains power-ups from warm, buttery grits.
The arcade is just one example of the range of events Indie Grits-goers were invited to participate in. Through a partnership with Richland Library, the festival presented Overdue Grits, an after-hours event in the library itself.
Visitors could listen to live music from Columbia’s own King Vulture and North Carolina’s Jenny Besetzt, sip the festival’s signature brew and grab a slice with Village Idiot Pizza catering, or make their way to one of 12 activity stations around the library.
A few of the activities available throughout the evening were a color-by-numbers style mural, a virtual reality experience, a jewelry making station and a Zine workshop where attendees created miniature versions of magazines. Visitors mingled on the library’s open, modern second floor, chatting, crafting and enjoying the bands. Creatives were invited to try their hand at using a green screen to create their own GIFs, or just sit back and relax and watch regional oral history interviews in a screening room.
Sure, a night out crafting and gaming with friends is fun, but what makes all of this more than just one big artsy party? For many festival attendees, it’s the people.
Justin Price, Indie Grits volunteer and fourth-year graduate student, got involved with the festival through the Nickelodeon Theatre.
“I really liked the vibe and the crowd there, and so I thought it’d be a good place to get to know people and make some friends, and it turned out to be true," Price said.
He said that the festival serves as an expansion of that community, with the same core group as the Nickelodeon Theatre, plus new volunteers, attendees and creators.
Price also presented an alternative suggestion on just what makes the festival special.
“The popcorn is the best part," Price said.