#1248: Tribeca Games Curator Casey Baltes Recaps the 2023 Selection of 2D Indie Games

This year, the seven games that were a part of the Tribeca Games selections were co-located with the 13 Tribeca Immersive experiences at Spring Studios. I had a chance to unpack each of the games with Casey Baltes who curated the selection and serves as the Vice President of Tribeca Games & Immersive at Tribeca Enterprises. We talk about the narrative innovations, novel gameplay mechanics, and expression of artistic excellence included in the seven games including Nightscape, Despelote, A Highland Song, The Expanse: A Telltale Series, Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical, Goodbye Volcano High, and Chants of Sennaar.

The winner of the Tribeca games was Goodbye Volcano High with the jury statement saying, “For how much this game felt of the moment and questions whether you should still care about anything when everything sucks — complete with doom scrolling, dinosaurs and high school band drama.”

Special Jury Mention for Tribeca Games was Despelote with the jury comment saying, “For how it offers a dreamlike portal into a soccer-obsessed child’s everyday life, and shows how cultural expression—whether through sports or creative pursuit—can make our lives richer.”

This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the potentials of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So continuing on my series of looking at the different experiences at Tribeca Immersive and Tribeca Gaming, today's episode is with the curator of the Tribeca Gaming portion, Casey Baltes. She's been with Tribeca for 18 years now. She's the vice president of Tribeca Games and Immersive at Tribeca Enterprises. And so it wasn't until 2021 where Tropico started to select different games that are at the intersection of gaming, art, and storytelling in the context of the film festival. So there are seven total different experiences. I had a chance to play through six of the full demos and one of them I had a game breaking bug and I was able to play through some of it. But We're able to talk through each of the different seven experiences, and there are two winners that we talk about. Goodbye Volcano High won the Tribeca Games Award, and the special jury mentioned for Tribeca Games was Desolate Day. And I'll give the jury statements here at the end, but we go through each of the different games and talk about the experiences of them and also Casey talks about her curation process where she actually plays through each of these different games multiple times as there's these different branching narratives and potential options to go down. She really likes to understand that full spectrum of possibilities and potentials and what the game is actually doing at a deeper level. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of ER podcast. So this interview with Casey happened on Monday, June 12th, 2023. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:47.953] Casey Baltes: I'm Casey Baltus. I'm vice president of Tribeca Games and Immersive. And I'm both responsible for the direct curation of Tribeca Games and the game selection within Tribeca, as well as working closely with Anna Brzezinska on the overall strategy. So I helm the strategy and the business and the operations and the management side of both Games and Immersive at the festival.

[00:02:09.293] Kent Bye: Great. Maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into the space.

[00:02:13.978] Casey Baltes: Yeah, the long, short, long version is I started out in live theater, so I'm basically a live theater producer. I transitioned very quickly into the world of film festivals. Actually, this will be my 18th festival, and I've had various roles that have allowed me to sort of piece together the whole as to what traditionally a film festival can do for projects and creators and filmmakers of all shapes and sizes. So during my long history, I was actually managing director when we started Storyscapes with Ingrid. So Ingrid handling the curation beautifully on that side, but myself working on structurally what it means to bring immersive projects to the festival, how the submission process works, how we work on the production and operations of the installations and supporting her to make sure those projects are brought to life. and the evolving landscape of that has come through through virtual arcade as well as where it is now. In the past three years behind the scenes I was also pushing forward video games to be included within the festival. So I have both worked within the capacity of the festival and as consultant and now helming the department to make sure that video games has also a place at Tribeca.

[00:03:21.510] Kent Bye: All right, so we have seven pieces, and around five and a half to six hours were the content that I had a chance to play through most of it. There was one that I wasn't able to get through through a bug that was happening. But aside from that, I was able to play through as much as I could. And first of all, I'm curious, how many total submissions did you have to go through to narrow it down to these seven?

[00:03:41.404] Casey Baltes: All told, we received around, from a video game side, around 60 submissions. Within both games and Immersive, I would have to fact-check my numbers entirely, but we received over 200.

[00:03:51.333] Kent Bye: Okay, and so, as you're thinking about this intersection of gaming, interactivity, and storytelling, what are some of the things that you're looking for to be curating in this selection?

[00:04:02.515] Casey Baltes: Yeah, I first like to start myself in grounding the lens through which I sort of look at all the games, and that is artistic excellence and storytelling. But what I like to do is try to push the boundaries of what that even means, both within the game space and audiences and players' perception of what that might mean. So I try to encourage the idea of storytelling and narrative in a game. It doesn't necessarily have to have cinematic value, traditional to film. It doesn't have to be text-based. It doesn't have to have a script. I think the beauty of games as narrative are also the player's narrative. and also the socially driven narrative for players playing with each other. There's much more of a story sometimes within games outside of the game than inherent within the game. So I tried to include games with as much of a different feel and look and taste for that story.

[00:04:54.623] Kent Bye: And I'd say there's a blend of different types of genres and maybe even pieces that are trying to expand what even the genre it is of the game. And so I'd love to hear from you how you start to think about some of these different pieces and how you start to categorize the different themes of the structure and genre of these pieces.

[00:05:12.502] Casey Baltes: Yes, because there are only, you know, a select number of selections. It takes a lot of time to really winnow it down and thought. And I try to make sure that I'm addressing both the endemic game players' tastes, including some games that may be a little more difficult for non-game players, but also try to definitely include games that are more controller friendly or friendly for people who have never played a game to enter into the space. I think Tribeca has been very helpful in being able to basically open as many doors into the medium as possible so I like to try to make sure that I do that both within the types of stories in terms of representation as well as simply even looking at the controller mechanics and making sure that some are really can be challenging and fun in that way and others are sort of easier on the touch.

[00:06:04.636] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, maybe it's worth going through each of the different seven pieces that I've had a chance to play through them. So where would you like to begin in talking about the selection this year?

[00:06:12.862] Casey Baltes: I think what I'd like to maybe start out with this year, by the nature of the curation, we were noticing a lot of games that I call have a sense of place. And that is actually really shining through through a number of selections. And I can start with some of them. Nightscape is one that very much has a sense of place. It was developed by a first-time team from Doha, Qatar, and they wanted to sort of debunk the stereotypes that one might see in Arabic representation, both in the geography as well as the character representation. So that game just embodies where it is, who made it, and the characters.

[00:06:51.300] Kent Bye: So yeah, I had a chance to play Nightscape and for me this was like a beautiful cinematic platformer type of game with the mechanic of finding these constellation parts to rebuild the constellation, but also there's a goat character that's following around that you need to help guide to the little flowers. But yeah, just a really satisfying cinematic experience of it that I felt like deeply immersed into this and Yeah, I talked to the creators and they said that they had the voice acting that was done just within like the last 10 days. That was like my one critique that I feel like some of the voice acting could do another round of polish on that. But other than that, there was a really super fun cinematic platformer type of game transporting me into this world.

[00:07:33.489] Casey Baltes: And one side note on this game very particularly, it is in prototype stage. So the idea that A, a team was developing in this region and developing a prototype that could be nearly construed as something that might be coming out, you know, soon, was very promising. And the selections within the video game space, we're one of the only divisions of the festival where we show projects that are completely unfinished. Pre-launch so these games have a long life ahead of them. We may not know what the end result will be when it releases but Hopefully and the idea that we're selecting that potential is the greatest and so a nightscape is definitely demonstrating potential Yeah, and you said that there's a another one across the way that's also a sense of place I Yes, there's another one. It's the one that you haven't had a chance to play and we'll definitely get you in. It's called The Highland Song. It's made by a really wonderful studio based in the UK, but it's set in the Scottish Highlands. And the way that it's depicted and the art style that is used is very personal and nostalgic for the creator and that sense of place of being actually lost in the Highlands. And you can actually feel that within the game, this sense of adventure and journey and lost and being scared and tired and that sort of feeling as a young child.

[00:08:52.002] Kent Bye: Yeah, there was a game-breaking bug that prevented me from finishing it, but I'm looking forward to being able to play all the way through, and that had a little bit more of this layered 2.5D aesthetic, where you're having a lot of painterly styles, but also with some dialogue that you're just reading, but other that you're reading in this Scottish accent, talking about the poetry of the place. Yeah, you're going to the journey to your uncle's lighthouse. But with the layeredness, you're kind of going in depth into the world. So I thought that was also quite interesting as a different aesthetic as well. So similar to a 2.5D platformer, but with a layered effect where you're going into the depth of the scenes and you're able to zoom out and there's a journal mechanic. So yeah, it seemed like it was a pretty fleshed out adventure that you're going on.

[00:09:36.140] Casey Baltes: Yeah, yeah. And then the next game I'll point out is Despalote, which is sort of taking you all around the world. It is a game by a New York creator, but based in Ecuador. And also a very personal story. I call this game, as I played it and curated it, Game as Cinema Verite. The sense of not even just the place, but the real capture of the space. The overlay, the artistic overlay is of a real place and the idea that you're actually not necessarily playing for a goal or playing to win or lose, that your actual mechanic is kicking a ball around but just observing and hearing the background, hearing the characters of what it was like to be in Ecuador in 2001 when Ecuador was in the pre-qualifying matches for the World Cup and that sense of promise and hope, but also politics is the game over playing soccer.

[00:10:31.618] Kent Bye: Yeah, there was actually a really interesting blend of different types of gameplay in this experience where you have this really fun 2D overhead soccer game and then it zooms out and you then have people including you and it turns into more of like a cinematic exploration of family life. But then throughout the course of the piece, it has like this really interesting like volumetric, almost like a low res photogrammetry capture of a place that really feels grounded in an actual place in time. where you're going through someone's house, you're going in the yard, but I was surprised about how much of an open world this game felt like, because you're able to really explore around and actually have a lot of freedom and latitude to do a bunch of different things with the other children characters as you're kicking a ball around or playing soccer in these emergent games, and there's a point where your mom tells you, don't get up, and then the instruction is, use your left stick to move around, so it's like, it's encouraging you to be disobedient and explore around but I felt like really exploring around what felt like a genuine place and I was amazed about how much I tried to like push the bounds of exploring this open world and how much at each moment I was met with another story beat or another character it is in a Spanish language and so I'm not a native Spanish speaker and so for me there's a part of like having to read the subtitles to really understand what's being said so that was a little bit of immersion breaker to a certain extent of not able to just be totally immersed into it but I appreciate the authenticity of that and there's a mode of playing this piece where I would just be immersed in the space but also coming back and reading what everybody's saying just to get a sense of everything that's happening because it is capturing this moment in time.

[00:12:09.668] Casey Baltes: Yeah, and I will say the perspective of you as a nine-year-old is intentional in that you're hearing sort of adults talk about adult things and talk amongst themselves as if you're sort of not an ignored child, but as adults talk, you are observer, which is a really nice perspective to have within the game to as well be obedient, mischievous, playful, but also have that sort of lens of observer. All the voice acting in the game is improvised and done by friends and family. So the parents in the game are his real parents.

[00:12:45.268] Kent Bye: Nice, nice. Yeah, well, probably one of the most cinematic experiences that I had was The Expanse, where it was like a 90-minute experience that felt like I was in a movie with these different dialogue pairs. I actually had a chance to talk to one of the developers of that piece. But yeah, I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on The Expanse, which is episode one of five that's going to be coming out later in July.

[00:13:07.665] Casey Baltes: Yes, the Expanse is really sort of a nod and an inclusion, A, because what game as adaptation means. There's been a lot of conversations about adapting film and TV from a game, and this is the opposite. This is adapting, making a game from film and TV IP. And also the two studios that are behind this game, Telltale, who are fairly well-known and legendary for their narrative choice-based work, combined with another amazing studio, Deck Nine, who just won a Peabody Award for A Life is Strange. It is actually sort of a perfect marriage of story but meets feel. So I'm curious to know if you felt this way, but you actually feel like you're floating. The zero gravity works and it's a mechanic that is very hard to get right, but when it lands, it really enhances the narrative. So oftentimes when I play games, it's really, what is the tension between the gameplay and the story? How are they helping each other? How are they hurting each other? And hopefully, every button that you press, every movement that you make, really drives forward the character and story over just playing a game.

[00:14:20.848] Kent Bye: Yeah, I felt like this was like a number of different blends of different types of storytelling of like environmental storytelling where you're exploring around looking at objects, you have the crew that you're learning and all the relational dynamics of from the inners to the belters and you know from the expanse and curiously enough I learned from one of the developers that this actually started as a role-playing game and then it was adapted into a book and then a movie and then come back to a game so it's in some ways a return back to its roots as a game. But yeah, just the aspect of the cinematic cutscenes that feel like I'm watching a movie. And then yeah, as I'm walking around these different spaces, it's like a puzzle mechanic of being able to walk on the walls and you can float around just to get through the spaces. And then it's like this open world exploration where you're floating around in these spaces. It wasn't until late into the experience that I realized that if I needed a clue as to where to go, that you could actually, like, click a button into whatever your next goal was, and then it would have an augmented reality overlay to tell me where to go. Which I found that was helpful near the end, because it was a 90-minute demo, but it took me around two hours to finish it, just because it got lost a few times, because it is a bit of an expansive world. The other dimension, I guess, is the narrative structure of all these choices that are either of some consequence or major consequence, but we won't necessarily understand the full consequence of that until playing the full five episodes. So there's a bit of having the first chapter of an experience, but not knowing how all these decisions may have made. impacts the story later on. So there's all these other aspects of how, you know, I think that's also another thing that may be worth digging into a little bit, which is, you know, this option of, like, giving the player an option for what dialogue to choose, and what is that, are you gonna be mean, are you gonna be nice? Or are you going to go against someone? Or are you going to go with them? It seemed to be a theme of a number of these different games seem to have these choices that the player is making. Sometimes those choices are clear, or other times it's not in terms of how it's impacting the overall flow of a story. But in the piece of The Expanse, I feel like some of those choices, these moments of moral dilemmas you have to choose what to do. Yeah, I think the full stakes of that won't be fully revealed until playing the full arc of the entire experience. And so it's, again, kind of like the first chapter of an overall story without me knowing for sure what the impact of those choices were. But yeah, I'd love to hear any reflections on this theme of giving players choices and what those choices mean.

[00:16:41.653] Casey Baltes: Well, you know, I think there's sort of two ways, in general terms, two ways that games approach that. One is your series of choices affects how you feel about your experience and the character, but they don't actually affect the end. So it's not necessarily truly branching narrative, it's almost branching character, if you will. Because there are some games where your choices are really meant to allow you to be closer to the moments and the characters or the character that you're playing or the character that you're affecting within the experience. But at the end, ultimately, if the character lives or dies, they live or die. And that is written and scripted and made by the game creator. There are other games where that branching narrative truly does affect the end and that replayability to play again as somebody different and see a different ending or to go off and unlock chapters or certain characters is something that is another choice. You know, I'm neutral to actually either or. I mean, I love playing both types of games, but To me that's when I look at games with those choices. I very much want to understand if those choices feel random or if they feel very intentional and if it really has that effect of making sure that ultimately at the end of the story and with the expanse we don't quite know what that end of that story is, there's a payoff.

[00:18:05.238] Kent Bye: I'm curious as you're curating some of these pieces, do you sometimes go back and play a game again with different choices just to see what that possibility space actually was?

[00:18:14.213] Casey Baltes: Yes, yes. I play most of these games multiple times for various reasons. Yes, if it's a choice-based game, very specifically, I'll try to play as many iterations as I can just to understand how it all unfolds and unlocks. So some games can be quite quick to play, if it's a quick demo. For instance, Nightscape, 10 to 15 minutes. And others will admittedly take hours, sometimes days.

[00:18:37.660] Kent Bye: Wow, so that I was wondering that because as I was playing here, I was just playing through one time but I really like that distinction of Rather than branching story the branching character because I felt like there's moments where generally I was trying to be nice although sometimes in the expanse there's characters that are from Mars and I was like well I'm gonna actually be a little bit more mean in this moment because maybe that's what the Martian would appreciate because they're already a little bit hard-nosed in terms of their aggression and so adapting to the contextual dimension but also just maybe there's an exploration of my own character that I want to play. I noticed that there was a lot of themes in some of these different choices of are you going to be mean and sarcastic to the character or are you going to be nice. I tended to be a little bit more nice because I was like this is how I feel like I want to see what being a nice person was and I think the goodbye volcano high that was interesting because when I was making choices the way that the wording was phrased would always slightly modulate the way it was said, which would sometimes change the way it was like, Oh, I don't know if that was necessarily what I would say. So it'd be a bit of surprise of like not saying verbatim what that choice was. But yeah, it was kind of like this choice of being snarky or being agreeable. And it's like, this is the end of the world. Am I going to be like an asshole at the end of the world? Or am I going to be like, nice? And so, yeah, I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on that piece.

[00:19:53.182] Casey Baltes: Yeah, no, goodbye, Volcano High. Well, it gave me all the smiles. I'll just have to say that at the onset, this idea at first going in, not even knowing the context of why did they choose dinosaurs? And then understanding that, you know, the plot line was a meteor was going to hit. And so clearly this would be as if we were in the prehistoric ages, the meteor was coming and dinosaurs were extinct, but yet set in a teen angsty high school. What does that look like? That, from a premise standpoint, really unlocked something in me, just in terms of entering the game. I love the music mechanic, and I really love sort of the genuine nature of inclusiveness within the game and the stories and the characters. It actually has a nostalgic feel to sort of a Dino 90210 meets Meteor moment that has sort of resonance related to pop culture. and culture and feeling of nostalgia, that that's what resonated the most with me with Goodbye Volcano High.

[00:20:55.316] Kent Bye: Yeah, I really enjoyed going through the different scenes and the characters and really fleshed out characters and well acted. And again, it felt like a very cinematic experience, but also giving a lot of these choices. But again, I think going back to that branching character versus branching story, it felt like more of who do I want to be at the end of this dinosaur age?

[00:21:14.607] Casey Baltes: Yes, exactly. And the character of Fang, you are embodying Fang's inner monologue. So really the mechanic of your choices are through sort of a secondary lens. You're choosing their thought versus choosing your thought.

[00:21:32.626] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I guess in a similar type of dialogue choices that you're making, there's a piece called Stray Gods, which is, curiously enough, a musical, where they're breaking out in song, and you're becoming an immortal god, and sort of like a murder mystery, you're transmuting into mortal god dialogue. I don't know how you describe this as a genre, but for me, it's an interesting blend of lots of different things.

[00:21:53.598] Casey Baltes: Well, that's exactly how I would put it. I don't know how you describe it as a genre. And that is why I think it's so unique because it is very rare to see musical theater, true musical theater mechanic, built into a game that is not necessarily both you are making choices as a character in dialogue, but you are making choices within the song to change the song. It's not only very technically hard to do, but it's very hard to land both musically as well. So it's a technical prowess on the back end that I could see there was a swinging for the fences 100% with that game. And I applaud any game or any project, any creator, that tries to break the bounds of what even their genre is, video games, and say, we can push it in this direction. And let's see how far we can go with it. The voiceover cast is stellar. I think the animation is also stellar. I think it is an untested world, this blend of musical theater and video games. And just to be able to see it on display was a joy for me. And nostalgically, my musical theater production background just couldn't help but love this game.

[00:23:02.404] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, there's also a part where, you know, you're making choices in a song and so you have this, like, countdown, like, either you make a choice or we're going to make it for you, but there's a timing to that so that, you know, once you make the choice, then it cuts in and changes the lyrics and takes you in a different direction. And again, I don't know in this piece, because it was not only a shortened demo, but also it was kind of jumping in time, skipping over stuff. And so I felt like a little disjointed in terms of how the narrative was unfolding, because I think it's very much a demo rather than a full game experience. And so, In terms of narrative, it felt like a little disjointed in that sense of jumping in time, but it felt like a whole immersive experience that you could go through and play this adventure. And I don't know, in your explorations, if you were able to discern how much variance of the plot that was unfolding based upon what you were saying, or if again, it was more about the expression of character.

[00:23:52.320] Casey Baltes: So in this one, the interesting thing is that I would say that it's less about affecting the plot because the choices that you're making are almost within the songs. It's about uncovering new versions of the song. So I did have the opportunity on the back end with the team to just go through the songs as tracks but choice-based so I could test all the different choices that not all of them, but as many as I could, of how the song would change, like truly would change, new verses, new people singing, sometimes new songs, that would basically unlock as you made song choices.

[00:24:27.797] Kent Bye: Oh wow, okay, so it's like more of like a branching song, like a choose-your-own-adventure of the song, but like with many branches that they've fleshed out there.

[00:24:35.318] Casey Baltes: Yeah, exactly.

[00:24:36.278] Kent Bye: And sometimes when you play through these games and you only play it through once, you don't fully appreciate some of the full complexity of it. And this is probably one of those, a good example of that.

[00:24:44.921] Casey Baltes: Exactly, exactly. And I think the function here, especially with games as demos, especially because you can't play the full thing and they're pre-release, the hope and goal is a driver to tease and get people excited enough that the full launch and the full release is something that people really want to play.

[00:25:03.258] Kent Bye: Yeah, and the last game to cover I think is probably one of my favorite ones in terms of game mechanic that was really novel, but The Chance of Sanar, which uses language in a way that I felt like you're reading these glyphs and there's a contextual dimension where you have to decode the glyphs, but you're given multiple contexts, so you have to decode the language, but the language is helping you figure out the puzzles. And so, yeah, I thought it was a brilliant game mechanic and I ended up spending It's a 45 minute demo, but I think it's more expansive that because I ended up spending around like over 90 minutes And then I was like, okay, this doesn't seem like this is ending So I'm gonna stop but I was able to unlock 17 of the different glyphs. It was like a lot of actually probably Well, it's a deep game, but were you able to play the full game? Because it's a 45 minute demo, but like I said, I went on for way longer than that because it was so immersive and I was just like, wow, this is really an interesting mechanic that's really testing me trying to figure out and decode this language with multiple contexts and people speaking. You have this book mechanic that you can verify the words and you can put in your sample what you think the words might mean. So yeah, just this real, interesting and novel mechanic around language that I haven't seen before, but I thought it was really quite compelling.

[00:26:19.901] Casey Baltes: Yeah, I have spent hours in this game, and in full transparency, I have not yet completed it, both within the mix of planning and producing the festival, but it is a game that I will spend more hours in. I'm very far into it, further than the demo, but have not yet completed the game, and it's actually something that is nice because you can sort of come back to it. If you have those notes and remember, you can come back to it and have a sort of chunked experience throughout the course of however long. This game, to me, if I started off this conversation with a lot of these games have a sense of place, this is the neutral version of that. It is a place that is undefined with a language and people that are undefined. It is basically, if all these games came together in language, it's the Tower of Babel. How are they trying to understand each other? How are we communicating? What is the universal communication? And the mechanic of solving that through glyphs, I thought was really powerful as almost a tie to bridge all of these senses of place of people from different cultures and say, this game is actually telling us all that we're actually all just trying to communicate with each other and understand. And the glyphs also have very simple meanings, but very universal, which I also love this game because, you know, as I was talking about the stories that players tell with each other, as we reviewed these games I had other people also playing alongside and it was helpful to actually be in communication with someone outside of the game saying, did you solve this area? I haven't solved that one yet, but can you give me a little bit of a hint or I don't need it. That level of communication related to puzzles and aspects of games is really something that I love because you're really able to make connection with other players. It's one of the reasons why we have two headsets there because I do want, if you're with somebody else, to just put it on and say, can you help me solve this area?

[00:28:14.153] Kent Bye: Yeah, I did see groups of three or four people all watching and playing together and trying to figure it out. Because it's got these subtitles and these glyphs, it's very much like you'll look at a mural with some of the glyphs, you'll play a card game with the glyphs, you'll see conversations with people to figure out the glyphs, you'll have puzzles that are trying to figure out the glyphs. So you have multiple contexts that you have this language that's being used. And then on top of that, you have multiple different types of languages that you have to translate between. So then there's an interaction between stuff you've already figured out and how that gets translated into these other characters in the language that they're speaking. And so, yeah, it becomes like this Tower of Babel type of experience where you're trying to create interconnections between them. You know, I usually try to go through the experiences by the length first. And so I started with Expanse because it was 90 minutes. This was listed as 45 minutes, but then I ended up spending like 90 minutes. I was like, I got so immersed. I was like, okay, like I got to a point where I was like, I could keep playing this for hours and hours. I'm so immersed, but I got to play these other games, but it does. I feel like a game that I could come back to because in terms of puzzle mechanic and trying to solve it, it really tickled that thing inside of me where I wanted to try to actually solve the puzzle and then move forward in the story and have this really beautiful, like again, 2.5D aesthetic of this world that I'm going around and just really beautiful art style. But yeah, it felt like the puzzle mechanic of language just was so novel that I felt deeply immersed and it's probably a game that I would come back to and finish because it was just a lot of fun.

[00:29:43.055] Casey Baltes: Depending on how far you got in the demo, I'm not sure. There is another level that's unlocked. And each area has a completely different visual aesthetic.

[00:29:53.738] Kent Bye: Yeah, I got to that point. That's when I stopped. I explored that area around. I was like, does this demo have an end? And that's what I was trying to find. And then I just kept exploring and exploring and exploring. And yeah, it definitely has a different aesthetic shift at some point, yeah.

[00:30:07.742] Casey Baltes: Yeah. And I did like that a lot because you're so into this visual style and it's gorgeous. It's a gorgeous game. And then that sort of subtle shift from the colors is also, I think, very powerful.

[00:30:19.473] Kent Bye: Yeah, well that's the selection here. I think it's a really strong selection with a lot of really novel, different types of games. And they're all up for jury and competition as well?

[00:30:29.183] Casey Baltes: Yes. All the games are up for the Tribeca Games Award, which is the one singular award that we provide to the games that is awarded on the potential of artistic excellence and storytelling.

[00:30:41.559] Kent Bye: Awesome, and I'd love to hear any reflections about being here in the same physical space as the Tribeca Immersive, because last year it was on the first floor of this Spring Studios, 50 Varick Street, and then the year before it was during the pandemic, so it was all virtual, but how has it been sharing a space with the Tribeca Immersive selection?

[00:31:00.637] Casey Baltes: I personally love it, I mean, for a number of reasons. One, in positioning, being able to physically place games in a place of prominence alongside the teenager, what I call the teenager, the 15-year-old immersive, is a really powerful statement. And I do think there is a lot or will be a lot of crossover between some of the creators. So by proximity in the room, it encourages people to actually try out each other's projects, to meet each other, to understand where there's potential collaboration or potential interest in the types of projects that can be made. So by that function, I love it. From a flow standpoint, what's helpful is that, you know, with games being so new at the festival, you don't have to destine to find the games. If the games are in a specific spot that's further away, or you have to go somewhere, you have to think in your mind as an attendee. Oh, Tribeca has games. Where is that space? I want to go to that space. And so there's sort of three barriers for inclusion and participation and enhancing the play at the festival. So if it's here within the space, the happenstance upon it that maybe you didn't even know you were coming to the floor and there were actual video games on the floor is really helpful to, I think, encourage the message that video games are here.

[00:32:17.794] Kent Bye: Yeah, and there's definitely ways that the different mediums can learn from each other in terms of like the different types of narrative innovations and narrative structures. I think a lot of these games have a little bit more sophistication when it comes to the different types of branching narratives or experimentations and narratives, but also gameplay. I'd say with the caveat that a lot of gameplay in the game section is abstracted through the game controller, and a lot of the gameplay within the context of immersive tends to usually be a little bit more embodied, although I'd say Pixel Ripped is probably a game that's more like the traditional type of game controller. But yeah, I think there's a lot of interaction and fusion that can happen. And I think with the Expanse, it definitely felt like the most immersive in terms of being immersed into a story and a world. And moving around, it's got this 3D spatial context. But also, the Nightscape also has another level of immersion where it felt like it's got this artistic style that even though it's a 2D platformer, I felt deeply immersed into the world. as well as the chance of cenar, which, again, was deeply immersive in a completely other puzzle mechanic way. So, yeah, I feel like there's a lot of ways that the video game medium and what's happening in the immersive world can start to interact with each other. So, yeah, I don't know if you have any reflections on what you're seeing with the affordances of the immersive storytelling and the affordances of the video games.

[00:33:31.922] Casey Baltes: I mean we could spend hours talking about that one for sure because it is something that I really obsess about a lot and really want to do a service to both industries. I never like to fit a square peg into a round hole but you know as things are evolving just trying to maximize and leap on what those opportunities are. I think the impetus and the drive for storytelling through an interactive medium is very strong. And the choice of how, which medium, quote unquote, or, or which avenue to go down is different. And that's where it diverges. I also know, you know, we intentionally have games or quote unquote video games within the immersive selections as a crossover. And what I try to do, in the determining of that is not start off with, well, what is it? Is it a game or is it an immersive project? Because it's sometimes impossible to tell. The most important thing to me is, where does a creator want it to go? Does it want to go a direct commercial route, PlayStation, who is that audience? Okay, it's more of a game selection. Does this piece, you know, does it have a sort of museum installation-based route? Are there other avenues outside of the traditional games industry market that the immersive site can service, than we would consider for the immersive space. So it's much more about the long term, about the trajectory of the projects that sort of predefine or determine eventually which selection it goes into, which is a place I had to get to, right, to even understand how to make sense of it for myself. But by and large, I do actually feel like that that is, again, where the paths are somewhat divergent. And those, in theory, will get closer and closer together.

[00:35:12.332] Kent Bye: Yeah, because I imagine that there's going to be games that are going to be releasing on the either MetaQuest store or Steam that are on the immersive side. So like Pixel Rip is coming out next week on both PSVR and MetaQuest and Steam. But have you received submissions of immersive games into this selection that are less game-like? Or do you feel like with Ana expanding out into more of inclusion of those games into the immersive selection, if that's like a better home?

[00:35:40.223] Casey Baltes: You know, it's interesting because even within the game space, the market is different and the considerations are different to, quote-unquote, platform games, to VR games, to mobile games. Those are all actually uniquely, not separate industries, but different considerations. And we have received VR game submissions, we've received mobile game submissions, we've received all types of games. Currently, right now, the best that we can do is service the types of games that we select here. The considerations for that actually are a fewfold. Footprint size considerations, as well as, again, that sort of path. And within the VR games market, in my mind currently, the tip is more on the immersive, sort of the immersive industry supporting those in a bigger way.

[00:36:25.473] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of interactive games and artistic expression of storytelling might be and what it might be able to enable?

[00:36:39.488] Casey Baltes: That's another big question. I actually think the potential for interactive and immersive storytelling is really much more related to how we are making connections with each other in real life. I think it's easy enough to sort of dive deep and go hard on the digital experience, but equally as important, what is that interactivity carrying through to people's personal lives? What stories are they sharing? What connections are they making? And I do feel like interactive experiences, specifically video games, sort of enhance that post-experience relationship with other people. I feel definitely that there is a world where we look at experiences not ending when the quote-unquote credits roll, but really try to understand what are the side effects weekly or monthly or yearly after a project has been consumed. And with the video game and the format and sometimes the length of time and the relationships that you build within the space, to me that is actually one of the greatest potentials.

[00:37:39.973] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, I really enjoyed being able to have a chance to play through all the different experiences this year and look forward to seeing who takes away the top prize. I think it's actually a tough competition with lots of different strengths and weaknesses for each of the pieces. They're all unique and amazing in their own way. And yeah, just thanks for taking the time to help break down the selection and your process of curating it. So thank you.

[00:37:59.928] Casey Baltes: Awesome. Thank you.

[00:38:01.358] Kent Bye: So that was Casey Poultas. She's the vice president of Tribeca Games and Immersive at Tribeca Enterprises. And we were talking about the seven different experiences that were being shown at Tribeca Games, including Nightscape, Despalote, A Highland Song, The Expanse of Telltale Series, Stray Gods, The Roleplaying Musical, Goodbye, Volcano High, and Chance of Cynar. The overall winner of the Trebekka Games was Goodbye Volcano High, and the jury's statement said, For how much this game felt of the moment and questions whether you should still care about anything when everything sucks. Complete with doomscrolling, dinosaurs, and high school band drama. Yeah, so that was an experience where I think what Casey said is that you're actually choosing the thoughts of the character. So you choose the thought and then the way that she expresses that thought comes out slightly differently based upon whomever she's interacting with. So there's always like a slight difference between how you're slightly influencing these different characters. I only played through it once so I don't get a good sense of the different branches that I could have taken but again you have this approach to whether or not you're playing chaotic or good or evil or you know just what kind of temperament you want to play with. As things are ending in the end of the world it's all these dinosaurs at a high school and there's an asteroid that's coming and it's a little bit of like a don't look up type of moment where that I don't know quite what to believe. And they're just also talking about their life and mortality and life is just kind of continuing as is for these dinosaurs in high school. So it's like a high school drama coming of age in the context of when an asteroid is coming to cause the extinction of everyone. And then Desperado, the way that Casey described this experience was that it was like a cinema verite as game. And I really felt that as you are able to really have this open world exploration, but as you explore around, you have all these different conversations, interactions that are going on with a lot of really nice spatial capture of these different worlds. And so it was kind of a unique experience of a game. And so the jury comment for this one was for how it offers a dreamlike portal into a soccer-obsessed child's everyday life and shows how cultural expression, whether through sports or creative pursuit, can make our lives richer. So I already talked about the expanse of Telltale Series in a previous conversation with the game director, Stefan Frost. So I recommend checking out that deep dive into that conversation to dig into much more of the details for how they put that together. But I also just wanted to give a shout out to The Chance of Sonar, which was really a quite unique game mechanic of using language as a puzzle where you don't speak the language and they're having these glyphs and you're trying to, based upon different context, decode and understand what people are saying to each other. And there's a way to verify the different glyphs, but there's lots of different contexts and puzzles that you get to face trying to figure that out. And it ends up being a really interesting experience because there's different languages and yeah, it just became a really compelling puzzle mechanic of using language as a way of trying to decode what people are saying to each other. So really beautifully designed. 2.5D isometric view of this world. Overall, there's seven total different games. The one that had a game-breaking bug there during the festival is called a Highland Song, where I was able to play through the first five or ten minutes, but then a bug was preventing it from progressing. But yeah, really enjoyed playing through all these other games. All in all, Torbacca Immersive had 13 experiences and around three and a half hours worth of content. And these were seven experiences with five to six to seven hours worth of content. And so I was able to play through all the different Tribeca Immersive and get through all the Tribeca games, but I was glad to be able to do that and talk to Casey to be able to help unpack it all and to see how it fits into the overall context of how gaming and immersive storytelling and this interchange between how Tribeca Immersive this year and Ibrazinska had started to curate some of these immersive games in the context of Tribeca Immersive. Yeah, the line between gaming interactivity and story is gonna be more and more blurred together as time goes on just because of the nature of the medium of virtual reality has these inherent game-like qualities. And one of the things that I noticed in the context of these games is that you have a lot more of these exotic branching narrative explorations in the context of the 2D games where I haven't seen that as much. There's certainly been some, but just the depth of development that has to go into that just takes a lot of time and energy. Baldur's Gate 3 was just released last week, and there's been a lot of different explorations for the different types of richness around that as an interactive game with lots of different potentials, where you get to explore more D&D, computer-driven role-playing game that has a lot of that type of branching narratives, with a number of different endings as well. And so for Casey, when she's curating this program, she likes to play through all the different possibilities. And I think it's worth giving a shout out to The Stray Gods, the role-playing musical, which is the genre-bending type of experience where it's doing the choices but the choices are changing the song as it's unfolding and so lots of different ways in which the song and the structure of the song and the meaning of the song and who's singing that song changes based upon your choices and this time-based choice that you have to make at a certain point because you know the song must go on so you have to be quick on your feet to be able to choose how the song is going to unfold and yeah just to hear a little bit more about the complexity of that was really quite fascinating so Yeah, lots of exploration for both more exotic narrative structures and interactivity and agency and gameplay mechanics that are happening this year. And so I hope they continue this in the future of having this more seamless integration between the Tribeca Immersive and Tribeca games. Like I said, this year, it was all in the same space where in previous years they were separated, but to have them together for people who are coming in for the games to be able to check out some of the immersive experiences and for the immersive experiences to check out some of the games. So, that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast, and if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a list of support podcasts, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you could become a member, donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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