Indie games invade Chicago’s weirdest museum for Bit Bash 2019

After a brief hiatus, Chicago’s tightly-knit volunteer team was back last month with Bit Bash, an annual celebration of the global indie game scene. This year the event was produced with the help of a new sponsor, the Museum of Science and Industry.

Also known as MSI, the massive exhibit hall is one of the weirdest places in the city. Inside you’ll find a replica coal mine, a two-story-tall adjustable tornado, a working chicken incubator, and an honest-to-gods German U-boat. So why not add a game called Hellcouch for the weekend?

In total, Bit Bash offered more than 80 interactive experiences, including board games and an art exhibit by the VGA Gallery. The crowd was a glorious mix of ages and demographics, with a smattering of high-profile talent from Chicago’s best indie developers. I even bumped into my old friend Robin Baumgarten, whose award-winning Line Wobbler and Wobble Garden were both on display.

The highlight for me was walking into an amazing space and letting my girls — aged nine and six — run wild. Family favorites included Capy Hoky (where adorable capybaras play a game of ice hockey) and Kick Bot, a game about a wall-jumping robot played on a custom, two-button controller.

Most surprising were the games that attracted my girls the most. My youngest fell in love with GAZE, a game where you hover over a 3D structure with an iPad trying to create specific shapes in the camera from seemingly random lines. Meanwhile, my oldest became entranced with Genesis Noir, an avant-garde art game about jazz and the creation of the universe.

Being there in that space, experiencing dozens of entirely new games shoulder-to-shoulder with other people, felt amazing. Anyone jaded by the endless discourse on social media and inside comment threads owes it to themselves to come to Chicago next year to be reinvigorated, and reminded how joyful games can be.

The event was sponsored by Jackbox Games, VGA Gallera, Aria Technology Solutions, the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago, and the Chicago Foundation for the Interactive Arts. Here’s a look at how it all went down.

For most guests of Bit Bash 2019, the journey began with a trip up from ticketing to MSI’s massive marble atrium. In addition to a large demo space off the main halls, individual games rotated through the atrium all weekend long.

Among the games on display in the atrium was Wobble Garden, a project by Robin Baumgarten. The board itself is made up of dozens of springs. Each one is touch sensitive, and by changing to underlying programming Baumgarten is able to achieve different effects, including a rather compelling simulation of flower pollination.

Live Action Pocket Monster Snap is a performative take Pokémon Go, ran multiple times throughout the weekend. It asked guests to use their mobile phones to capture pictures of Beanie Babies.

In GAZE players use a purpose-built app to hunt for shapes in a three-dimensional maze. Only by lining up the black lines correctly — by moving up, down, and around the structure — can they then move on to the next shape.

Visitors enjoy a round of SLAMBURGERS!, a wild game about sentient fighting hamburgers by Aidan Walsh. In the background, a full auditorium space was dedicated to Scattershot, a competitive SHMUP that accommodates hundreds of players at once.

A team of players puzzle over Hellcouch, an interactive game featuring a possessed sofa that you play with your butt.

In Roger Meatball players take turns recreating some of the first carrier landings in a period biplane. The game includes a robust flight simulation as well as LED instrumentation. The highlight is that another player watches the pilot trying to land from the deck of the carrier on a second screen, and uses semaphore to help them land.

Line Wobbler, a single-pixel action role-playing game, was artfully displayed along the railing of a long winding staircase.

One of the more raucous demos was actually in the tabletop area, converted from an old cafeteria below the main gallery. Earworm is a game of musical charades. The catch is you can’t sing, and have to hum the tune instead. The game was designed and produced by a Chicago-based team.

Hedge Lord is an exceptionally beautiful hand-made board game produced by Timbrook Toys in Huntsville, Alabama.

Chicago’s Video Game Art Gallery participated this year as well, bringing a small traveling exhibit for guests. Art prints were also on sale.

Sashimi Slammers is a game about two fish duking it out on the sushi counter. The game is played with a pair of custom, fish-shaped controllers. It was just as much fun to play as it was to watch.

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