Alex Bethke is the co-founder of Golden Gear Games and an admitted, passionate cult nerd. On his left arm he has a black and red ring of code tattooed, double-encrypted, that translates to “think”. He can recall playing Resident Evil, drunk, at 19 in a friend’s cottage, intimidated by both the game and the bay window’s pitch black view of the lake. He’s active in Toronto’s gaming scene and has been coming to the Toronto After Dark Film Festival for years, loving the frightening and strange films it brings to town, like Let the Right One In and Strigoi.
This year, he’s working for it. Bethke isn’t getting red spatter on the silver screen. He’s curating bloody pixels on smaller ones.
The festival has been haunting the city streets annually since 20006.. Not just hard genre, After Dark includes fringes of cult like stoner and freak-out films. More importantly, After Dark has featured the Canadian premiers of now-cult gems like Repo! The Genetic Opera, Rubber, Tokyo Gore Police, Dead Snow, The Innkeepers and Let the Right One In. Bethke believes that horror buffs overlook independent games,. After Dark’s senior programmer Peter Kuplowsky, who can talk about Deadly Premonition for a span of time longer than the game itself, shares Bethke’s opinion.
“I’m always surprised that the film community has no idea what’s going on with games,” says Kuplowsky, “Local people still don’t know about Sword & Sworcery, which is nuts.” Teaming up, the two lobbied the festival to include games.
Finding suitable games presented a major challenge. Bethke created a spreadsheet mapping qualities like controls, fun, and genre-fit. Some games were fuzzy on that last one. One finalist, Zaratustra’s Eversion, seemed to be a cheery, pastel-pixeled platformer in which you play as a happy cartoon flower. It didn’t fit until floating eyeballs and demon claws fly in.
Hotline Miami was an easy choice, not because of the game’s massive hype, but because Bethke cackled like a villain when playing it in his office. They finally settled on 18 games.
The opening feature of 2012’s After Dark Film Festival was the Irish invasion comedy Grabbers. Kuplowsky liked to match games up with content-related films, when possible, so the two opening night games on display were the co-op indie Death Star defender, Lovers in a Dangerous Space Time, and PSVita charmer Tales From Space: Mutant Blob Attacks.
“Beer, video games and a lot of free hugs,” is how an emcee introduced the Pub After Dark, the post-film party where the Darkcade loomed in the back end. The arcade featured two games per night, and fest goers spent the evening drinking, taking photos and chatting up Toronto Batman. The cinephiles that treated themselves to Lovers in a Dangerous Space Time were delighted.
The next few nights, games like Hotline Miami (paired with the indie, vigilante film Crave), They Bleed Pixels (paired with the equally gory Rec 3 Genesis) and McPixel (paired with the also logic-challenging follow-up to Rubber, Wrong) had no trouble attracting cinephiles. One player laughed up a storm after solving McPixel’s “virgin sacrifice” puzzle.
All in all, the Darkcade was an experiment, a trial run. In that frame, it was a success, and the festival organizers, who weren’t very familiar with indie games, were surprised by the quality and depravity of the games submitted. Non-gaming patrons discovered games of a type they had never imagined, and discovering the new-cult is what makes festivals like Toronto After Dark so worthwhile.