One of the highlights of the year for creators, publishers, and fans of indie comics in Toronto, ON is the Toronto Comic Arts Fest. The free, multi-day even based in the Toronto Reference Library (as well as many satellite venues for parties and smaller exhibitions) took place on May 11th and 12th this year has become both increasingly popular and high profile over the last few years, will incredible panels and all star guests that included Gibert & Jamie Hernandez, Bryan Lee O'Malley and Françoise Mouly. The loveliest thing about TCAF, the aspect of it that has made it one of the most anticipated gatherings in the Canadian (and international) comics community, is the intimacy and friendliness of the event. It is an opportunity for fans to have conversations with the creators of their favourite comic art and narratives, and for those artists to connect with the people who support them. Collaborators and mutual fans look forward to the sometimes rare opportunities to get together in the same physical space and celebrate each other's It is a joyous, positive event.
It was this exact same vibe that made Bit Bazaar, one of the events associated with the gaming extension of TCAF known as Comics vs. Games (now in its second year), such an equally wild success. Hosted by local co-working space and games incubator Bento Miso, as well as the Hand Eye Society, and Attract Mode, Bit Bazaar combined the environment of a gallery, arcade and zine fair. As well as the primary exhibition, which look place at Bento Miso from noon to 8pm on May 11th, Bit Bazaar lso included a games art gallery and a pair of Comics vs Games Showcases at the Toronto Reference Library during TCAf proper.
It was the gaming zine fair atmosphere of Bit Bazaar that was the highlight of the multi-pronged series of events. Creators and publishers sat proudly behind their games, which were set up on consoles and computers loaded into hand-held devices, viewable on screens large and small and even projected onto walls. Attendees were encouraged to pick up a controller or a device or a mouse and play, and to ask questions of the people who made the games. There was merch and art, posters and buttons, action figure and bonus features to admire. And, of course, there was the opportunity to pick up the games themselves often with bonus content or beautiful packaging. Though I have played, and enjoyed, Christine Love's gorgeous Analogue: A Hate Story before, it was wonderful to pick up a physical copy that came with additional art and cardboard fold-out characters. It was similarly great to be able to snag a copy of David S. Gallant's I Get This Call Everyday in the “pack up your things edition,” which included a hand-photocopied zine/statement/confession from Gallant and customized art doodled in the case. I got even more excited about Jazzpunk, the retro-futuristic comedy adventure game by Necrophone Games (a/k/a Luis Hernandez and Jess Brouse). They even had copies of the game's soundtrack to listen to – on tape, on a genuine Walkman.
Bit Bazaar was also an excellent opportunity for discovery. I played through The Yawhg, a multi-player co-operative and narrative driven game by Emily Carrol and Damian Sommer (which is both wonderful and available now and you should buy it), which seemed playful at first and then stabbed me in the vital bits when the narrative grew dark and the stakes became higher. I was entirely engrossed in Will O'Neill's chronicle of depression Actual Sunlight, and he generously let me play the demo entirely through, completely fixated. Untold Entertainment sold me on Spellirium, which plays like a combination of Scrabble and Money Island, so hard I bought the alpha.
While the games themselves were unquestionably the stars of the event, the opportunity to personally connect with those games' creators was what made Bit Bazaar special. Being able to have an in-depth conversation about JazzPunk's musical influences with the composers, or talk candidly to David S. Gallant about being fired from Canada Revenue for making his game and the fallout from that, was what set the event apart. It has channeled the best part about TCAF and transferred it over to games. As indie developers all over the world create more and more brilliant content, the zine fair model offers rich opportunities for connection and collaboration.
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Okay, so this one weird thing happened. I didn't want to write about it because Bit Bazaar was so shiny and wonderful and perfect otherwise, but this super strange encounter occurred that I can't help thing is relevant, somehow.
Because, here is the thing. The piece I wrote about, effusive and gushing in praise? Absolutely true. I also ate delicious pizza bread and had a coke and connected with friends who have been travelling. I touched hand-painted art on old console game cartridges and got to tell Christine Love (so, so awkwardly) that I think she is beautiful. I complimented a developer's Skeletonwitch short and we bonded over metal. It was excellent.
The first time I was waiting in line to play The Yawhg, I was chatting with Damian Sommer, who I have run into at other events and who has answered my terrible beginner's Twine questions with the patience of a saint. I was excited to play his game, to see what he had built inside, and was chattering away because of it. A few other prospective players were there as well, probably also colleagues. Suddenly, one of these young men interrupted me mid-sentence.
“Excuse me, but who are you?”
I realized that I had just walked up to the table and starting talking to Damian, without really introducing myself. I apologized. “I'm Natalie.” I held out my hand to shake his.
He stared at my hand. “Yeah. But who are you?” I wasn't sure how to answer. I realized he meant who I was in terms on my importance, my place in the community, my identity as a gamer. I wasn't sure how to answer. I said my name again. He sneered.
I walked away and player other games for almost an hour. When I got back, I played through the Yawhg by myself, playing all four characters, and loved it though I lost miserably.
The conversation did little more than break my stride and didn't cast any kind of a pall over my experience, but it was at odds with the rest of the incredibly warm, welcoming environment. So maybe there's one more reason that the zine fair model is good for the indie gaming community: it will start more conversations and lead to even more positive, open and collaborative moments, making that old, elitist attitude stand out ever more sharply in contrast and eventually made away completely.