In 2011, the Tribeca Film Festival’s unprecedented decision to include a video game as part of the official selection may have seemed like nothing more than a glorified bit of cross-promotion between a for-profit festival and an elite publisher with a very expensive new blockbuster to sell. A detective mystery in the tradition of classic movies like “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep,” Rockstar Games’ “L.A. Noire” certainly seemed like a natural way of bridging the gap between two different mediums that have been on a collision course for a long time — according to Rockstar’s Dan Houser, Tribeca felt that it “was something new and different that would appeal to fans of cinematic storytelling” — but the choice also reflected the patronizing idea that video games should aspire to be interactive films.
In the years that followed, however, it gradually became clear that Tribeca had a more expansive vision for the role that video games can play in the arts. Subsequent events became starrier and more frequent, and while many of them continued to showcase photorealistic AAA titles like “God of War” and Kojima Hideo’s “Death Stranding,” others highlighted indie titles and focused on the unique elements of interactive storytelling. For every panel about how “Sleeping Beauty” influenced “The Banner Saga,” there was another about the design of “Firewatch” or the virtual spaces of “The Stanley Parable.”
By 2017, games had become such a pronounced aspect of the Tribeca experience that a parallel mini-event — the Tribeca Games Festival — was created to contain them all. The move sent mixed signals. On the one hand, it cemented Tribeca as the only film festival of its stature to reserve a dedicated space for gaming (Sundance, SXSW, and other such mainstays tend to draw the line at VR and multimedia installations). On the other, it siloed video games away from movies in a way that isolated their audiences from each other and stilted the dialogue between them. It was like a secret area hidden inside the Tribeca apparatus — one that hardcore gamers might know about, but casual types would be free to ignore.
This year, that changes. For the first time in Tribeca’s 20-year history, the festival’s official selections include a full slate of games, complete with hands-on virtual demos for each of them and a juried award that will be decided by a lineup of heavy hitters from both sides of the fence (the inaugural panel includes Elijah Wood, Neill Blomkamp, “Into the Mother Lands” creator Tanya DePass, “Hades” art director Jen Zee, and former Nintendo of America COO Reggie Fils-Aime).
The sea change started when Tribeca Games announced a new advisory board last fall comprised of Nia DaCosta, Jon Favreau, and gaming luminaries like Kiki Wolfkill and Kojima himself. Now, Tribeca is dropping “Film” from its title and rebranding itself as the Tribeca Festival going forward, as the 2021 edition of the annual Manhattan mega-event is set to formally embrace a new, top-down approach that emphasizes how episodics, immersive storytelling, and video games coexist with cinema rather than just ride its coattails.
While movies are still very much the main event at Tribeca, the newfound emphasis on gaming is consistent with the festival’s long-term investment in games as central to the cultural conversation, and not just a sidebar. “It was a natural evolution,” said Tribeca Games VP Casey Baltes, who’s been a key figure at the festival for more than a decade. “When we programmed ‘L.A. Noire’ in 2011, we really wanted to demonstrate that games are a powerful medium for storytelling, and through the years we’ve been able to showcase that through special events. But our mission is to explore intersectionality — the blurring of the lines rather than the separation between mediums. So I think the way we’re bringing games to the official selection and letting them sit alongside the films is unique.”
Baltes said the programming process was not unlike the routine for assembling the lineup of films, though she was more proactive about it this time. “We had open submissions,” she said. “This being the first year I also wanted to do some outreach just to eliminate the conception of what people should submit based on the games that we’ve showcased in the past. We wanted them to submit based on their interpretation of what storytelling means for video games.”
The eight titles that Baltes’ team selected from roughly 60 entrants reflect an eye-popping variety of responses to that prompt, and range from lavish games by major publishers (such as the gothic fairytale-inspired action-adventure “Lost in Random,” which is being released by Electronic Arts) to singular indies from companies that are just making their mark (like the post-apocalyptic puzzler “Signalis” from Humble Games). “The Big Con” is a colorfully lo-fi ’90s throwback about a cartoon girl trying to save her family’s video store, while the claustrophobic “Twelve Minutes” features the voices of Willem Dafoe, James McAvoy, and Daisy Ridley in a time loop story about a man stuck in a violent home invasion. Some of the games hinge on movie stars and lifelike graphics while others (like Shedworks’ gobsmacking, Ghibli-esque desert explorer “Sable”) rely on more generative and ambient forms of world-building, but experiencing them side-by-side with each other — let alone in the context of the festival’s other sections — leaves the visceral impression of an art form growing in several directions at once.
As in a film festival, Baltes stressed that the lineup highlights established talents alongside first-time creators, with the hope that the wide variety of games would reflect the wide variety of people who play them. “Just as the film audience is diverse in terms of what they’d like to see in a film, the game audience is diverse in terms of what games they would gravitate towards,” she said.
While there’s no in-person component to Tribeca Games in 2021, the COVID-era phenomenon of virtual festivals has opened a natural opportunity for games to occupy the same space. People interested in getting their hands on these games can do so by downloading the Parsec app and booking free demo time slots for each of the eight titles through Tribeca’s website (or at least they could, before most of the finite slots were snapped up).
The experience isn’t without its hiccups — the demos require a ton of bandwidth, some can only be played with a controller plugged into your Mac or PC, and my experience with “The Big Con” ended after just a few seconds when a message popped up that “the host is doing something else right now” — but each of these cleverly self-contained game slices is structured in a way that highlights the storytelling mechanics at work but never feels like mere advertisements for upcoming product.
The art of it all comes first, which is a very different experience than you might get from a booth at E3. Even playing these games alone in your home, you can hear them talking to you, and also to each other. It’s the kind of earnest, open-minded dialogue that makes film festivals such vibrant environments, and will hopefully carry over into the physical world when the new incarnation of Tribeca Games goes 3D next year.
So far as Baltes is concerned, that will be the ultimate measure of success. “As a player and a gamer, I hope people come away feeling seen and validated,” she said. “I hope that they’re so excited by what they play that they’re willing and eager to talk about it casually at a dinner table with friends like they would a film they’ve seen at the festival.”
The 2021 Tribeca Festival runs from June 9 to June 20.