Eric Nakamura, Adam Robezzoli and Len Higa at the Pixel Pushers reception

Through December 11, Giant Robot and Scion are sponsoring an art exhibit in Culver City, described as an exploration of 8-Bit digital media. The opening reception taking place on November 13 mixed live chip music by Nullsleep with videos by Daniel Rehn. Jude Buffum's 8-bit baddie butcher diagrams were on the wall beside Shawn Smith's pixelated sculptures. A Famicom car touched up by Len Higa was parked in the center of the space projecting Giant Robot's sidescrolling shooter Return of the Quack from its headlights.

Quack is part of an ongoing collaboration with Adam Robezzoli of the LA game culture shop Attract Mode. Publisher and editor of Giant Robot Magazine, Eric Nakamura has produced five games with independent developers. "I love the indie game world," he says. "There’s been such great participants and it’s growing. The games that are being made are super thoughtful and creative. It’s been a chance for indie developers to learn about artists and vice versa."

For Pixel Pushers, Giant Robot reached out to artist Kohei Yamashita to provide '70s and '80s pachinko machines. The artist decorated the space with murals of squirrels and ants transporting silver pachinko balls. "What could be more interesting than working with new people who are doing something different," says Nakamura. "Pushing your own limits with their input and new ideas, that’s just cool."

Kohei Yamashita posing with pachinko machines

On hand at the reception was the team behind Meat Bun, a clothing line and game culture outlet based in Los Angeles. Michael McWhertor identifies a major advantage of organizing get-togethers in the city being its reliably clement weather. "For the most part you can be outside and play a game on a giant screen pretty much all year long," he says. "You might think it would be a little cost prohibitive to be an indie developer in LA, but there are a lot of game studios here with people deciding to go their own way. With Xbox Live and Steam there are now ways to find an audience. If we can help people out by showcasing their games, that would be awesome."

Meat Bun has been lending a hand in organizing game nights in the LA area and had a remarkable turn-out for a Super Meat Boy preview. The company's t-shirt designs latch onto games the designers identify as under-appreciated classics, from Ninja Warriors and Forgotten Worlds to Space Channel Five. The clothing line recently began appearing in Giant Robot shops. "We thought that could be a great start for us in the retail space because our fans were completely similar," explains Jason Rau. The team is looking for future game nights to feature local developers such as 24 Caret Games, whose rhythm music title Retro/Grade took home the Audience Award at Culver City's IndieCade event.

Chevy Ray Johnston, coder on Return of the Quack, was recognized as part of this year's Game Developer 50, a list of influential game designers published in Game Developer Magazine. The programmer's FlashPunk software was a product of teaching himself Flash and later was released for free. It tied in nicely with another free Flash resource, Adam Atomic's Flixel, used to create Canabalt. "On twitter I offhandedly mentioned a website that I wanted to do for beginner Flash programming," says Chevy Ray. "I had looked into how non-programmers learn and how to teach them how to learn. [Adam] responded saying he had the exact same idea. About a month after that we released the site."

Attract Mode brought together Chevy Ray with illustrator Matt Furie and musician Nullsleep. “It was pretty smooth sailing," describes the game designer, who programmed the game in FlashPunk. "I would say, ‘I need a bunch of power-ups and sparkly looking things for explosions,’ and Matt would fill pages with this stuff. He did all the scanning so it was smooth and anti-aliased.” Return of the Quack is playable at Scion in wood arcade cabinets built by Eric Nakamura's father, while Zach Gage's iPad title Halcyon is viewable on a nearby overhead projection.

Shawn Smith being interviewed

Matt Furie was passing art designs back and forth online during the making of Quack. The duck motif of the game, which blends realistic renderings of the animal with cartoonish variants was a nod to the artist's brother. "He’s three and a half years younger than me, and loves ducks," he says. "He’s more involved in the world of games than I am, so I wanted to do the duck as an homage to his weird obsession with ducks." Chevy Ray would come up with ideas for attacks, and the artist would create them: a hot dog projectile flying out of the bun, or spit shooting from the mouth of a three-eyed monster.

The illustrator credits games like Mario Bros., Golden Axe and Shadow of the Beast with informing his interest in sidescrollers. The biggest stylistic departure of Return of the Quack is the hand-drawn aesthetic. Matt's colored pencil drawings were the basis for all the visual elements of the shooter, from the player and enemies to the explosions and cloud bursts. "The actual drawings in the game are super-small: they’re only about the size of a marble. It’s fun to do all these tiny drawings and see them come to life on the big screen here, where they’re projecting it at the gallery."

In depicting wildlife through his sculptures of foxes and vultures, currently on display at Scion, Shawn Smith takes the pixel art of 2D games as his inspiration. Inherent in his process, which involves researching internet sources, is a sense of alienation from the natural world. "I end up looking at things I’ve never seen in real life," he says. "As technology evolves, the natural world is being seen more regularly through a series of screens. I’m also experiencing nature through that filter." He pays particular attention to the venues of vultures seen over his studio in Austin, located near undeveloped natural reserves.

What interests the sculptor about gaming is that it implies a surrogate, "virtual" experience. In graduate school he had struggled to find an artistic subject or form that was unique to his generation. Eventually he stumbled on games, mentioning that he was born in the year of Pong. His sculptures on display at Scion work against the blockiness of their design materials by simulating motions, from unfolding wings to craning necks. "It can be incredibly liberating," he says of the experience of videogames. "This is something you can immerse yourself in and direct. There’s something really interesting to me about that."

For more images from Pixel Pushers, view the flickr sets from Giant Robot and Nobuooo See also interviews with Jude Buffum and Zach Gage. Photos by Jeriaska.