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Indie Games and Graffiti Bring us Back to the Basics

Axel Smooth is here to save Charlotte, or at least help the city cultivate its local gaming culture.

I recently wrote about the debut of Axel Smooth Saves Charlotte, a side-scrolling, beat-’em-up indie video game developed by Central Piedmont Community College students that will have its own cabinet at Abari Game Bar in Villa Heights.

Ryan Pitkin

The idea stems from a relatively new partnership between Abari and CPCC’s Simulation and Game Development that will feature multiple student-developed indie games on a single cabinet at the game bar, the first of which being Axel Smooth. The program will serve as a stepping stone to a career in the gaming industry.

Eulises Orellano, one of the developers behind Axel Smooth, recently graduated from CPCC and was able to get a job with local gaming company 704Games, but he knows he was lucky to get in the door so quickly. Despite the fact that the gaming industry is flourishing at the moment, it’s popularity also makes the job market very competitive.

“It helps everybody. It helps them get exposure and get feedback, but more importantly, they’ll have a published title — a released title — which is really important when trying to find a job in this industry,” Orellano said. “I lucked out tremendously here [at 704Games], but most of my friends are still struggling. It’s one of those things, we’re trying to help as much as we can.”

For Pulliam, who opened Abari in 2016, the program helps Charlotte compete with cities like Raleigh by tapping into the local pool of talent and helping those amateur developers go pro.

“We’re just kind of looked over with Raleigh in the Research Triangle and having things like Epic [Games] and things like that, but it’s nice to see this young talent that is passionate about game-making,” Pulliam told me. “They can put this on a resume and say, ‘Hey, we made this game, people played this game, it’s here available for you to look at.’”

While local groups like CLT Esports and Carolina Gaming do big things with all the new mainstream titles, games like Axel Smooth are finding fanbases in a gaming subculture: the indie game scene. Indie games are usually pixelated throwbacks and/or addictive multiplayer games with simple rules.

I, for one, sold my PlayStation 4 a few years ago because I was wasting too much time playing MLB: The Show, and I haven’t been playing many video games since. When I see clips of Fortnite come across my Twitter feed, it looks like an absolute shitshow of confusion, and I instantly feel old. Indie games are a fun and simple way to ease back into that culture.

“We focus so much on what’s coming next, sometimes we forget about what was so good from the past and pixel art in general just brings back so many memories,” Orellano said. “It’s not trying to be hyper realistic, it’s not trying to hit 60 frames-per-second. It’s just like, this is a game, it’s fun, it’s simple. A lot of times in the game industry right now, it’s so deep, there’s so many levels to it, it gets overwhelming. Nobody wants to get overwhelmed all the time.”

Eulises Orellano works at the 704Games offices. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Events like the monthly Potions & Pixels at Petra’s, which features tons of indie games alongside more mainstream titles, are the perfect way to check out some of the indie talent within the city. I try to make it to P&P whenever I can and have found all sorts of fun ones that I seek out on my next trip, only to stumble across another one I end up addicted to for the night. For Orellano, the event serves as a way to meet fellow developers and pick their brains.

It’s another example of why I love my job: getting to know the ins and outs of the countless scenes and cultures that are thriving in this city, despite the fact that so many lazy folks continue to complain that Charlotte lacks any culture whatsoever.

That being said, I’m especially excited about this week’s cover story, which goes in depth about another one of Charlotte’s subcultures: graffiti. As we’ve seen murals become more popular around the city, local ordinances continue to criminalize graffiti artists in harsher ways than other cities.

It would be nice to see the city provide space for graffiti artists to work, rather than cast them into the shadows. After all, for the artists bombing on the streets while we sleep, this is no game.

A secret spot where local graffiti artists go to work on their craft. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

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