Brooklyn’s DIY kids are getting a big dose of Death By Audio nostalgia this month: Starting March 11 and running until April 8, Death By Audio Arcade will have a month-long residency at Flowers for All Occasions (1114 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn). This comes at the same time as the SXSW debut of Goodnight Brooklyn, a documentary by former DBA resident Matthew Conboy that looks at the venue’s struggle to stay open as the Williamsburg waterfront developed around it.
Death By Audio was a centerpiece of Brooklyn’s mid-Aughts music scene, and when it closed in 2014 national music outlets reported on the loss. In addition to providing a performance space for acts like Future Islands, Jeff the Brotherhood, and Dan Deacon, among others, DBA stashed a rotating series of hand-built arcade cabinets by the bar. The games were always free, providing a distraction between sets and a showcase for some of New York City’s most creative independent game developers.
The games came from a variety of programmers, but the cabinets were made by Mark Kleback, a DBA resident and electronics tinkerer. In 2011, Kleback was living behind the venue, and began his time as the space’s arcade curator by experimenting with building his own cabinet. It requires lots of work and artistry: He uses a jigsaw to cut out a hand-drawn design on plywood, paints or stains the wood, wires circuit boards to translate the push of a button to a computer command, prints and attaches decals, and finally places in the screen. With access to a wood shop, electronics, and screen printing, Kleback had all the resources he needed. After being introduced to MAME (an open-source emulator that recreates vintage arcade software), he began to build cabinets with old classics like Street Fighter.
Kleback began attending shows for game developers and found a similar community to the indie music scene at DBA; in the same way larger corporate interests weren’t dictating the direction of bands who played the space, these developers weren’t setting out to make a Halo or work at a huge company like EA or Blizzard. Kleback put out a call to the New York University Game Center listserv for developers who were interested in collaborating on cabinets, and when he started building new ones to house their games in 2013, the DBA Arcade was born.
Since DBA’s closure in 2014, Kleback has taken the games on the road. The cabinets were part of The Smithsonian’s Indie Arcade last December, a one-day showcase of the country’s best independent games. Kleback then found a temporary home at another Bushwick DIY space, The Silent Barn, for about six months. The month-long gallery show at Flowers for All Occasions will be the first time almost every cabinet will be back in one room. That includes games like the colorful, hyper-kinetic Slam City Oracles, the one-on-one struggle for a deadly weapon Nothing Good Can Come Of This, and Star Versus, a new space-battle game that debuted on a homemade Nintendo cartridge before being ported over to an arcade cabinet.
Players don’t have to worry about the traditional quarter-sucking of the typical arcade game here. Unlike Turtles in Time or Revolution X, these games aren’t designed with levels to be endured and conquered alone; they’re multiplayer, designed to be played with friends. With one exception, Particle Mace — it has 150 levels and can be beaten, which Kleback mentions took a former DBA resident three days of constant play to accomplish — the games foster a communal atmosphere, less furious button mashing and more collaboration between friends.
For Kleback, DBA arcade games are “more creative than, say, Call of Duty,” and he’s got a point. While they lack the flash of blowing away Nazis or a post-apocalyptic mutants, the simple graphics are bright and engaging.
Today, people looking for DIY scenes have Babycastles and the NYU Game Center’s Brooklyn headquarters, but according to Kleback, “There’s not a centralized scene.” The gallery show will be a chance for Brooklyn to finally have a storefront indie arcade, and maybe even a physical scene for the city’s indie game developers, which Kleback said he’s been on the hunt for since DBA closed.
For the next month, at least, one piece of Death By Audio will be around. “I wouldn’t say the creative energy of Death By Audio died; it kind of just dispersed into a bunch of different things,” Kleback said, musing on the varied projects that former DBA residents have undertaken (a coffee shop, a record store, Goodnight Brooklyn). To Kleback, the heart of Death By Audio was “a bunch of people with very little money able to make something amazing because they worked hard and cared about it.” And that ethos is still going strong.