Freeplay 2010

Aw snap, before I get down to Melbourne Writers Festival blogging, I almost forgot I was gonna write about another recent date in Melbourne’s chock-a-block festival calendar: The Freeplay Independent Games Festival! Okay then. Quicksmart!

Righto, so the other weekend there was the 2010 Freeplay festival. This was my first time going along, and although I didn’t get a full ticket to the festival, there was still plenty of free stuff open to the public, within the State Library of Victoria’s Experimedia section. I WAS going to buy a ticket, but the main festival had already sold out (score for Freeplay!). In retrospect, it’s probably just as well I didn’t pay for a ticket, as pretty much everything I wanted to see was within the free public exhibition. A lot of the stuff in the paid festival was more for people deeply involved with all that tricky coding/programming/design/3D modelling stuff. You know, for people who actually make games.

Not me though. Well, there was Klik n Play. And I did make a Frogger-like game (called Froggo) for my Software Design and Development class in Year 12, and it was a goddamn marvel that took me weeks to get working. But I still haven’t worked out how to get the VisualBasic program working on my newer computer so I can show it off. BUT, while it was satisfying to make in the end, the arduous process of writing the code and fixing the bugs and remembering the jargon and getting the darn thing working assured me that building games from scratch was not my idea of an ideal career path. My talents lay elsewhere.

So yes, anyway, I figured a while ago that I’m not a Maker of Games, and although it would be awesome to write dialogue or the story for games, until I become a Renowned Writer, I will remain content with playing them. I don’t spend days upon days playing video games, like I did back in the day, though events like Freeplay always inspire a reminder of what I love about games, and thus inspire a brief return to the gaming frenzy. Still, my newest console is a Playstation 2, and I’m mostly still playing games of roughly that era or earlier, every now and then. I do keep up with what’s happening in gaming, but with a few exceptions, I’m pretty much a decade behind in games, which is okay by me. Maybe I only pay attention to those that have truly stood the test of time. That’s what I like to think.

In any case, games are awesome. Computer games. Video games. Board games. Card games. Or just good old fashioned, unmediated, unstructured play, like a kid with nothing but the world around them and their imagination.  And thus, the theme of the festival: Play is Everywhere.

And there was definitely a lot of play to be had within Experimedia.

Among the games on display, the first to catch my eye was Jolly Rover. If you’ve ever played any of the classic Monkey Island adventures, then think that, but with pirate dogs instead of pirate people. This one is now on my buy + play list. Check it out:

Two others of note: Mine Quest, which will soon be on Facebook to challenge Farmville’s time-sucking powers, and Hazard, which is just downright trippy.

Later I found out that some of these, and plenty of others, were featured in the Freeplay Awards Winners list and the shortlist. Yarr, thar be some super fun and super interesting games in them thar lists.

Beyond the games, I also caught a few panels.  The first: Everything Old is New Again. Being one of the first panels of the fest, there were a few teething problems with sound and presentation, but they soon started enthusiastically chowing down on things like retro revival, abandonware, the role of memory and nostalgia in a generation that has grown up with video games, and how things come in different cycles, refreshed for each new generation that doesn’t share the direct experiences of the last. They also touched on how games can (and should?) be deep, difficult, complex and original, but this kind of game often doesn’t find as much of an immediate market because it’s not easily compressed into a tweet, a marketing slogan, a recognisable genre or an existing franchise.

The next panel I saw was Getting Started. This was about all sorts of 3D modelling programs and industry tips for those just starting. Judging by my notes, I spent the whole talk contemplating the differences between games and other mediums, like movies, songs and novels. I pondered interactivity, narrative, the imagination, and the roles they play in different mediums in different ways. And I just mulled over the originality and experimentation in independent creative works.  I’m sure the talk was great for others, but I guess my mind wandered because I wasn’t too interested in learning all that technical jibbajabba. See? Writer, thinkerer, not a Game Maker.

Then there was the Play is Everywhere panel, taking its title from the theme of the festival. Appropriately, the panellists explored the topography of the topic far and wide. They questioned the value of play, intrinsically and otherwise. What can play offer us, besides pleasure and relaxation? What can play teach us? Can play be political? Can it make us more virtuous? It’s been shown that surgeons who play games can be better at doing their job. And games bring diverse people together, both online and off, to play. Children are teaching adults. Kids aren’t babysat by games, unlike with TV. It’s a less passive medium, in a sense. People are learning complex systems through interaction and experimentation. Play = risk = experimentation = learning = reward = life. One speaker made the note that play has always been everywhere, that’s nothing new. It’s games that are now widespread, often literally via mobile devices. Games are a unique fusion of art, science and technology.

I particularly liked what one panellist, Morgan Jaffit, said: that games should be more dangerous. Truly rebellious. Exploring scary stuff and controversial ideas (Escape from Woomera was given as one of the few examples out there). Not just mindless shoot-em-up violence and gore, which has actually become fairly safe. Games need to step beyond their association with kids, and get into complex, adult territory, like some of the best films and novels have. And this is partly why video games need to be able to have 18+ classification, rather than being refused classification. So yes, like play, this panel went everywhere and it was super interesting.

Finally, there was the Sleep is Death panel. If you want to know what Sleep Is Death is about, then just go watch the explanatory slideshow at their website. But basically, it’s a two-player collaborative storytelling game and it was something of a revelation to see it in action. It’s simple, yet it has essentially endless possibilities. It can be used to create interactive narratives of madcap surrealism, or elegant wonder, or who knows what else. It’s up to the two collaborative storytellers. In the demonstration we had, a member from the audience played as a judge who reluctantly slayed a wolf that was terrorising the community. But the game essentially has no limits, as far as the stories you can tell and play around with.

From the slideshow on sleepisdeath.net

Yup.

It’s utterly responsive and unpredictable, and I just found it hugely inspiring. Even better, you can watch back past games (yours or others) like a slideshow. I’m keen to buy this, but I’m holding off, just because when I do get it, I know I’m gonna be hooked. But you can bet you’ll hear more about it from me eventually.

So. Sleep Is Death. Storytelling meets play. This is another thing I’m super interested in. I’ve always been interested in games where the story is integral. And I guess in a sense storytelling is in itself a kind of play. But then hang on, I’ve realised that with Sleep Is Death, I kind of can make games, in the sense that I can create an interactive narrative. Now I really want to download it. Who knows where that will lead? Maybe I’ll even play around with VisualBasic and get Froggo working again. And where will my tinkering take me from there?

I guess one overall lesson I took from Freeplay 2010 is that play is important. Sometimes it gets a bad rap. Some call it childish. But I also learnt a new word — neoteny: the retention of juvenile characteristics in adult life. Sure, it’s a biological term, but it can be useful when you look at it more broadly. Really, whether you’re a child, an adult, or somewhere in-between, play is vital and enriching, and it’s good to have it as a balanced and integrated part of your daily life.

Finally, for some further, detailed, Freeplay-related reading, check out some great stuff I found, trawling via the #freeplay10 hashtag and various related links: Grassisleena’s report, an exhaustive wrap-up from Critical Damage, some deep thoughts from festival director Paul Callaghan’s blog and a great piece on Sleep is Death. There. That’ll do ya. Nearly as edifying as attending the festival yourself, no?

W+E4DM Web Feature Portfolio Part 4 – Junglist Out

This is part 4 of my Web Feature Portfolio for Writing and Editing for Digital Media. My articles are for ‘the Australian online magazine of culture and the popular arts’, The Enthusiast. My fourth and final article is a feature for their ‘TV’ category.

When casual fans tuned in to ABC’s Good Game several weeks ago, they may have been a little confused. The video game programme’s co-founder and co-host, Junglist (Jeremy Ray), was gone. In his place was a new host, Hex (Stephanie Bendixsen). It was only at the episode’s end that a quick farewell was given to Junglist, without further explanation. Casual fans may have been somewhat perturbed and puzzled by Junglist’s abrupt mid-season disappearance. But for the hardcore Good Game fans, an uproar had already begun.

Three days before the show aired, the decision was announced via an impersonal press release on the Good Game forums, followed by numerous posts back and forth, and finally a slightly more personal follow-up announcement nearly a week later. The lack of openness was galling enough, considering this is a show tagged as being “by gamers, for gamers”. But then Junglist commented on the forums that lies were circulating, only part of the story was being told, and in fact, his axing was forced on him from above, in a stated effort to gain “mass appeal” through a female presenter. Apparently, Junglist had also been contesting the lack of time allotted for reviewing games, or had ‘performance issues’, depending on who you listen to.

The story spread, with articles from gaming websites, mainstream commercial media and the ABC itself. Everyone had their side of the story (as far as possible within confidentiality agreements) and fans voiced their opinions at every opportunity. Amid the secrecy, speculation and internet chatter, the truth is elusive. Of course, a website was also created to redress the problem, or just provide a gathering place of support. In the end, the main issue is that ABC management made another bungle in their handling of this and they neglected their established fanbase. A familiar name shares the blame: Head of Arts and Entertainment, Amanda Duthie, the same woman dumped as Head of Comedy after she gave that Chaser sketch the green light.

Still, the ire has died down somewhat. Hex has been on for three weeks and after a bumpy start, it looks like there may be hope for the show yet. It’s just a shame they chose two ‘casual’ gamers, and removed the differing perspective of an established ‘hardcore’ gamer. This week marked the first time Hex and Bajo even had a significant disagreement about a game; even they felt it was noticeable enough to point out. Bajo and Hex would have been perfect for the upcoming children’s version of the programme, Good Game: SP on ABC3, with Junglist and Bajo remaining for the original and its subsequent increase in ‘mature’ content. Instead, we’ll have to wait and see how it all progresses, and whether ABC has learnt their lesson and will listen to the show’s fans, or at least talk openly with them, before any other drastic decisions are made.

Still, the show is worth watching. Whether you’re a casual gamer, semi-fanatic, or even a non-gamer, there’s plenty to keep you interested. Bajo and Hex even live-tweet the show as it airs every week on ABC2. For anyone who wants an idea of the show, a fond reminder of things past, or, just maybe, a sample of the madcap antics and nerdy enthusiasm that the show could reach again soon, there’s this lovingly made video montage: a tribute to Junglist and the show he helped to create.