In 1991, before he ever produced and directed the seminal Goldeneye 007
, former Rare head of software Martin Hollis made a game about a worm. "The mechanics were: The worm is alive; you press the button, and the worm is dead," he explains.
launched in 1997, but long before that Hollis had already begun to feel fatigued that most video games did not explore verbs for the player besides "kill." Today there are innumerable independent games scrutinizing the violent default in popular games, but Hollis' private drabble seems to have been an early effort to do the same -- to interrogate the entertainment value in pressing a button to cause a death, again and again.
In 1998, he left Rare a little over a year into the development of acclaimed shooter Perfect Dark
. "It wasn't exciting and interesting to me as a creator," he reflects. "Although I'd endeavored to make sure it was different enough, I'd actually failed to meet my need. They say that if a person met their reputation in the street, they wouldn't recognize each other, and I'm not the person I might be perceived to be by somebody who knows about Goldeneye
"It's been my intuition for some time that there are many things you can make a game about, and there's an ocean of possibility that has been untapped," Hollis tells me over Skype. In 2009 his Zoonami studio, founded after he left Rare and since closed, released Bonsai Barber
for WiiWare -- "I endeavored to make a wacky and totally-original game with novel verbs," he explains. "Looking at verbs is a way to cut into and analyze the core of what a game's about."
saw only a modest reception: "I can't say I aim to make a multi-million seller everytime," Hollis says, and laughs a little. "If that were my primary driver, I would probably still be making first person shooters. That would have been a more economically-rational use of my resources."
Games and love
Since then, Hollis has been fascinated by the theme of love in games, a reaction, he says, against killing as the medium's major narrative. He admits, however, to struggling since then to make anything he found interesting. But this year's GameCity festival in Nottingham, running October 19-26, is staging a fascinating experiment featuring games for two giant screens in the public square, and when asked if he had any ideas to contribute, Hollis came up with one the next day.
Cupid, icon of love, is himself a shooter -- a sniper, to be precise. From there the concept was Aim for Love
, a public matchmaking game Hollis says is only about as complicated as Spin the Bottle. "It's almost a parlor game, but the parlor is the market square," he says
Each festival day, the twin screens will be repositioned as part of an outdoor game design installation designed to explore the conjunction of digital play with city life, and to attract passersby and onlookers to new ways of thinking about games. Earlier this year, Richard Lemarchand, Keita Takahashi, Vlambeer and other notables also announced they'd signed on to develop games for the big screens
"Imagine it's 5:30, work has finished, people are walking home or have finished their shopping," says Hollis. "It's like that half-and-half psychological point in the day, when people are switching over from work mode into play mode."
"What people will notice when they come into the square is two very large screens, and then they'll notice there's a crowd pictured on each screen. And then they're on the screen -- and then they'll notice there's a cursor moving, and pointing at them, and they have been focused on by someone who is in the process of considering them, and who is potentially going to choose them."
The player of the game is to select, from the crowd, a couple who will be "good together" -- whether for friendship or romance. The selected pair then gets to collaborate on the next selection. The interesting challenge will be managing emergent play from there. "Something happens when you point a camera at someone -- we have amazing cameras, with zoom and pan. You'll see, if you take the role of being a matchmaker seriously, how the two people react to each other, and how the crowd reacts... the whole game is an experiment."
"It's almost more like a TV show, or theater," Hollis adds, expressing theater's participatory and interactive elements. "A massive challenge in the design of this thing is forecasting people's behavior."
Designer George Buckenham and DJ Pavel Jalowiecki are also donating their time to the experiment, and Hollis is in search of an artist who may want to contribute ("it seems likely it will have one graphic in it," says Hollis). For now, he sees the GameCity installation as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore emergent group play, relationships and new verbs -- at least this time, the traditional "aim and shoot" mechanic could end up being a selector of love, not death.