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Life Inside A Game Jam


March 22, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next
 

On the way to the bathroom, I walk past Dan Graf's desk and see that he's already working on animating a 3D insect for their game. The night seems to be slipping away.

Aram to the rescue! We're called back into the meeting room, where he has sketched out the first concrete game idea that anyone's really put forward. It's a partial map of a city, with docks and winding streets. The idea is that foreign packages arrive at the docks and little citizens run to collect them, enthusiastically exclaiming the English names of their newly-imported goods.

The player has to run around and intercept them, correcting them by shouting out a local name for whatever it is that they're holding. Aram compares the player's role to that of the French Ministry of Culture, which works tirelessly to protect the mother tongue from the degradations of imported English-language lexicon.

Somehow, Aram's idea doesn't stick. I can't recall any specific objections, but the discussion keeps pushing on.

In desperation, Peter throws in another idea -- an inverted, hollow world, whose contents have been shaken up and jumbled. Your job is to run around and collect the scattered relics of your own culture.

This concept detours into an idea about a world literally built from words, then back to a simple, single-screen game where cultural artifacts drop from the sky and anything you touch changes you, for better or worse. Peter's ranting now, describing rains of hamburgers, something about an overweight girlfriend. No-one's following.

"Draw it!" says Jonathan, thrusting a pen in Peter's hand. He takes it.

"I'm terrible at drawing," he says, "I once drew Pac-Man as a circle." At this time of night, it's the greatest joke ever. Everyone cracks, falling around in delirious laughter.

It's nearly midnight. When the laughter stops, Greg suggests that if they just start working, something might emerge. They've got so many ideas, he says, "all we need is the mechanic, and the game's done." I want to start laughing all over again, this time at the absurdity of it all.

Instead, I reach a decision -- we're going in circles; my notes are getting sloppier and sloppier -- it's time for me to go. Everything will look better after a proper sleep in a proper bed, beside my real girlfriend. Like an inverted Cinderella, I flee the ashes of Global Game Jam day one. It feels a bit like cheating, but by this point I don't care. My princess is in another castle.

Day 2

They have something.

I've arrived mid-morning to find Jonathan, Greg and Peter's screens adorned with a green oval, looking something like the graphic they use to show scoring in a cricket match. A hush of concentration fills the long room.

The guys explain that they're developing a hybrid of Aram's "foreign packages" and Peter's "stuff falling from the sky" concepts, which they finally settled on at 2 am. The circle represents the player's city, the last remnant of a dying culture, which will have to fend off the incoming agents of the dominant culture in order to preserve its native language. The idea is that the four colored buttons on the Xbox 360 controller will represent four ways of responding to these "invaders".

I locate Ben, lit by the glow of his laptop in the windowless meeting room. He's working on a 3D model -- a strange spiked ball which will be used as the basis for the player-controlled sprite. He tells me he got a few hours' sleep, as did most of the others.

Aram got no sleep at all, but that's not the only thing that separates him from the rest of the group. In fact, he's not even part of the group any more. Having "fallen in love" with his "foreign packages" concept, he's decided to split himself off and pursue that idea solo. No-one seems overly perturbed when they discover this turn of events, although I privately wonder if it's a wise move.

All the other teams are at least four people strong -- Aram's the only one going it alone. Still, Game Jam is all about testing the limits of what you can accomplish. He's certainly doing that, so good luck to him. He tells me that the reason he hasn't slept is that he's been attempting to write his own pathfinding algorithm in order to handle the complex movement through the tight city streets, as the one that came with the Pygame (the development package he's using) has proven inadequate.

Leaving Aram to follow his own path, I turn to Peter, "So ... what needs to be done?"

"Lots of stuff. Basically we need to make a game, or some shit!" he exclaims. His current task is to create the "enemies" which will spawn around the edges of the screen. It's only in writing this after the fact that I notice the implications of that word, part of the implicitly combative language of games that we all take for granted -- the same lens through which this game will end up being judged. "Spawn! Spawn!" Peter keeps exclaiming, but his code won't co-operate.

Finally it spawns -- a horde of colored squares descend upon the city from two sides, becoming more and faster and more until they obliterate the screen.

"You've got a riot on your hands," comments Jonathan, with a wry grin.

A little later, Greg and Ben sit down for an interview with the Jam organizers, and I sit and watch. Greg has just described to Epona Schweer, the interviewer, how long they spent brainstorming --"probably longer than any other team."

"And has that helped -- having the mechanic solid before you started developing?"

"Yes," says Greg, put on the spot. I can't help but have a little chuckle at that, because the last I saw there was still a way to go with the mechanic. But the guys have faith that it will all come together, and I'm beginning to see that that's maybe the most important thing to have under this kind of pressure.

I learn that the interview is to be shown in the main area of the museum. They're screening three updates a day, in order to show off the event to the general populace. I decide to head up there, to see what the public makes of it all. But there are technical difficulties. I sit in the theatre as curious people arrive and then leave.

When the screening finally gets underway, it is a highlights real from Friday night -- well-put together, but unfortunately plagued with a glitch that pauses the video every few seconds. The audience is small, and obviously frustrated by the video problems. Still, that's computers for you -- perhaps not such a bad representation of what the Jammers are wrestling with.


Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

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