SFL headed up to the East Midlands last weekend – home of Europe’s biggest and best loved videogame culture festival GameCity. Venues across Nottingham including The Broadway Cinema & Media Centre, the City Hall, the Playhouse Theatre, comic shops, pubs and a giant marquee tent in the heart of the city centre opened their doors to promote and celebrate all things videogames and to create a place where gamers and non-gamers of all ages, gender and experience come together as a genuine community during the day time, the night time and the inbetween times.
With a diverse programme of industry panel talks, hands on demos and playing, films, comedy and more, the GameCity Festival makes videogames accessible to as wide and diverse and audience as possible through discussion, understanding, engagement and fun.
His Best Bits with Ian
GameCity6 was an adventure in authenticity. A meeting point where people interested in games came together alongside inquisitive residents to share, be open and explore the realm of videogames and all that sails alongside of her. My first stop was a conversation between Richard Lemarchand, lead game designer at developers Naughty Dog who have just worked on the triple AAA PS3 exclusive Uncharted 3 and Belgium art game developers, Tale of Tales' founders Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn.
Auriea and Michaël began by sharing insights into their approach and creative journey from net art experimenters in the late 90s, to developing an impressive stable of alternative videogame experiences including: the fantastical MMO (minimal multiplayer online) The Endless Forest (an online environment where you appear as a deer, with no rules or goals to achieve), The Path (a short horror game inspired by Little Red Riding Hood offering an experience of exploration, discovery and introspection with all activities in the game entirely optional) and The Graveyard (a micro computer game where you play an old woman who visits a graveyard. You walk around, sit on a bench and listen to a song.
It's more like an explorable painting, but there’s a huge difference between the paid version and free version of the game). Auriea and Michaël were fascinating, charming and achingly articulate throughout and with their creations offer a genuine alternative to the big time computer game behemoths which I’d heartily recommend that you engage with. Head over to Tale of Tales to find out more.
Following a small spoiler alert for those who haven’t played it, Richard (who was a generous and genial host for the session) also offered an insight into how a certain scene in Uncharted 2 was inspired by Tale of Tales (the section where the lead character Nathan Drake came across a small mountain village with a community and the game did not let you shoot or attack its population, in fact if you pressed the attack button, it made you shake hands or wave at the village members). Richard was trying to build this narrative and emotional connection between the lead character of Drake and the villagers as later on it the game the village gets burnt down as a result of his visit. .
Later in the evening, we experienced Renga from Wall Four, which was the world’s first 100 multi-player laser-controlled video game. It combined strategic conquest elements from games such as Civilisation with action phases inspired by old-school arcade classics such as Defender. It rewarded coordinated movement but allowed formations to emerge without advance planning as players observe other lasers and join emergent groups, sort of like an improvisational dance. As a collective experience, it was exhilarating, something akin to the feeling at a sports stadium when the crowd become one, we were a hive, a pack, all working the greater good. A totally unique experience.
The next day was all about the Zombies, one of the large successes of GameCity6 and previous incarnations is that they often theme days and today was all about those beloved half–dead Henrys. Every morning began with a breakfast debate chaired by the Guardian Games’s Keith Stuart and today’s topic was: Love, Rage and Horror – are games emotional enough? There was a stellar panel including Simon Parkin (Eurogamer), Phil Fish (Fez Dez Rez), Richard Lemarchand (Naughty Dog), Mike Bithell (Thomas Was Alone), Andrew Smith (Spilt Milk Studios) and Rob Yescombe (formerly Free Radical and Crytek). Richard kicked things off; “Games elicit certain kinds of emotions, competitive games elicit triumph, success and frustration” to which Phil replied with “Silent Hill 1&2 are the finest piece of horror on any media, created by fear specialists who researched why turning continually left down corridors is scary and how different ceiling heights in different rooms is also scary”.
Moving onto sadness with the videogame Heavy Rain heavily referenced, Keith cited the greatest fear if you’re a parent is the loss of your child and perhaps that was why Heavy Rain was so successful whereas Simon proposed that “games are great at revenge stories, but not redemption”. Finally the 7 men on the panel spoke about love with The Sims and Ico leading the discussion; “The Sims tries to mechanise love in a dry way, it’s an economy. Whereas in Ico, you have to lead this small waif through different lands and you have to look after her or she’ll be sacrificed.” Keith shared: “if you come to a standstill after you’ve run around with her, you can feel her heartbeat through the controller”. The debates were genuinely interesting, covered a range of topics and brought us insight from a diversity of panellists, as well as a tasty fry up.
My final encounter with the zombies, apart from the fabulously made up green shirted volunteers around the city square, was an insight into the funding, conception and development of a hotly anticipated running game and audio adventure called Zombies, RUN! created by Six to Start. It will be available on your iphone or android smartphone by the middle of next year and I know it’s going to get a lot more people active and exercising who might not have gone for a run before as you become part of a story, running (literally) from zombies, collecting items and building your base back at HQ, a genius idea!
My final musings regard Several Amazing Things About Tetris (1984). SATAT 1984 is a performance lecture all about the mid 80s tetronomic gaming masterpiece Tetris, delivered by Pat Ashe and that lasts for as long as you stayed alive whilst playing the game and listening to Pat. A brilliant concept, fascinating factoids learnt and a charming performer and I’m sure I also got the highest score of the day. From Russia With Fun!
For me, GameCity6 captured the true spirit of a festival with positivity oozing from the staff, volunteer teams and exhibitors that in turn infected us, the participants to be generous, encouraging and enter into the essence of debate and inquiry which the festival fostered so well. I only encountered a small percentage of the festival, but what I experienced I was left sated and elated and will no doubt return to future iterations of the wonderful and valuable experience that is GameCity.
Her Best Bits with Tracey
The GameCity Nights events once a month in Nottingham are a breeding ground for debate, exploration and industry insights. Hosted by Nottingham University, unsurprisingly the audience is predominately students so I did wonder how academic or accessible a whole festival would be to a girl gamer in her early 30s. Happily, GameCity gives everyone regardless of age, background or ability a warm welcoming hug, then puts controllers of joy in your hand before cheerily introducing you to the talented guys and gals who make and talk about games. The huge festival tent in the heart of the city centre invites the curious and the passionate to peek inside where exciting indie games including Spilt Milk Studios humorous gem of a line-eating-glowing-things game Hard Lines and the fast paced two player snatch the gems strategy Greedy Bankers by Alistair Aitcheson are showcased alongside big profile mainstream games like Zelda and Battlefield 3 – an impressive, harmonious balance.
Kicking off the day with another excellent Guardian breakfast discussing Game Prizes and why some are popularity contests supported by heavy marketing, why some have public votes and others have anonymous academy judges and what the purpose of awards are, thoughts inevitably turned to the inaugral GameCity Prize, which would be awarded at the end of the festival. Different in it’s focus and ambition, the GameCity Prize seeks to award the ‘best’ game of the year with a judging panel of predominately non-gaming, key media figures including Jude Kelly OBE (Chair), author Charlie Higson, musician Dave Rowntree and producer Nitin Sawhney charged with the task of deciding exactly what ‘best’ should mean…
Before that though, there was a whole lot of Zelda to get through as the final day of the festival celebrated all things Hyrulian. Hundreds of green hat wearing fans poured into the City to learn sword fighting, design their own shield, eat cake, drink Lon Lon milk and of course play as every Zelda game from the first 1987 Legend of Zelda to the most recent Spirit Tracks. Visitors were also treated to a hands on demo of the soon to be released Skyward Sword with it’s pastel colour scheme, puzzling dungeon locations and the fabulous new flying Hook Beetle weapon that once launched can cut through ropes and of course hit all important hard to reach switches.
Skyward Sword promises to be the most immersive and exciting in the series yet as you brandish the Wiimote as a sword, parrying with enemies, slashing vertically and horizontally as you battle. Elsewhere, as an ocarina orchestra performed some iconic Zelda melodies, caves were explored, chalk tributes by the talented team of artists at Shrunken Heads were completed, young girl gamer Alexis totally smashed her opponents target of 20,000 points on Link’s Crossbow Training game with a magnificent score of over 98,000 whilst costumes were admired with the prize for best outfit going to Bella JM who with her friends, had travelled in on the bus and came in costume without knowing a costume comp was on but like so many others in the square, simply because she loves Zelda!
After grabbing an uber rare copy of the limited edition Zelda Zine, created specially for the day, I headed over to listen to Richard Lemarchand (yes, that Naughty Dog again) give a talk in the City Hall. Having spent 20 years as a game designer, 7 of which have been with developers Naughty Dog, seeing and hearing Richard talk with such passion as he shared his beliefs on how videogames can be interactive cinematic experiences was inspiring. He acknowledged that he is a lucky man but he’s worked hard to get where he is. Richard has always ‘played’ around with games and clearly, studying philosophy and physics at university has also heavily influenced his approach to story telling and how to hold an audiences attention.
Not afraid to champion loving, close relationships with other people, his attitude and thoughts about beauty and risk, on how systems (as found organically in nature or repeated in man-made items) can unfold and reward gamers with amazing emotional and aesthetic outcomes, which undoubtedly is translated into the Uncharted series where repetition makes way for variation resulting in colourful worlds, humour, romance and globe-trotting locations that are artistically masterful. Richard’s words left me feeling that videogames are unique forms of artistic expression and that leading someone through a good story is a marvellous thing to do.
Also in the City Hall was a small exhibition from the National Museum of Computing. Based at Bletchley Park (once Britain’s best kept secret & home of the Codebreakers) in Milton Keynes and run entirely by volunteers, TNMOC houses the world’s first semi-programable electronic computer as well as a whole host of other restored systems like the BBC Micro which was playable at GameCity.
My final stop of the day was top secret. Having signed up as a Covernomics Agent during the festival, I had already completed one assignment which involved meeting shady bowler hatted characters in a pub where a brown envelope was given to me in the ladies toilets with instructions and locations of the next mission. Played in real time across the city, players (Agents) use the internet, emails, twitter and phones as well as seek out hidden missions, reports and clues around the city to complete assignments. If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at espionage, this is for you. Taking covert photos of other agents, cracking codes, deciphering clues, secret rendezvous and passwords, it's role playing fun.
Donning a posh frock, the festival ended with the GameCity Prize. The eclectic shortlist included:
- Minecraft (Mojang/ Mojang)
- Ilomilo (Southend Interactive/ Microsoft)
- Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (Superbrothers/ Capybara Games)
- Pokémon Black (Game Freak/ Nintendo)
- Portal 2 (Valve/ EA)
- Child of Eden (Q? Entertainment/ Ubisoft)
- Limbo (Playdead/ Playdead)
The GameCity Prize host for the evening MP Tom Watson reminded us that the winner represented the game that, regardless of budget, format or genre, had best contributed to popular culture and that had an artistic value as well – the prize went to the game that best serves as an entry into a rich and valuable interactive world, encouraging individuals to carve our a niche for themselves in the much loved world of cubes that is Minecraft. Mixing work and play, millions of players to date have let their imaginations run riot (so long as they have built suitable shelter first, in time for nightfall when the monsters come out…), with over 300,000 video creations uploaded to YouTube. With its release on Iphone and Xbox Live Arcade in 2012, there a whole lot more building to come but congrats to Minecraft for being engaging, inclusive, creative and challenging and best of all, fun.
For me, GameCity isn’t just about playing videogames, it’s being part of something bigger that talks, laughs, coos and wonders about videogames. It’s drinks and meeting new people. It’s celebrating the rich history and promising glowing future of the industry and discovering all the fab quirky, forgotten or loved stuff in between. In a similar vein to SFL being all embracing and diverse in it’s programming, this festival is the festival for people that don’t do videogames but really should. Huge thanks to festival director Iain Simons, to Chris White and everyone involved at the GameCity Festival - see you next year.
Images courtesy of GameCity.