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Global Game Jam 2014: inspiration and innovation for the future

Friday, 31st January 2014 13:01 GMT By Dave Cook

VG247′s Dave Cook went to the Glasgow leg of Global Game Jam 2014, and while he initially didn’t know what to expect, he’s now filled with hope for the future.

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Last Sunday I went to the Global Game Jam event at Glasgow’s Caledonian University as a judge. I was absolutely shattered when I arrived, thanks to catching an early train from Edinburgh and not getting nearly enough sleep the night before. As the carriage pulled into the grey and rain-swept city, there was definitely a feeling of trepidation in the air, but I was also excited as I’d never been a game jam of this size before. I simply didn’t know what to expect, but in fact, some 150 people were cramming code and play-testing their creations just around the corner. Games! New games! What wasn’t there to be happy about?

So I squelched my way from the station to the university’s Saltire Centre and dragged my soggy feet into the staging area to be hit with a wall of colour and energy. The contrast was unreal, and the hundred or so free pizzas donated to entrants had left greasy towers of cardboard boxes, while the discarded energy drink cans on the floor suggested that these bright coders, artists and everything inbetween were now surviving on fumes and ambition alone. But they had made it; the end was in sight, and the few students sleeping on couches, buried under their team’s jackets and pillows were testament to how arduous these events really are. My tiredness felt silly by comparison.

Despite how visibly shattered these talented people looked, they were bursting with enthusiasm once our judging panel started its rounds. The theme was “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” and that led to a consistent run of fresh ideas, new mechanics and explosions of colour. Sod the rain. Screw the clouds; the GCU was the place to be. What hit hardest about the whole event was just how willing each team was to think beyond the pre-existing confines of games today. There were no ‘typical’ games here; only inspired concepts that built upon tried and trusted schema.

One game, ‘Selfie,’ took place 20 minutes before the end of existence. However, as a comment on how self-obsessed social media and readily to-hand cameras have made us, the game tasks you with taking selfies with your in-game camera. The idea is that even during the apocalypse, many people out there would still fully believe they’re the most important thing in the world. So off we went duck-facing ourselves silly while snapping pixelated angels and UFOs in what I’d describe as a hybrid of Proteus and Dead Rising. It was inspired stuff, and polished enough that I would have paid money for it then and there.

That was another running consensus; that all of these games had enough potential that the judges probably would have paid money for them. Some needed a little additional work, sure, but the fact remains: these projects were made in just 48 hours, and they were each playable. That’s not a small feat. Another game saw me popping an Oculus Rift VR device on my head, where it took me to a colourful world of candy canes and unicorns that shat glitter. I kept on dying when walking into flower beds, which confused me a little.

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One of the developers explained that it was in fact, a two player game and that those flower beds were actually traps. As I gleefully pranced around the world in search of sweet treats, my co-op buddy – unbeknownst to me – could see the world for what it really was, and was eliminating traps and unseen enemies closing in to kill me. It was an impressive twist, and fit the theme perfectly.

Our chosen innovation winner, Doctrine, was also inspired; throwing two players in a Spy Vs. Spy-style battle to spray-paint as much propaganda on walls as they could. The catch is you have to wear a Styrofoam helmet that draped either a sheet of red or turqoise acetate in front of your eyes – the same kind you’d find in old-school 3D glasses. Using colour filtering techniques and the plastic film, my opponent’s propaganda looked evil, while my graffiti looked honest and vice-versa.

Our bear-trap weapons were also colour-filtered so we couldn’t see each other’s hazards, and the whole thing was a study in how people from both sides view propaganda. It was devilishly clever. The communist theme ties in to our Best Game winner, who earned the top prize by making not a video game, but a board game called Good News! – another project we would have happily laid down money for. It was all about spun headlines and tampering with right-wing press to soften hideous stories.

Two players sat down and were each given a headline card. The first one read something like “Hideous nuclear explosion in the north slaughters ten thousand workers amid unsafe working conditions.” There are three turns before the headline goes to print, and it’s up to both sides to fiddle with their own headline and their opponent’s to benefit their rival nation. After a few turns the headline ended up looking like, “Hideous box of kittens in the north cuddles ten thousand workers amid hygienic working conditions.”

The game critic in me loved the press angle, but our judges sat playing it, actually laughing out loud and having a fun time. The guy looked utterly stunned when we announced that he’d won the top prize. If he’s reading this; get it on Kickstarter, seriously. Fans of Papers, Please will love the communist slant and the fiddling of documents, and it’s a comparison almost all of us made. It wasn’t a bad thing however.

Finally, our art winner saw two beams of light travelling around a colourful sphere, shooting and warping around its orbit to fill in as many segments as possible, while trying to avoid each other’s attacks. It was intoxicating in the same way Geometry Wars pounds your senses with a screen filled with colour and movement, but with a competitive slant. The scramble to fill in the sphere while keeping one half of the brain focused on incoming attacks required great coordination, but it was a fun showcase for why local play is still valid in this online age.

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Sincerely, I only have so much space here, but all of the games we saw during the Scottish Game Jam underlined a real appetite to innovate, and in these days of the sequel and franchise, that keeps me hopeful for whatever the entrants go on to do next – be they founders of their own studio or an internal cog in a larger company. That these teams were able to innovate so well in just 48 hours, and to end up with something playable at the end further underlined the talent in that campus.

It bodes well, given the increase in game education courses in Scotland and indeed the wider UK, as well as attempts to teach kids about game development at a younger age. Britain is full of game talent from all walks of the profession, and if we keep this sort of momentum up, we’ll not only see bigger interest in events like the Global Game Jam, but hopefully; a new, bigger and increasingly prosperous wave of home-grown talent. If you want proof that the UK has talented developers and a capacity for innovation, be sure to visit your local Global Game Jam event next year. It’ll open your eyes, seriously.

Did you visit a Global Game Jam event last week? If so, let us know what you thought.

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