Recently I went along to the Freeplay Independent Games Festival in Melbourne. Now, I wouldn’t typify myself as a geek – although I use technology for communications, my specialty is writing and strategy rather than tech. However, I do spend most of my days attached to technology and am an ‘early adopter’. In the past five years I’ve also started to play video games. Snicker not, dear reader. I was initially suckered into game play by my niece’s pink Playstation 2. The marketing team Sony certainly did their job right with its gimmicky design, which soon had me playing Kingdom Hearts, God of War and Resident Evil 4 through the hot afternoons of a Summer holiday.

On my way to Freeplay in as much pink as possible, to match my fuschia Playstation 2.

I discovered that some of these games were much more than I expected – more than merely a diversion from daily chores. Games such as Bioshock and Unchartered truly moved me with their unexpected plot twists,  beautiful art direction and intelligent writing – just as much as a sophisticated movie or piece of literature. Other games I tried repelled me so intensely I returned them. Just like any creative medium, games have the capacity to inspire, cheer, disgust and delight. I look forward to working with Melbourne devs on the content, strategy and dialogue for upcoming indie games – so watch this space!

My excitement about the gaming genre led me to Freeplay – where I wasn’t sure  what to expect. Would it be hardcore geeks in emo outfits talking about code? Certainly, there were a few of those there. The crowd was mostly male. But there were colorful ladies throughout, some of whom stood out in bustiers and brightly colored ‘manga’ style coiffs. Game development and design is more than just ‘geekery’ and the hardcore nuts-and-bolts of the build. It takes creative minds, illustrators, designers, actors, voice artists, writers, financiers and more to bring another reality to life in the game world. Freeplay offered an array of conference talks to appeal to the diversity of the attending crowd. Today’s Ruby Assembly blog covers off on a couple of the most notable talks.

The theme of Freeplay was ‘Chaos and Grace’, which Mare Sheppard (@maresheppard inset above) from Metanet Software in Toronto spoke eloquently on in her keynote talk. Mare spoke on the theme of indie creatives collaborating and relying on one another’s expertise, specific to the games industry – but equally applicable across any creative community. She is involved in Toronto’s Hand Eye Society, which provides an environment for indie developers to test their games (no matter how basic or rough) and the support to spread indie low-budget games throughout their city. It’s messy, it involves lots of beer and chips. But it is nascent, exciting creativity at its best – which is something that speaks directly to me.

Mare spoke about creative chaos (being alone, not being inspired, doing a million projects at once to little effect) being mitigated by imaginative folks joining together – she used the analogy of ships banding together on the ocean to steady themselves as a group. I really enjoyed her candid stories about a rural childhood in an isolated town, and the joy and fascination that gaming had for her from an early age. She started off programming with a little book called ‘Basic Fun’ – which was a guide for kids on building basic puzzle programs. At University, Mare studied a range of disciplines including sociology, computer science and linguistics. This ‘global vision’  interested me, as the role of a ‘game builder’ requires a multitude of skills and an understanding (or at least a curiosity) of how the brain unpacks puzzles and interprets visual clues.
Metanet Software have been fortunate to enjoy success with a game called N. Mare spoke about the process of building N, and made it clear that first and foremost – you have to love the game you build (once again, swap ‘game’ for ‘book’, ‘painting’, ‘radio show’ or whatever else you might be whipping up). The now much-lauded game N was beaten by a Starsky and Hutch pinball game in the competition Metanet Software entered their heart’s work into. This loss was a big wakeup call to Sheppard regarding public acknowledgement of one’s own creative efforts. Don’t expect other people to like your work, to understand it or to appreciate the process you’ve gone through to create it. You need to find peace in the process and be faithful to your own pursuit. Mare also made the point (illustrated in the fuzzy image above, sorry peeps) that the perception of success is much more pleasant than the reality of the creative process. Many people thought N was an overnight success – which in fact, it was not. It was a slow build for Metanet Software and Sheppard to survive through, until eventually they have enjoyed monetary reward. Takeaway from Mare’s keynote? Don’t think it’s easy to be successful. It’s not. It’s hard work, and it’s luck too. But that’s life really, isn’t it?
It was then time for a cupcake. This one was peanut butter and jelly.
The second session of the day was on the fascinating topic of Games and Theatre. Lead by John Bailey and actor/academic in Digital Literature Ruth Sancho Huerga, the intimate discussion looked at the similarities between real life acting (on stage) and ‘acting’ as a character while playing a game. Existential, right? Ruth noted that game acting and acting in a play differ – in that a play is never the same – whilst she perceived that a game’s ultimate play was linear. Questions raised at this forum included:
  • Is empathizing as a game player with a character the same as empathizing with an actor on stage?
  • Do game developers/players take on the role of a meta-director by manipulating their avatars through games?
  • The audience of game play. Is the player a protagonist or a viewer? Is game play the ultimate in societal control and removal from public expression of creativity?

Ruth discussed a play called Sayonara (image inset, above) which uses an android as one of its key protagonists. The storyline is disturbing – a young girl with a terminal illness is left to be nursed and cared for by a poetry-speaking android robot. The girl and the robot have a strange kind of one-way dialogue – and eventually the girl passes away. The robot is then taken to mourn for the dead in Fukushima, where mourning is too dangerous for humans to undertake due to nuclear fallout. Heavy stuff. Professor Ishiguru (the man who created the android for the theatre piece) identifies that in Japan, robots are not seen as dangerous or frightening to humanity. The West have an ongoing distrust and unease about robotic ‘life’. For Ishiguru, the robot as placebo helps facilitate a discussion around what being human actually is.

In a later session on Games and Writing, I learned about a game called Don’t Look Back. A retro-styled platform game, it is an uncomfortable mash of high and low culture with a haunting aesthetic. It re-tells the fated story of Orpheus and Eurydice, a narrative connection which is discovered  by most players only at the game’s tragic end. It is interesting see ancient myths and themes of mortality, humanity etc. re-imagined in the gaming world, and this reiterated to me that the technology and execution of the art is secondary to the power of the tale told. Other disturbing (but not violent) games we discussed in this vein include the experimental, experiential game Dear Esther which uses prose and poetry as a game advancement device, and Grim Fandango.

The last session of the day was on Ethics and Games. After much agitation from the game-playing community (over 60,000 submissions), an R 18+ rating will finally come into being this year. Unlike other forms of media, game classification is agitated over for its ‘interactive’ quality. Is it fair that game designers are held to a higher standard than other creatives? Does playing a violent game give one the ‘real world skills’ to be a kung-fu expert, or pro-golfing legend? Leena van Deventer (writer, editor, game developer and top bird) spoke on game developers ‘not being dicks’. See her notes above on creating games which are sensitive to the community, above. Dan Clayton @rantbox_dan from Dime Studios also spoke on ethics, differentiating ethics from justice. Ethics, he noted, is about defining actions which we accept from those we do not. Merely ‘having a market’ for a certain kind of game isn’t a single justification for creating content and demand isn’t validation.
In all, I’m so glad I made the time to learn at Freeplay. Not being sure what to expect is usually a sure-fire way of having a brilliant open-minded experience. The more I learn about games and the creative types that make them real – the more I’m intrigued and determined to get involved.