7 February 2012

[myGameDev] Scottish Game Jam 2012

Last weekend, I took part in the Global Game Jam for the very first time. 

I've taken part in a couple of jam-style time-constrained creative challenges before - I've finished National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) before (once...), and Script Frenzy (once...), 24 Hour Comics Day (once...) and a Summer Game Jam hosted by my university (once...). Game Jam, though, is totally different animal. It's an animal that stalks you for forty-eight consecutive hours, wearing you down slowly until exhaustion and sleep deprivation make you vulnerable, before it leaps from the bushes, claws out your Achilles' tendons and tears your still-beating heart from your chest in a gory display not seen in nature outside the harsh confines of Govan.

Incidentally, Govan is where I live.

I was part of "Project: Strawberry Tart", a team made up of tarts some of my second-year Computer Game Design/Software Development classmates, including Heather, a designer who has written up her own experiences over on her blog, and Chelsea,who has done the same on her blog. The vast majority of us were game design students, with only one software development student. Nonetheless, we'd opted to use Unity3D to create our game early on, and since we'd all wet our hands with it in first year, we were all capable of using it to some extent. We all pooled our skills and managed to bring together a game that I think was pretty good, considering it was our first attempt at a 48hr jam.

Someone at the jam mentioned that the jam itself was a microcosm of the full game development process, which I completely agree with - with all the emotional flux that that entails.

Anxiety was the biggest emotion to begin with. I was a little apprehensive about the Game Jam prior to taking part. In fact, for the five days immediately before the Jam started, I had trouble sleeping. This was down to a lot of factors - the start of a new semester at university, having to undertake training the following week - but the main factor was one simple question - "Am I good enough?" That's a difficult question to put to rest no matter what you're doing and how well you're doing it - once it crops up in your head, it's hard to dispel. This question carried with it long chains of reasoning, conflicting values and personal judgments that ultimately served only to make the question seem more important than it was. In retrospection, I can say that the Game Jam isn't about being "good enough". It's about just being there. Just taking part, seeing what you can make when you and your teammates collaborate.

Inspiration leapt in once I'd registered and got together with my friends; I felt much better once I was with them. Some of the pre-jam keynotes  (which you can see in the video above!) were amazing - to the extent that I was on the edge of my seat (and on the edge of tears!) for several of them. And when the theme of the game jam was finally announced - "Ouroboros", the snake devouring its own tail -  I was pretty much ecstatic. I was thoroughly expecting a theme that was more restrictive, but this years' theme was so open to interpretation that you could play with ontological paradoxes, infinity and eternity, recursion and repetition... it was amazing hearing some of the ideas that people were coming up with.

Excitement was abound since within the first hour of the theme being announced, my team had basically settled on a great game concept. Some of the ideas we'd tossed about included Borgesian "Games of Time and Infinity", three-dimensional rooms forming a four-dimensional hypercuboidal house, House of Leaves-style architecture, and timey-wimey puzzles; we eventually landed on the idea of the protagonist being trapped in a series of rooms that were all identical to one another, with the final room linking back to the first to create Ouroboros-style gameplay. It was an ambitious idea, and perhaps one that we should have pulled the reins in on. But hey, for our first game jam, of course we were going to act like Optimistic Indies. I also got a brief chat with Max Morrice, a friend I'd basically grown up with, who was also taking part - his game concept sounded utterly amazing too, which just added to my excitement.

Exhaustion began to take its toll very early on. The nature of the Game Jam is such that when you're working as part of a close-knit team, you're going through the whole event together, with everything that entails - including staying in the venue itself when you went to sleep. And that's exactly what my team did - well, those few of us that slept. We found a nook to tuck ourselves away in, and, after staying up a little longer to talk amongst ourselves about whatever topic fell into our sleep-deprived brains at 5am, managed to get between two and three hours sleep apiece. While most of us coped admirably with such limited downtime, I sure didn't. In fact, I felt worse after my three hour nap than before - which might have had something to do with the fact that I was sleeping sprawled out on three beanbags while being serenaded by the intermittent peals of an electronic door alarm. If nothing else, it did give me an amazing "Stay awake" plan for the likely situation where I become Freddy Kreuger's next victim in a naff kitschy BBC Scotland adaptation of Nightmare on Elm Street (Nightmare on Cowcaddens Road?).

Anticipation came next. It pretty much drove me on through the second day, which felt like it was going reeeeeeallyyyyy sloooooowly. That's not to say we didn't get a lot done - in fact, it was probably our busiest time during the whole jam - but it felt as though time had abandoned us and we had become imprisoned in this tiny little Saltire-Center-universe, forever working on a game that would be finished tomorrow. I briefly wondered if I was actually the protagonist of our game all along: maybe the only reason I came up with that game idea was because it was what was actually happening to me in real life, and that by creating a game based on my life of creating a game based on my life of etc etc I was not in some way making an ouroboros-like pattern myself. I don't know whether to pin that odd thought on sleep deprivation, my own damaged psyche, my unusual friends, or the fact that I'd been reading Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives as part of a class assignment that semester, which deals with similar harrowing thoughts.

Elation came as I reached the zenith of my motivation. The game was coming together, assets were being made, levels were designed, code was working - there was still a lot to do, but we were making a lot of progress, and it looked like we'd be finished on time. But after that crest of enthusiasm, I crashed. I crashed like my computer does when I try to open Photoshop and Google Chrome at the same time: with great speed, little grace, and maximum inconvenience to everyone nearby.

Illness rose up to greet me at the dawn of the final day. I didn't sleep that night, instead choosing to work on the art assets that Chelsea had left in my care when she went home - she was feeling awful as well, so she quite rightly opted to head home at around 3am. I don't even really know what happened that morning - I just recall brief impressions of Ally literally falling asleep sitting in the chair next to me as I was talking him through some code I'd written, meeting a rather groovy third year Games Design student called Ryan, being sickened at the sight of pale, unwelcome sunlight, and the sensation of feeling as though I was about to vomit up glossy paint (which was an oddly specific thing to think, but there you go). After scribbling down some notes for the group and apologising to poor Leanne and Suneil, who had woken only minutes prior, I ran from the game jam, all the way home.

The next two days were comprised of me either sleeping, or wandering about the house in an addled state, foraging for food to drag into my duvet-cave of post-Game-Jam hibernation.

There was one emotion that permeated the whole experience, though, as sappy as it may be to say: Bonding. As Heather wrote over at her blog,

"My friends and I made sure to have downtime to chill out and talk, have a carry on and share a bit about ourselves which has developed our friendships to a deeper understanding of each other. I have to say I felt like I bonded with everyone and I miss seeing them already."
I couldn't agree more. In an odd way, our shared successes and sufferings, our idle banter and meaningful 4am philosophical discussions seemed to strengthen our relationships with one another.

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My overall impressions of the 2012 Game Jam? A++, would deprive myself of sleep for again. While it did have some downsides - namely, my feelings of anxiety, exhaustion and illness - the positive aspects of the experience far outweighed them; excitement about working to make a game in such little time, being genuinely moved and finding inspiration all over the place, anticipating the final product and feeling elated when it all came together - and bonding with some of the best folks I know - really made the event worth it.


If you'd like to take a peek at Project: Strawberry Tart's "The 41st Tale", simply shoogle on down to our page on the Global Game Jam website here and click "The 41st Tale" in the downloads section (or click here for a direct link to the zip file). Extract, run the .exe, and enjoy!

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