Tagged in: game jams

What I Learned From A Year of Game Jams

It was actually a year and a half ago – April 2013 – that I did my first game jam. Since then, I’ve made 6 games (two with a partner), each under a strict time limit, and each for a particular game jam – Ludum Dare, 7dFPS, Asylum Jam, IAmAGamer. I’ve been asked why I do jams, especially since I already make games for a living, so I have been thinking a lot about this subject – actually, ever since I started I’ve been asking myself what I am learning from the process.

The value I found in game jams is personal, direct, and incredibly insightful. I don’t think these are things I could have learned on my own. My lessons are very personal to me as a creator, so you could look at this post as a postmortem rather than my usual advice columns. I’m not sure how much this will help others – there’s certainly no “5 Lessons to Make Better Games” hidden within this post.

I first started doing jams shortly after a coworker did an internal presentation on the topic of deliberate practice for game designers. (This topic eventually led to this whitepaper, which I recommend people check out). I have starry-eyed dreams of not being just good at design, but being great – yet I had not worked on games outside of my job ever since I entered the industry. I had been putting my creative output into writing (fiction, not a blog like this) with very little to show for it.

I did my first game jam for Ludum Dare to create Title: Subtitle with my coworker, Nick Weihs (@NickWeihs) in his custom 2D platformer engine. The topic was minimalism, and we came up with the idea of replacing tiles with words. We each designed half the levels, and he designed the boss and I the endgame. I did the art, he did the enemies. As a postmortem, I’m really pleased by how the game came out – it was fun, it was whimsical, it was clever, and people liked it. I was pretty shocked when people did Let’s Plays of our game or write about it on their indie sites, and when commenters asked for a full-sized game (I’ve thought about it). I wasn’t really familiar with how the Youtuber’s worked, so the attention other people – total strangers – gave our game was flattering. I’ve since taken the time to learn a lot about Let’s Players and streamers and small independent press outlets.

The second game I made was ISIS, in which you play an evil AI psychologically torturing your human pilot. This is definitely the best received game (I’ve seen it a few times accidentally attributed to Porpentine, and I consider that a compliment). This was my first venture into Twine, and I can see my stumbles and growing pains in the game I released. It’s also the first piece of fiction I ever released for public consumption, and the reception to my writing was eye-opening. Turns out that I am not too bad and all that time spent writing and never releasing fiction paid off. I learned so much from this game: I learned what my voice was like. I learned how important tone is (the tone in ISIS is mostly on key, but there’s some obvious parts that are distinctly out of style). I learned that I could make a game by myself and I didn’t need any help. I learned that the main message I code into my games is too subtle for most people, and that I am fine with that (ISIS was about a woman taking out her resentment upon a male superior – one person caught it, and that made me very happy).

One day I will remake ISIS and do it justice. The reception taught me that I have ideas that are both distinctly mine (with my own authorial voice), and that strike a cord with other people.

The next game I made was In My Sights for 7dFPS, a game jam in which players make a first-person shooter in seven days. It was the first time I ever used Construct 2, and my scope was very small. Halfway through creating it I thought of how to end it – it came naturally to me, and its what struck a cord with so many people. I still get most of the hits to my site for that game (second only to The Door Problem), and most of those from Russian and Eastern European locations (not just bots, I’ve tracked down articles on my game in those languages) so it had some unusual cross-cultural appeal. I am still not sure what I think of In My Sights. I don’t think it’s very good. It is meaningful, but I don’t know exactly what it means. It was the first time that something I made creatively took on a life of its own and I am determined not to contest that. It is what it is.

After that I participated in another Ludum Dare, this time making Sacrebleu! with a coworker, Erich Meyr, who contributed the adorable pixel art. This is definitely my least successful game – it takes too long to play, there aren’t any really meaningful choices (there are lots of loops), it always ends the same way, and the jokey French accent gets old fast. But like the others it taught me a lot. I initially approached it with the goal of creating a rudimentary combat system in Twine, and I sketched out a reasonable concept and put myself to work implementing it. I discovered obvious flaws – how to make narrative meaningful in a generated environment, how to implement systems in Twine that are more complex than the tool is built for. I eventually removed the system I created and hand-scripted the combat loops. I learned a bit about implementing systems as a designer (rather than a programmer) and working against your tool.

Sacrebleu! also cemented that I have problems with ending my games – all of my games seems to have unsatisfyingly nihilistic conclusions, and they are the weakest part of everything I make. I haven’t found a solution to that problem yet.

My next game was Her Pound of Flesh, another horror game made in Twine, and it is my personal favorite. I set out to do something and the result is exactly as I intended. It matches almost perfectly to my initial vision – this has never happened to me before or since then. A few people have commented on the game but, like ISIS, not many seem to have delved into the deeper meaning (Her Pound of Flesh is about narcissism and personhood). And like ISIS, I was totally fine with people engaging with it and enjoying it on their own terms. I also very carefully, and apparently successfully, balanced my writing between saying too much and saying just enough to give an impression of gore or body horror, trying not cross the line into something too explicit.

Her Pound of Flesh taught me why I had problems writing fiction for so many years: I have trouble with linear works since I like to create narratives people can explore, not just experience in a prescriptive way. A narrative that only goes in one direction forces me to edit in a way that eliminates all those other wonderful possibilities – it closes doors rather than opens them. I want players to explore the world I create and let their curiosity guide them through it. I am deeply inspired by forcing readers to become complicit in the story – as you can see in my interest pairing horror and agency together – and the kind of emotional reaction I want to evoke is better suited to interactive narratives than strictly linear ones.

The final game I made, as of this post, was Please Hold: A Representative Will Be With You Shortly. The game is a joke – a long joke that lasts about 40 minutes with, again, an unsatisfying ending. Players responded by calling it awful and wonderful, incredibly frustrating and absolutely hilarious. There’s something of value, to me, when I can bring out some unusual emotional responses – and to evoke real, deliberate frustration on the player and yet have them continue playing is incredibly satisfying. This was kind of a game design therapy session for me, a sigh of relief to make a fun game that has no deeper meaning, especially at a time when I had a lot of personal stresses.

From all of this, I discovered I have two modes – whimsical fun (Title: Subtitle, Sacrebleu!, Please Hold) and thoughtful, psychological horror (ISIS, In My Sights, Her Pound of Flesh). I find the latter more fulfilling, but also a lot more draining on me. In the future I will continue to focus on horror, but to do so I will be sitting out on more game jams in order to work slower and more methodically.

Thanks to these jams, I have several unfinished games that will one day see the light of day. I have a game called “Flesh Totem” (working title) that is a hallucinatory exploration of technology, personhood, and body horror on a space station, with adventure game mechanics like inventory items and puzzles. It is the most Cronenbergian game I’ve ever made.

I have another one I call “Journey Home” in which a group of surviving soldiers in a fantastical land must march a thousand miles through a jungle, battling heat, pestilence, wildlife, starvation, and hallucinatory visions. It was inspired by J.G. Ballard’s “The Drowned World” and my own visit to the Amazon jungle. Each action takes you closer to your goal, but always with a cost, and always with yet another problem to solve.

And then there is “It Wore My Mother’s Face”, a game that was supposed to be a simple horror story about skinwalkers and doppelgangers, and ended up being a heart-breaking piece about Alzheimer’s. Every couple of months I try to get it back on track, but it stays that way no matter how hard to try. I don’t know if I will ever finish that one – it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written.

I obviously already spend a lot of time making games – at work, as part of a large team, on big projects. The games I make at my job are someone else’s vision: our creative directors, our publishers, and subject to the whims or needs of a mass market. I actually find this really fulfilling as a designer, and the challenges keep me on my toes. I’ve angled toward working as a system designer (think skill trees and economy rather than missions or levels). I love this kind of work, so it’s always curious to me that my independent projects I made for game jams are all very heavy on narrative, and very light on formal systems. I am not a programmer, so implementing systems is a larger hurdle for me. But that’s not the only reason – like I mentioned before, I’ve done a lot of unpublished, unfinished creative writing. In games, I finally found an outlet to put that hobby to use by combining it with another one.

The importance of an authorial voice (which I mentioned a few times already) can’t be understated. There’s very specific stories I want to tell that aren’t really appropriate for (or interesting to) mainstream culture (I am talking about my psychological horror projects). I don’t want to write under someone else’s vision, let alone write for the purpose of entertaining (or even satisfying) a whole marketing demographic. It’s very freeing to write without being beholden to an audience or to try to get buy-in from a┬áteam. There are no outside forces pressuring me to change or alter my narrative. It is completely from me with no input from anyone else.

I’ll admit this is an unusual post for me. I don’t really use my blog as a diary (even one as a game developer), but I’ve been ruminating a lot on what I have learned so far from these game jams and whether I’ll continue them. I’ve seen other posts around that are more like advice articles, with obvious tips on topics like controlling scope and finding the fun early. But these are all lessons that I have learned, in whole or part, prior to exploring game jams. I’ve had some game developers ask me why I bother doing game jams, since they know the quality of those games are low and the crunch-mode development style can be detrimental to your creative output. So I guess this post is answering that- this is what I have gotten out of game jams and why I consider them valuable, and it’s not really for any of the reasons I often see bandied about.