The 2018 A MAZE Festival in Berlin took place at the end of April earlier this year, and I wanted to share my thoughts on the experience. It was my first time attending this festival and, being from America, there aren't too many like it here that aren't primarily focused on business. To those who aren't aware, A MAZE is a multi-day festival celebrating experimental/indie/artsy/non-mainstream games and the culture around the creation of those games. The festival includes a game showcase, talks from various people in the industry about wildly different topics, and music shows at night from game musicians. I have been referring to it as "the punk rock Woodstock of indie games" and I still can't think of a more appropriate name for it.
The festival was opened with a ceremonial keynote talk from the head organizer Thorsten Wiedemann, who rallied everyone to the cries of "We are here to fuck the mainstream! Fuck the mainstream!" and celebrated the process of trying new ideas and challenging status quos. The talks and panels at the festival are typically organized on the basis of attempting new ideas and discussing uncomfortable topics, as well as how to foster idea generation and viability in all of our own respective professions. The festival differs from an event like GDC, E3, Gamescom, or PAX, in that it is more of a summit for discussion rather than to be used to establish business lines or to advertise new releases (although there is some crossover between all of the festivals with these purposes). But far and away the primary focus of A MAZE is the celebration of idea investigation and the process that surrounds that.
Goethe-Institut and the ART GAMES project
I took part in A MAZE through my participation in the ART GAMES program which was hosted by the Goethe-Institut. The institute is more widely known as an organization which teaches the German language to people in various cities across the world, but actually mainly engages in cultural exchange programs. The ART GAMES program one of these such programs, funded by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany. This project held weekend-long in-person game jams in 8 different cities across the world over the course of two years: Boston (USA), Jakarta (Indonesia), Novosibirsk (Russia), Sao Paulo (Brazil), Athens (Greece), Bangkok (Thailand), Seoul (South Korea), and Mexico City (Mexico). It was a great solid jam where the institute provided food and the possibility of sleeping overnight (at least in Boston). The games produced were meant to deal with the cross-section of art and politics, and each city had mechanical modifiers introduced to help spark imagination. The teams in some cities were formed by having us individually come up with our own ideas which we all pitched to everyone else at the beginning of the jam, and then if a person was interested in your idea they could request to work with you. Each city's teams showed off their games with a presentation and demonstration at the end of the weekend, and a small jury at each location would pick three games from all of them to submit to a final jury in Germany, where Goethe's head office is located. From each of those three, one or two games were picked from the city to be finalists and were allowed to show their games at A MAZE. Goethe covered the travel and lodging (because they are gracious and awesome) for two members of each team that won, so that they could come together in Berlin to show the games. The two members from the Berlin-based studio Maschinen-Mensch (Riad Djemili and Johannes Kristmann) helped organize and sponsor the project as well, and provided guidance at each of the cities during the jams by visiting in person. The project was organized by Lisa Mayerhoefer, Jeannette Neustadt and Lisa Deml, with assistance from Linda Rendel, Bernd Diemer, Volker Morawe, and Tilman Rieff for judging the final round of games in Munich.
My buddy Jeff Campbell (@stampyturtle) and I started discussing our ideas early on since we assumed to work with each other. We eventually brought in (read: begged) our other buddy, Joe Marchuk (@joechuk_), to do sound since both of us had worked with Joe previously during other game jams and worked well with him. A fourth member, Aslanta Chen, joined our group as an (amazing) artist because she liked the game pitch we eventually settled on. I conceived the initial idea, which was a game where you helped refugees escape a war-torn area. Boston's assigned mechanic modifier was "unreality", so we developed the idea that the player would help the refugees escape by creating a fake reality field around them with just mouse input which showed them what their life would be like had war not come to their city. The strength of remembering normal life is what enables them to keep going, and eventually escape. Jeff did the main programming while I did mostly design and management, as well as some programming. We all contributed toward the design of the game, and I am incredibly proud of what we made. Our team was the one selected from Boston to show our game at A MAZE, which was a surprise and delight since our game was very serious and others that we saw tended to be more tongue-in-cheek with their darker elements. Due to the serious and dark nature of our game, many intense discussions were had over the course of the festival about the subject matter, and a couple people who played it were even speechless afterward and it took some time to finally open up and talk about it. We knew that our game could have the potential to impact people in a profound way, but the frequency and intensity of people being affected is something we didn't anticipate. This wasn't with every player of the game, mind you. A lot of people either weren't sure what the game was about or didn't like the very simple mechanics. But for those who understood the message of it and talked with us afterward, it appeared to be a very moving experience for them.
When we got to Berlin, what started as a small-ish fun contest (from our perspective) began to turn into an unforgettable experience. Jeff and I paid our way to Berlin so as to let Joe and Aslanta travel to the festival affordably, and I am so glad we did. It wouldn't have been the same without the whole team together. Jeff and I arrived a day late (I from Boston; he from Zurich where he has recently moved) so we missed out on the initial ART GAMES introductions and activities. When Jeff and I eventually met with the group, we all toured the Saftladen gamedev coworking space in Berlin and started meeting our fellow artgamers. Due to the mixture of languages, communication was somewhat spotty at first as people tended to be a little shy and stuck more with their teammates. Everyone seemed in really good spirits, however, which was a wonderful feeling.
Our games were also included and shown in an art gallery reception and exhibit at the Game Science Center later that night. It was during that reception that I started to feel like we were part of something very special. There was a presentation introducing our project to the reception and everyone went around and played each other's games. At first, due to the mixture of some non-ART GAMES games at the reception, I wasn't quite sure whose games were whose (because I missed the initial meeting with the teams the day before), but that was sorted out the next day at A MAZE. I was also running on well over 24-hours of being awake because of my travel schedule, and was quite delirious.
The next day was the first proper day of A MAZE where we became acclimated to the festival surroundings. Setup for our games was already in place so there was not much work to do (thanks to Joerg Reisig!). The true festival opened its doors to the public and we all started playing each other's games again and talking with each other since we were all in the same space. A MAZE can seem intimidating at first because it seems like so many people already know each other, so it was very nice to have a group of people to talk to that are in similar social situations.
The kinds and variety of games people brought to the festival was remarkable. Within just the ART GAMES section, there was a game about very difficult choices, a game about racism in the future involving extra-terrestrials, a game about police corruption, a game about changing yourself to suit others, a game about expending resources to save people and trying to do "the most good", a game about people's voices speaking in unison and the power that it provides, a game about shared enslavement, a game about decoding disparate languages where you have to rely on others, and a wonderful non-digital game about political hierarchies and how we treat each other within those hierarchies. The other games at A MAZE were similarly fascinating and varied, between a game which is controlled by springy doorstoppers, to a game about experiencing the Walden life of Thoreau, to interviewing Nazi collaborators, to touring experimental art exhibits (how meta for the festival), and so on.
Over the course of the festival and spending time together, we in the ART GAMES project started communicating a lot about how we think about game design, the state of art, political situations (I did a lot of apologizing for our country's current governmental administration), justice, morality, our own lives, our hopes and dreams, and generally what was on our minds. Through those discussions a common theme emerged and that theme was that we were all very similar despite being from wildly different countries and cultures. We all have a shared sense of duty to "do the right thing". It is understandable that similar people would join a contest about art and politics, but it was as if each of us were tackling different aspects of humanity through our games. Themes of injustice, disparity, challenged morals, searching for hope, and general ideas related to the human condition emerged through our games and our conversations as we talked more. A MAZE is a place for those kinds of discussions, for sure, but the global aspect to our particular project really brought into perspective the idea that there can be a true human-shared idea of how things could be good in this world.
As a native English speaker (with some fluency of Spanish, and a very little bit of a lot of other languages), I felt like I was catered to by everyone speaking my main language. I felt bad that I was in no way close to proficiency in other people's languages like they were mine. In the US, obviously, we don't have many neighbors that speak a foreign language (especially if you do not live near the Mexican border) so English becomes your sole means of communication. We are taught languages in high school but those are often forgotten quickly afterward due to lack of use. So to have everyone from all over the world speaking my language was an interesting and intimidating experience. What emerged as a strange side-effect of everyone speaking their non-primary language was that our communication had to be more basic and less nuanced. To communicate effectively, people were describing things in simpler terms. Granted, it wasn't THAT simple. I was enormously impressed by everyone's English proficiency to where I felt humbled at most times. But it was as if (for me anyway) I was re-learning my own language for the first time again and was in a way, quite magical.
During the festival I was able to meet gamedev heroes of mine whose careers I have followed over the years and I had a great number of excellent conversations with them. It is always a wonderful experience to meet someone you admire and to have them be as genuinely good as you hoped. I also met a bunch of other developers from all over Europe and had great discussions about gamedev and the world around us. But as I kept returning to my game's station and kept talking with my fellow artgamers, I sort of felt compelled to hear more about their stories. For a lot of us this was our first gamedev conference, or even the first time we had visited outside of our respective countries. For some of us it was the first time we had used the English language in a country that speaks it with regularity.
One thing that is for sure, is that showing a game at a conference after a number of days with or near someone else you build a mutual respect out of putting up with the physical exhaustion that comes with it. The shared misery (however miserable standing for hours really is) builds a somewhat unique camaraderie. This experience, combined with our already aligned outlooks, as well as the beautiful chaos of the festival overall, furthered our appreciation for each other. On the second day of A MAZE, each of our teams gave a mini-presentation of our games at a talk about the ART GAMES program and I felt that this was truly the time where we could see how we wished to express our messages with our respective games. Sure, we had given each of us our elevator pitches, played each other's games, and discussed the ideas, but there was never any formality to it so it seemed like you never got the full picture of the intent. At least,that's how it felt to me. I missed most of our test presentations because they happened the day before I arrived so maybe that feeling for everyone else happened a couple days prior. But to me, this was when people's creative souls were laid bare and we could learn about why we made the games that we did.
On the third day there was a presentation of an early cut of a documentary about our experience. I was unaware that it was going to be shown (despite having given an interview for it months ago at the end of the jam weekend) until Lisa M. had mentioned it and I saw it on the schedule. This, after a couple days of preparation and showing our games, was a sort of cherry on top of our weekend. After that, we could afford to be a little looser with showing our games and could relax a bit more. The documentary presentation was like a whirlwind on my psyche. It well encapsulated our experience up to that point and was a surreal sort of situation to see everyone's run-up to the festival. It was as if we were living a real-life "Last time, on..." segment at the beginning of a TV show that's resuming from its previous episode. The full documentary has not been released yet but when it is I will update this article to link to it.
On Saturday, the fourth day (and for most people final day, despite the festival running through Sunday) of the festival there was a feedback session in the morning for the artgamers before everyone headed to the festival grounds. Jeff and I didn't go to it because I forgot that it was going to happen (Jeff and I were in different hotels than the rest of the team, and the days ran together because of all the activity) and Jeff had to do some work for his freelancing dev job. But from what I heard afterward, people had gotten very emotional during the session, as we all voiced our appreciation for each other and the experience overall. I found, after talking with everyone, that my experience was not unique and we had all developed the same kinship through the course of the festival. Soon the festival would be over and we would need to return to our own lives.
That night, we all went out to dinner together and had many drinks. I am not sure how long dinner actually took, but I remember looking at my phone and my rough estimate was around three to four hours. Riad mentioned to me as people were still fervently engaged in conversation after dinner, "Look at everyone. They have spent every hour together for the past four days and are still talking as if they had just met." I responded that "I guess there's still a lot to talk about." We left to return to the festival grounds afterward and spent the rest of the night enjoying each other's company and drank and talked until the Sun came up the next morning. There were teary goodbyes, expressions of respect and admiration, and many "you have to come visit me" offers. We all vowed to stay in touch and to work on projects again in the future. We all now had friends all over the world.
The experience left a profound mark on myself and others, and we have discussed working on projects with each other going forward. There have been discussions on holding further game jams, collaborating on professional projects or each other's games, and the possibility of pitching this project idea to other sources of funding to try and make this a regular occurrence. It is the kind of experience that I would recommend to anyone who would be willing to participate, and it would be a shame if this was the only instance of a project like this that occurred. This experience provided a renewed sense of purpose for me and a wider degree of appreciation for the kinds of projects I want to work on in the future. I know I am not alone in this mindset, and I know I am not alone in understanding how better we can actually make the world through projects like these. There is enormous value in bringing together people from across the globe through similar interests, especially if those interests deal with very personal and heartfelt issues. The emotional power that was generated just from this project, its participants, and from the games, cannot be overstated. It was an incredibly beautiful project and experience and I am privileged to have been able to participate in it. I was especially glad that this program was seated within the A MAZE Festival, which was the perfect venue for it. I can't recommend enough that other people strive to work on this kind of project in the future, and to enrich the A MAZE Festival and others with this experience going forward.