[this article is cross-posted from the Untold Entertainment blog, which is awesome]
Long-time readers of this blog know i'm an avid fan of TOJam, the Toronto independent game jam, which takes place every year either on Mother's Day or during student exams, or at some other inconvenient time. It's very difficult to schedule an event free and clear of other competing calendar dates, but the organizers think they've pulled it off this year: the sixth iteration of the jam, "TOJam Sixy Times", runs the entire weekend from May 13th to 15th 2011.
Congratulations to Borat, who apparently won the competition to name this year's jam.
TOJam is not a competition. It's rather more like camp ... hot, sweaty nerd camp fueled by energy drinks and candy bars. Every year, the organizers suggest that each game feature a Toronto-specific sound effect, and a picture of a goat on a pole (rendered any way the game's artist chooses). Here's the goat in all its glory:
God help us if the photographer ever comes knocking to collect royalty payments for five previous years of jam games.
Here's the goat's appearance in some of the TOJam games i've developed over the years:
TOJam 2: Two by Two
TOJam 3: Here Be Dragons
TOJam 5: Heads
Each TOJam also features a suggested theme. Past themes have included "Cheese", "Scale", and "Missing". This year's theme is "What Just Happened?" As i do every year, i'd like to riff on the TOJam theme and explore its possibilities.
The very first thing that comes to mind when i hear "What Just Happened?" is Fred Willard in A Mighty Wind: Wha' Happened?? Ha ha ha ha. This is one of those movie lines i repeat all the time, and no one knows what i'm talking about. What are its ramifications for game design? None! But Fred Willard rocks my world.
Like "Cheese", the "What Just Happened?" theme gives a lot of room for WTFism. You can pack your game with ton of nonsensical crap that leaves the player saying "What Just Happened?" This is kind of a cop-out. Or maybe it's because i'm old. i used to watch terrible movies and teevee shows just to laugh at them, but when you get old enough that you really start to feel your time on Earth is tragically limited, you tend to gravitate more towards entertaining yourself with stuff that's actually worth your time.
Hot Throttle is about naked men who think they're cars, and ... uh, yeah.
The Scene of the Crime
A much more literal interpretation of the theme might involve a game where the player is shown the aftermath of an event, and has to work backwards to figure out what caused the event. This would likely be a plot-driven graphic adventure-style game, maybe in the vein of Déjà Vu, where you wake up in a bathroom stall with amnesia.
i don't remember if i HAVE any money!
Unfortunately these days, starting a point n' click game with amnesia is a hackneyed trope used in nearly every free Escape the Room Flash game i've played. At the risk of calling every game contrivance a cop-out, i'll happily call this one out too: amnesia is a tired device that should be given a 10-year breather in video games, or until somebody can do something interesting with it. In the case of the Escape the Room games, the situation's even more dire, because the games all begin with "You are trapped in a room and you don't know who you are", and end with "You got out of the room!" There's no character or plot development whatsoever ... just a key inexplicably hidden behind a scrap of wallpaper, and a VCR code in the breakaway leg of the couch.
While we're at it, let's give Escape the Room games a 10-year breather too. Or 100 years.
The trouble with a graphic adventure game where you're trying to figure out What Just Happened is that it's probably not going to be very replayable, and it has a big spoil factor on it. Take something like The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shamalamadingdong: if you haven't seen it, and someone spoils the ending for you by revealing that Bruce Willis has a penis, you may not enjoy the movie when you finally get around to watching it. You may not even bother watching it at all.
Spoiler: Bruce Willlis's penis is Luke Skywalker's father.
Same deal with our hypothetical graphic adventure game: once someone tells you that What Just Happened is that the Evil Dr. Douchebag created a murder machine that killed everyone over five feet tall, and that THAT was the mysterious detail linking all of the survivors, the game might be less fun to play. Here's a less plot-heavy, more replayable game that's simpler to program in a weekend: there's a child's memory game that we play at birthday parties, where you lay out a number of objects on the table. Everyone stares at the table for one minute. Then you tell all the kids to close their eyes, and you take an item away. The kids have to guess what's missing. What Just Happened? Mommy stole the fork.
The past-tense of the What Just Happened theme may lend itself to a game involving time-bending or time-travel, a la Braid, or Back to the Future Part II on the NES.
What Just Happened? You wasted fifty bucks.
Picture Super Mario Bros., and you show the player the level AFTER he's gone through it: certain blocks are smashed, certain goombas are squished ... and the player has to run through the level smashing all the same blocks and squishing all the same goombas in an effort to re-create the endgame state he's just seen. It would be way more interesting if you did this with more of a puzzle platformer, where there are switches and doors and traps and contrivances, which would make the re-creation far more interesting (ie "How did i get the pile of blocks to fall on top of that platform? What order do i have to do things in to get that to happen like that?")
You could bend the "rules" a bit and play around with the words in the theme. "What Just Happened?" could be the title about a Marmaduke-like dog named What. Your game could be about a crusading judge on an alien planet, and you have to determine the ways in which he's meted out justice by learning the aliens' legal system. "What Thing that is Just Just Happened?" Meh. It's a stretch. And as long as i'm stretching:
What Just Hairpin?
Slut Just Happened
What - Joust Happened?
Hutt Just Happened
What? Just Hop-On
Whatever you decide to pull together for your TOJam game, just keep in mind the rules i've learned from four previous jams:
- Keep it simple enough to finish.
- Finishing is everything.
- If you want to get any love from players, either on the final night of the Jam or at the public TOJam Arcade, your game MUST be fast to learn, and easy to pick up and play. If you have to sit next to the player and explain how to control the game or what's going on or what that squiggly shape is supposed to represent, you've failed. So:
- Very strongly consider reserving a number of hours in the jam to build some sort of in-game tutorial to help the player understand your game, so that you don't have to hand-hold.
i can't tell you how many times i've sat down to play a TOJam game and have thought "What Just Happened?", as in "how did a team of six people just spend an entire weekend building a game where i can't figure out what the heck is going on?" This year, let's keep the mystery of what just happened thematic, and create a great crop of games where the goals and controls are clear as crystal.
See you at the jam!