[Gamasutra's Simon Parkin attended Nottingham, UK's GameCity, and weighs in on the fest's top moments, from high level game design with Jonathan Blow to a tea party held for Mario's 25th birthday.]
"As the games industry has globalized, it has failed to develop a human face. The point of the festival is to illustrate that games are made by people."
For its director Iain Simons, the UK’s annual video game festival, GameCity, now in its fifth year, exists to humanize a medium that can very often be mechanical and individualistic.
This year, for example, the festival celebrated Mario’s 25th anniversary, not with a marquee filled with NES consoles playing Super Mario Bros. on loop all day, but with a tea party in which attendees were encouraged to wear paper mustaches cut out from the festival’s program.
In stark contrast to E3 or the Tokyo Game Show, which plunge gamers into virtual reality after virtual reality, the only human contact to be enjoyed while queuing ahead of the main attractions, GameCity is less about the games than the people.
It's as much about creating stories as it is about experiencing those offered by game developers and, for that reason, can be one of the most, or least, useful events on the industry's calendar depending on your mindset in approaching it, and how much you are willing to put in.
A main tent is erected in the town square, a focal point in which passers-by can drop in and take part in an aerobics session set to EA's forthcoming Kinect sports game, or play 20-player student-made interpretations of Capcom’s 1943
, Hudson's Bomberman
or Taito's Bubble Bobble
. But otherwise, the festival’s various events squat in the city’s pubs, clubs and municipal buildings, giving a local, messy feel to what is already a willfully idiosyncratic event.
This is perhaps the only games festival to invite local children to drop their ideas, spelled out in crayons and scrawls, into a bucket. And then to fly Canabalt
creator Adam Saltzman over from Texas to attempt to knit them together into a game in front of them, a widescreen display monitor proudly displaying his lines of code to any watchers, while video game-themed singer songwriter Rebecca Mayes works on the soundtrack behind him.
Before the event was finished, the pair had published a build
of the game, drawn from 95 of the ideas submitted by Nottingham's youngsters. For an industry that draws almost exclusively from adult anxieties in forming its scenarios -- cultural fears that translate to so many brown post-apocalyptic scenarios and zombie thrillers -- it was one of the few times someone has bothered to ask children which conflict they think might make for an interesting video game premise. The result? A game about a lost child who must find its way home.
With a game-themed stand-up comedy event curated by the team behind One Life Left
, the UK’s only gaming-related radio show, GameCity can, at times, feel like the industry’s own Edinburgh Festival, its joyful celebration of games culture more in keeping with the spirit of Britain’s leading arts festival than the EIF has ever been.
The show's three presenters each made their stand-up debut alongside three professional comedians, the kind of melding of enthusiast and professional that typifies the festival's approach.
Its strength is in this diversity. The four day event managed to bring together a ‘Theremin Hero’ event, in which a pair of theremin musicians played along to game music such as the theme from Metal Gear Solid
, and Portal
’s Still Alive, with an in-depth creative postmortem of Braid
, delivered in person by creator Jonathan Blow.
This combination of in-depth keynotes on professional development with whimsy creates a curious, typically British ambiance, that while scattershot and sometimes lacking consistency, manages to embody the playful, childlike wonder of gaming far better than its heavyweight sponsored rivals around the world.
The festival’s wider sense of creativity filters into the talks themselves. After Chris Hecker spent 45 minutes explaining his journey in creating Spy Party
to date, he then played the entire audience at the game, arguing that it was the only way anyone in the room had a chance to beat him.
Likewise, Denmark’s Playdead’s ‘Listening to Limbo
’ offered insight into the creation of a soundtrack most notable for its relative absence in the game. These unusual presentations don’t fit well with the churn of event coverage in the mainstream games press, but for attendees offer something memorable and affecting.
Nevertheless, some of the more traditional features of video games festivals were present. In the main square marquee, attendees had chance to play with Lego Universe
, while a Friday night Crysis 2
multiplayer tournament offered the most orthodox kind of game-related activity of the week.
But at GameCity, games play a supporting role to a wider celebration of the medium. Straight after the Crysis 2
event, attendees headed to a local nightclub to listen to a set from Baiyon, the Japanese creative artist who provided the soundtrack for PixelJunk Eden
The next morning, those who weren't nursing headaches headed into the city for some live action Pac Man
. So popular was this event that many players missed director Iain Simons' keynote address in which he outlined the event's mandate to provide that "human face to games".
Regardless, one doubts he minded very much that people missed his talk because they were out having fun, even if, dressed as Inky, Binky, Pinky and Clyde, they were more accurately offering the ghostly face of games.