Team Simple Tools. All photography courtesy of the author, pictured third from the left
It's the evening of Friday, January 29, and I've found myself entirely out of my comfort zone. I'm meant to be playing video games, not making them. And yet, here I am: at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, England, taking part in the Global Game Jam. If you offered a penny for my thoughts right now, I'd give you just the one: We don't have a shot in hell.
"We," because I'm not alone here. Former games journalist turned Auroch Digital producer Peter Willington is beside me, likewise Pocket Gamer writer Danny Russell. This is all Peter's fault. He's been trying to encourage journalist friends to take part in the GGJ, the largest international event of its kind, taking place in real-life locations across the entire world. "It'll be great," he enthused in the Facebook post that piqued my attention. "It'll be really interesting to try a game jam without any of the usual skills." Those "usual skills" being, in this case, the skills required to make video games.
Sometimes Peter says "interesting," when what he really means is "disastrous."
A quick game jam 101, for those new to the concept. This is an event—it need not be big, but it certainly can be, in the case of GJJ and the previously-covered-on-VICE Ludum Dare—where teams come together to prototype a project and then, hopefully, produce a finished, or at least working, game within a short period of time. Some of these games can go on to make it big. Acid Nerve's Titan Souls was created during a jam, before being polished up and given a proper release through publisher Devolver Digital in 2015. Participating in game jams inspired Markus "Notch" Persson to get creative with his designs, and then Minecraft happened. These gatherings can lead to amazing things.
Danny and I became part of "Simple Tools." Peter aside, it's a team with few practical skills beyond whatever artist Tom Waterhouse, who probably didn't know what he was getting roped into, and Tim Skew, our programmer, could bring. Tim didn't realize that by agreeing to let me stay on his sofa he was also agreeing to help me make a game, something few of us had done before.
To reiterate an earlier point with curt precision: We're fucked.
I'd been buoyed by fake confidence, but sitting around the half of a conference table we managed to snag in the moments after the theme, "ritual," was announced to the assembled throng, I'm starting to have some doubts about my ability to produce anything in just 48 hours. For reference, this article took me something like 52 hours to put together, and didn't require a companion tablet app.
Our coder is stuck at work still, an hour away, and we're facing one massive problem: How do you even start making a game? What if our coder can't make whatever idea we settle on work? Hell, what if our idea sucks?
We drink too many cans of Coke. We eat too many cookies. Brain food. That sugar's used to write down a few ideas, which we immediately discard as being too obvious. But the panicked feeling in my gut is subsiding a little. We do have a few things in our favor.
Firstly, Tom is an immensely talented artist. Secondly, Peter's knowledge from "the other side" helps us determine what's possible within two days. We settle on a card game with digital elements. This should let us iterate fast and check our design before we get our coder to do anything. After all, we only get one chance to do this right.
After flirting with the school social system and escaping from a zoo, we decide that our "ritual" of choice is going to be about being the best student in school.
Sharing our workspace for the weekend is Team Discovery Channel, and it quickly becomes apparent that not only do they possess a lot more technical skills than us, but they also seem to be making a game about fucking a bird. The atmosphere between the two teams goes from frosty to we're-best-friends-let's-tell-each-other-everything-about-our-lives over the course of the Friday evening alone.
Saturday is the hardest day's work I've ever done in my life. Saturday is like the first hour back in the office after a long vacation, only for 12 hours straight. By mid-afternoon I've forgotten what fresh air feels like, and I'm tired of looking at cards.
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Life-saving donuts are passed from group to group, and one member of Team Discovery Channel creates a tea-making roster with himself in every slot, drowning us in the stuff. I don't actually like tea, but I'm too caught up in British social angst to ever decline a mug of the stuff.
Tim and Tom are set up at either ends of a table separate from us less technically–minded sorts, so they're not disturbed by us play-testing and going over, and over, and over the card designs. We start to refer to their table as the talent table. I look over to see how they're doing, and realize how futile my own efforts are in comparison to theirs.
Tom is putting in an Olympian effort. He sits sketching at a tablet, designing and drawing from 10 AM to 10 PM with barely a break, creating every piece of art for the entire game. Tim meanwhile gets in at 12 but remains in a chair, wearing a three-piece suit, and codes for the next ten hours straight.
Beside us, Team Discovery Channel is experiencing a crisis. One of the programmers, who we'll call "A," has announced he needs to go and do something elsewhere. He's vague on the details and, taking all of his stuff, murmurs that he might be back in a couple of hours, perhaps tomorrow. This creates a unique problem for our sister team, our friends, because "A" is the only member of the crew who actually knows how his code works.
Disaster. An urgent email is sent his way, and ignored. Joe Williamson, the artist for Team Discovery Channel, is about to get a promotion. In just a few short hours he has to become his team's sole programmer, and he has just one evening to get the game ready. That game, since you're obviously curious, has a name by this point. Randy Birds. No, really.
The mood is lighter than you might imagine, but when the place closes up at 10 PM we're excited just to go outside. But in a bid to get our game "feature complete," which is the term for everything working even if it doesn't look pretty, Tim works well into the night, eventually crawling into bed after 4 AM.
Everyone at the Bristol jam has been working above and beyond, and when 10 AM rolls around the next morning, you can clearly see who's been going at it right through the night. This includes the entirety of Team Discovery Channel. They describe what sounds like the worst night of their lives, but they find themselves, on this new Sunday morning, somehow back on track to successfully submit their game before the absolute final deadline of 5 PM.
Sunday is pretty quiet for the designers. I spend most my time writing fiddling with the balance on events and stuffing puns into flavor text. We settle on a name: Gravity Academy. It's named after our primary mechanic, an anti-gravity card that is a complete fuck you to everyone playing it, generally accompanied by a bunch of people whooping like idiots whenever it appears.
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"A" saunters in shortly after ten o'clock, greeting his team as if he hadn't left them to flounder entirely. Half an hour later he announces he's going to see what the other teams are up to, and vanishes again. It feels a bit like he's broken the trust of the room, but Team Discovery Channel isn't too bothered, saying that he was redundant at this point. They're gracious enough, though, to put his name into their game's credits.
I take a stroll around the venue myself, to see what other teams have been up to. I spy "A," working away in a corner, trying to finish his own game. I hope that his idea was a worthwhile one. By the time I get back, we realize that the deadline for submission is looming, and we're going to have to leave voice acting out of our final game. Or, in other words: The recordings I have on my work Dictaphone, made by Danny in a shower cubical, will have to remain on hold for the Gravity Academy Game of the Year edition.
The problem is, despite our best efforts and no massive problems with the development, tying all of the art and sound together with code takes time. Tim has been hammering away for most of the last 35 hours, but he's not superhuman.
Meanwhile, Randy Birds is coming together nicely. There's a jungle of controller wires snaking out of two laptops—the controllers require USB ports to function, and the laptop running the game doesn't have enough to support the four players. But there's a complete game here now: You have to tap out a three-digit code, corresponding to the pad buttons, before your rivals; and the better you do, the more the female bird will shower you with love hearts. It is, essentially, competitive mating.
Somehow we manage to upload the details required of us at 4:59 PM, seconds before an organizer hustles us off to give a five-minute presentation that decides the fate of our game. And despite the jam's 17-minute opening movie promising that this wasn't about competition, it's definitely a competition. I look around, and I see judges: It's definitely a competition.
Our card game takes 25 minutes to play, and we have five minutes to present it. Despite the best efforts of Peter and Danny, we struggle to get the core concept across. Perhaps that comes though in this piece, too? Never mind—I told you at the start that this probably wouldn't work out perfectly.
After us comes "A." His game is game billed as "A commentary on religion and our relationship with spirituality." Presumably he spent Saturday night communing with his chosen deity and Sunday's split from the group was divine intervention, and he's on a mission from G... No, wait. His game features a rapidly moving baby with an erection, and you're trying to move some scissors to circumcise the poor kid. Miss too many times and the baby's eyes cross and he turns a sickly shade of green. The word "infanticide" is written across the top of the screen.
Now I'm not the most sensitive guy in the world, but even so, this is the first game I've seen by an indie developer that's ever made me uncomfortable. In a jam featuring games about horny birds, a plasticine wedding and ballet—with no dancing, but a bizarre and beautiful art style—a one-note joke about circumcision that might lead to you stabbing a baby to death left me just a tiny bit cold.
In the end, Gravity Academy doesn't place in the top three. Randy Birds, though? It only goes and wins.
That was the best we could have hoped for, really. Everyone that played Gravity Academy loved it and we're going to work more on it, but perhaps the most memorable aspect of my participation in the GGJ was seeing the guys on the table next to us work so tirelessly, and being rewarded for their efforts. So why not give Randy Birds a go? It's not like it's actually going to make you stuff a turkey.
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