Music festivals are a weird liminal interzone, where time is measured in band sets, if it's measured at all, and everything is aimless play.
At Electric Eclectics, an experimental music festival held on the "funny farm"—a gigantic rural property owned by two aging artists overlooking the pastoral Big Head valley in Meaford, Ontario—towering spires made of stuffed animals and other oddities added a sense of the absurd to the list of attributes that make festivals ideal venues for going feral.
But for Brendan Lehman, a 26-year-old neuroscience master's student at Laurentian University, the things that define a music festival could also make for a pretty enticing video game—if they could only be captured in code. That's why Lehman and Sudbury-based artist Holly Robin travel around Ontario, attending music festivals in a camping trailer that's been converted into a DIY mobile coding lab.
Lehman and Robin, in collaboration with several other developers and the North Bay-based Near North Mobile Media Lab, are working on a game called Digital Forest. Each level is inspired by a music festival the team visited and the soundtrack is provided by artists, who are recorded in special sessions with the help of a local producer on site.
In the game, the player jumps freely around a colourful world, picking up collectibles and power ups tailored to each band featured in the level.
I caught up with Lehman and Holly Cunningham, managing director of the Near North Mobile Media Lab, inside their trailer, which was parked on a massive vista overlooking the valley. Inside, Lehman played the game while clad in a green skirt that grazed his ankles, rubber barefoot running shoes, and a bright orange toque. The trailer itself was reminiscent of a musky sardine can on wheels, with room for little else than a PC, two big monitors, and a mess of cables.
"There's a bunch of stuff going on in these isolated grounds, and you can wander around and it's this infinite adventure with something new always going on," Lehman said of the festivals that inspired Digital Forest. "We wanted to capture that in a game."
The level that Lehman was playing was inspired by River and Sky, a folk-centric music festival in Northern Ontario that served as the genesis for the project. The imagery was appropriately cutesy: candy and fresh fruit, pink hues and gigantic grilled cheese sandwiches.
"That level is based on actual things that were in the festival," Cunningham said. "There's a local cheese place that does grilled cheese sandwiches every year, so you have to get the grilled cheese sandwiches. There's a dog there every year named Momo and he's in it, too."
The level inspired by Electric Eclectics will be decidedly more dark and weird, Lehman said. The art will be more "esoteric and nonsensical," he told me, and the music a hell of a lot more abrasive than the sweet folk tunes of River and Sky. This year, Lehman and his team scored recordings from bombastic Toronto-based band Doomsquad and the jazzy and experimental sax-and-drums duo Not the Wind, Not the Flag.
Digital Forest is meant to capture the non-linear flow of a music festival, Lehman told me, and the player is free to wander back to whichever stage they'd like in the game world in order to experience the locale again or pick up more items without interrupting the gameplay, Fez-style. This isn't just for kicks, either; it actually has to do with Lehman's studies in neuroscience.
While video games and brain studies go together for many reasons, for Lehman the partnership made all the more sense since his master's thesis explored the intersection of video games and consciousness. "The main part of my thesis deals with video game immersion and 'flow state': losing yourself in things and reaching peak performance, but in video games," Lehman said, adding, "Game making is a bit of a hobby."
Game development may just be a hobby, but it's one that's occupied years of Lehman's life so far, and taken the Digital Forest team to three music festivals—River and Sky twice, and as a final instalment, Electric Eclectics.
Next, Cunningham said, the team hopes to receive enough grant funding to buy a bigger trailer that can house a recording studio, a video production suite, as well as a coding station. This will allow the team to travel to isolated communities, or communities full of marginalized peoples, to teach the residents about coding. More Canadian music fests are also on the agenda, including perennial east coast love-in SappyFest and Guelph upstart Incline/Decline.
Digital Forest is slated for an October release date on popular indie platform Itch.io, and will likely end up costing players $5.99. Bands will get paid through sales of the soundtrack, which Lehman told me he plans to release on his small tape label Brain Tape. The code will also be published on Lehman's GitHub for anyone to look at. Even though the game will be finished, Lehman said, its larger mission won't be.
"In independent video games, the standard model is to huddle in your cave and work on this prototype and take it to a show, sit there and take notes, and then go back to your cave and fix it and hope it's right," Lehman said. "Or you can be totally open source about your process, not just your code itself, and I think that's important for getting people into something and not afraid of something they haven't seen before."