By Nathan Grayson on April 13th, 2012 at 2:00 pm.
Last week, I had the pleasure of attending San Francisco’s parody-Twitter-account-inspired Molyjam and pestering roughly a million developers with my inane questions. In between digging for such crucial details as the number of weapons in a game about invisible guns and whether there’d a happier DLC ending for a tale primarily focused on hurling oneself off a cliff, I watched countless off-the-wall ideas blossom into playable games. Truly amazing, however, was the amount of mileage different people – some of them not even professional game developers – got out of a single idea: romantic free-running.
“Romantic parkour game in which you and the love of your life must hold hands and jump around a city evading death and injury.” As far as tweets from the magnificent Mr. Molydeux go, that one’s actually fairly low-key. Sure, it wears its giant, sloppily pumping heart on its sleeve, but at an event that prominently featured bears hugging people to death for oxygen and guardian angel anti-suicide pigeons, “Mirror’s Edge with smooching” didn’t seem so far-fetched. And yet, that’s what struck me most during my two-day stay at Chateau de Molydeux: creativity – so often an undervalued commodity in the gaming industry – seemed limitless. Even the (on paper) least fascinating idea was able to take on a truly vibrant life of its own.
The first member of the holy hop-’til-you-drop trifecta I spotted had all the visual appeal of a regurgitated spinach salad – at least, from afar. Dull greens were broken up by chunky yellow characters running across simple 3D buildings and leaping every few seconds. And, to top it all off, the two characters weren’t even holding hands. Judging a book solely based on its cover during a 48-hour game jam, however, would have been a terrible mistake. So I approached, honestly not expecting much.
This particular game, known as Path (downloadable here), was far more than its rudimentary visuals let on. Its team – a small group made up of freelancers, indies, and Zynga employees – had an absolutely brilliant ace up its collective sleeve.
“So I have three Xbox controllers,” Zynga software engineer Mike Kenyon began. “Each player’s gonna have their own Xbox controller, and they’re gonna use it with their outside hand. That’s because they’re both going to share the third controller. Each person’s gonna hold down a trigger. So it’s an actual physical connection to another player. And if one player drops a trigger, then unfortunately, our two lovers will be forever torn.”
And while the plan was to ultimately have the characters clinging to each other for dear life while performing death-defying stunts, players were – in essence – the ones actually holding hands.
“I have to admit that it’s a little awkward holding onto a controller one-handed,” added Kenyon.
“Yeah, but so is love,” one of his teammates blurted, immediately prompting a tidal wave of raucous laughter.
Unfortunately, the Path team wasn’t able to fully implement its off-kilter control mechanic in time for its end-of-show presentation, but LinkedIn tells me this one’s destined for bigger and better things as a still-in-development “personal project of the team.”
The next inspired variation on Peter Molydeux’s simplest theme very nearly fell right into my lap. I was sitting in a chair – as I sometimes do – when a man with enviably flowing locks and a laptop approached me. Instead of gloating about how totally cool those things made his life, though, he asked me if I had a few minutes to try his game. I obliged, grateful for his humility.
It took the form of a very simplistic-looking sidescrolling platformer. The twist, however, was that we each manned different sides of the keyboard to control two characters running on separate hilly tracks. And then – double twist – an orb that looked like a rinse cycle full of Ronald MacDonald’s finest clowning garments grew between us, slowly but surely increasing in size over time. At first, I thought it was some kind of abstract race, but soon, I found myself deliberately stopping to let my cohort catch up. It was an exceedingly minimal production, but its soothing sounds and warm colors inspired some strange unconscious friendliness impulse in me. Eventually, our orb grew to the size of a large balloon/small hot air balloon/mid-sized sedan, and the game suddenly ended.
The man, who eventually revealed himself to be Sina Jafarzadeh from the Will-Wright-led Stupid Fun Club, then asked me a single question: “So, what do you think this game is about?” Honestly, that, to me, was the most interesting part of the otherwise somewhat rudimentary Run Love Run (downloadable here) – moreso, even, than the synchronized running and jumping or Jafarzadeh’s ultimate goal of having the two tracks intertwine to bring the couple into physical contact. He was playtesting in a crowd of fellow developers using emotion, interpretation, and intuition as metrics.
While observing Jafarzadeh’s technique in action, I ended up meeting an indie developer who will, by request, remain anonymous. Unlike (ostensibly) the entire city of San Francisco, he actually wasn’t fusing the human need for companionship with the indelibly universal need for speed. He did, however, offer to show me his non-Molyjam fulltime project, which took the form of an incredibly inventive first-person puzzle game. Then something weird happened: he asked me to avoid publishing any details about it. Except it really wasn’t weird at all, seeing as our industry got bitten by the copycat bug many years ago, the result of which has been a full-blown epidemic. He simply didn’t want his idea stolen. He didn’t want to get Vlambeer’d.
It was those two events – Jafarzadeh’s wonderfully open test and the other developer’s paralyzing fear of idea theft – that, for me, put Molyjam in utterly stark contrast with the real world. Molyjam’s driving message – at least, once Molydeux himself commandeered it – was one of change and new starts for a stagnant industry. What I found instead was the game developer equivalent of Narnia. Sure, it was magical, and yeah, I think I saw one or two largely allegorical lions roaming the building, but it all felt so ephemeral – like the slightest outside disturbance could shatter the whole fantasy and let the black tendrils of reality choke the creativity right out of the room.
Meanwhile, when asked whether they thought the Molyjam’s popularity spoke to a need for more diverse, emotionally resonant content in games, almost every developer I talked to responded so similarly that I started searching for a script. Yes, they said, Molyjam was wonderful, but it was a vacation. On Monday, the normal grind would resume. Don’t get me wrong: these aren’t prison camps. There was no air of resignation in these developers’ voices. They also adored their day jobs, but many agreed that – at the moment – Molydeux’s ideas have no place outside a ridiculous, spur-of-the-moment game jam that was held on April Fools Day. How’s that for a joke?
For a while, that really killed my spirits. No, I didn’t expect an overnight change, but I wanted to see wheels in motion – stuck in the chunky, coagulated mud of tradition or not. So I went outside to get some air. And that’s when I ran across my third parkour quarry. The five-or-so person team congregated on a series of couches outside the main room, a latticework of sunbeams dancing across their faces, but too absorbed in their own world of development crunch to notice. As it turned out, though, this was not, for them, the same old song and dance set to a blistering tempo.
“Most of us have never made a game before,” began Allan Hsu, an employee at Tesla Motors. “We’re all engineers in totally different fields. We didn’t know the language we were gonna program this in. We just came into this sort of thinking ‘Why not?’”
So then, what’d they come up with it? Well, that’s the part that honestly shocked me.
“I read that tweet, and the first thing I thought of… the parkour part – escaping death and injury – that’s basically Canabalt,” explained Hsu. “And so maybe, instead of running from rooftop-to-rooftop, you’re running through stages of life. And so that seems kind of like Fable or a boardgame Game of Life type of deal. But that was just me riffing on it in my head. So it sort of morphed into this thing where you’re holding hands with somebody, and that makes you see the world differently. Like, the two characters have different abilities.”
“But we hit this stage in development where we had this scrolling background and these two characters holding hands walking down the street with placeholder music, and it was just mesmerizing to watch that. So we kind of just ran with it. Now we have to characters walking down the street, and there’s gonna be a dog you can pet for as long as you want.”
True to Hsu’s word, that was it. A man and a woman slowly strolling down a sidewalk. A dog they could pet with a hilariously awkward, herky-jerky animation. And I was in awe. It was just a group of relative outsiders trying their hands at game creation. Sure, what they created may not have even been a “game” in strictest sense, but it was unique and, well, oddly powerful.
“We were trying to cram gameplay into this, and then we reached this point where we had a thing about just walking down the street while in a relationship with someone,” added one of Hsu’s team members. “And it’s sort of emotionally ambiguous. Like, what’s really going on? That sort of seems more in the spirit of Peter Molydeux than, like, avoiding cars or jumping over pits.”
Sadly, Hsu and co didn’t submit their project to the end-of-show presentation, and it’s not linked on the Molyjam website. But still, simply having the chance to see it (and a handful of other projects from folks having their first go at game development) was a bit incredible. I got to witness new perspectives and outlooks trickling into a rapidly shifting medium, and – thanks to more than 20 Molyjams all over the world – we might be looking at the beginnings of a flood.
Or maybe not. At this point, I can’t honestly say. I’d like to think, though, that if they won’t feed us solid food, well, maybe we’ll just make our own.