Having just stepped into a church crypt I was confronted with the prospect of a talk on art and videogames. This could so easily be the opening sentence for a horror novel aimed at games journos or internet commenters. Luckily it was actually part of Feral Vector.
Feral Vector - previously A Bit Of Alright, previously World of Love - is an indie games conference curated by David Hayward (he of the Leftfield collection at Eurogamer events). The event I was attending had a room dedicated to games people could actually play, another whose chair infestation and projector lent it to talks and a third which was a tearoom and Puzzle Script classroom. Sidenote: the tearoom windows don't seem to open so I spent twenty minutes having some kind of Lapsang sauna.
The art and videogames talk was by Tom Betts. Betts is part of the team behind Sir, You Are Being Hunted and used to be a practising artist. This wasn't one of those occasions where you pick a definition of art and try to build a relationship with games on top of it like some kind of conceptual World of Goo exercise. No. He'd gone with 'Lost Game Art of the Noughties' which actually turned into a whistle-stop tour of artists who've used games and game ideas in their work.
He talked about the Death Animations of Brody Condon which saw dancers clad in fantasy RPG armour recreating in-game death animations in slow motion. He mentioned the Fluxus movement which opposed 'traditional artificialities of art' and its originator Georges Maciunas. The Flux Olympiad which was conceived by Maciunas and hosted decades later by Tate - a Python-esque collection of events which plays with ideas of gaming and sport. Football on stilts, invisible hurdles, flipper racing...
Then we're into work from the C-level collective. There's the Tekken Torture Tournament which delivered an electric shock to players corresponding to their character's in-game injury. The tournament required you to sign a waiver stating that you "understand that any equipment provided for my protection may be inadequate in preventing serious injury." It's like if Stanley Milgram had gotten into eSports.
Another C-line work of note is Waco Resurrection. It returns to the Waco siege of 1993 in which a Federal agency attempted to raid a compound inhabited by a religious sect led by David Koresh. A shootout was followed by a siege lasting almost two months. Finally the FBI launched an offensive. It was at this point that the compound went up in flames although the exact events are still not clear. 76 people died and Timothy McVeigh cited the incident as a primary factor for his Oklahoma City bombing.
In Waco Resurrection you wear the hard plastic skin of a resurrected David Koresh as you sit down to play. You're bombarded with a mixture of government psy-ops (the FBI used loud music during the siege including Nancy Sinatra's These Boots Are Made For Walking), internal voices and battle sounds. You wield a selection of Mount Carmel's weapons, voice Koresh's texts and use charisma to recruit or influence other characters. It's a game which has garnered understandable criticism and accusations of bad taste. In the London crypt there are some giggles - an air of disbelief that this is a thing which exists. It's all presented by Betts as equal fodder for consideration, the pursuit of which is up to the individual.
One of the last artists is Joe DeLappe. His work, dead-in-iraq, involved going into US army recruitment game America's Army and typing the name, age, service branch and date of death for every service person killed in Iraq. He put 4,484 names into that game across five years and his website offers screengrabs of the varying responses. On a slightly lighter note, he also brought the Quake/Friends performance where six people would re-enact episodes of Friends in Quake 3.
The usual art/gaming discussions miss out on a lot of this. the energy gets drained from the projects in the attempt to press them into service defending or refuting a point. Tom's twenty minute tour through these curious ideas and associated contraptions is the reverse. The sheer volume and Tom's irreverent tone is an invigorating introduction for anyone. I'm listing them out here in the hope that a tiny part of that enthusiasm carries through and strikes you as it struck me.
Immediately afterwards is Alice O'Connor's readme.txt talk. Alice is a friend and I'd known about her readme.txt blog where she collects interesting readme textfiles which accompany mods. But we've never really spoken about it properly. She read out selections of the readme files. Some are straight-up funny, some involve personal drama. One is the story of a man who has made a fishing mod for Skyrim:
"This mod is dedicated to my fiance, Kiersten, who passed away in April, one week before her 22nd birthday. She loved Skyrim and sushi, so what began as a birthday present evolved into a memorial to her life. The new species of fish this mod adds are named after things she loved, and I am in the process of adding a small fishing camp populated by her Skyrim toons, so she can live on in the fantasy world she loved."
It's a touching story, but one with a warning. Kiersten died from deep vein thrombosis after playing Modern Warfare 3 for eleven hours straight and the mod readme includes potentially life-saving information on the condition. As someone who works from home and plays a lot of computer games for a living, Fishing in Skyrim manages to terrify me. I have actually returned to regular running since this readme entered my life.
Another file is from an explicit Quake level made by someone called Helen to get her boyfriend's attention - reading the text it doesn't sound desperate, just playful. Watching a playthrough of it, you go through a set of double-doors into a room which doubles as a kind of Quake cinema, projecting a massive image of a woman (potentially Helen) give a blowjob to someone. It's pornographic without being hypersexualised. Helen later released more photos and video and other people could be granted permission to use them for their own modding (although Alice points out that another level which does exactly this suffers from terrible level design).
The Helen sequel is a rarity in that Alice doesn't tend to actually play these mods. She's interested in the personal dramas, the intentions and the ideas which drive the modders and which are often accessible only via the readme files. The point she's making is, for me, best expressed via Puke Launcher for Doom. "It replaces the rockets that the rocket lancher shoots, to GOBS OF PUKE!!! YES!!!!!!! The puke that flys out of yer rckt launcher isn't any ordinary barf, it's acid puke! Aaaahhh!! So watch out!" So says the main text, but it's 1996 and that enthusiasm for barf guns is followed up with a simple request:
"Anyone listen to death metal? If you do, email me!"
It's a simple question but I found it a poignant reminder of how we thought of the internet in the mid to late nineties - a kind of unknown ocean but one in which we might strike upon a friendly shore. You'd reach out on a messageboard or in an IRC chatroom and sometimes you'd find a person who shared in your interests which until that point had felt niche or lonely. Many of the communities I was part of saw it as a lifeline of sorts, or at least an amazing rejigging of their social world. As Alice sums it up, "It's like putting a message in a bottle and sending it out to the Internet. Except the bottle is a puke rocket."
A third talk I wanted to mention was by Hannah Nicklin. It's called Where Games Break and is about how that brokenness can be distressing or personal but it can also be glorious and informative. She's put the full text online and this might sound like a cop out but I think it's the kind of thing which should be read as-is because there's a poetic and performative aspect to it which I didn't want to lose in translation. I really wish there had been a filmed version, then I could have just popped that up on here so you could hit play and see if it resonated with you too.
The day had a full schedule of talks, but those were the three which have stuck in my head since the event and which have encouraged me to seek out new material or approach existing games in new ways. That's far from everything it had to offer, though. In addition to the chair room was that big game room I mentioned. Alistair Aitcheson had people jabbing frantically at his touch screen for Tap Happy Sabotage, Playniac had commandeered a table for their Insane Robot Battle card game and over in one corner you could watch the reactions of players investigating a guillotine simulator using an Oculus Rift (FYI mine was the first head to land in the basket that day and I only donned the headset at about 4pm).
As you might expect, some of the parts of the whole were odd or clashed or didn't quite work. But, ultimately, it was a refreshing experience, populated with speakers - not necessarily developers - passionate about what they were sharing. It's the kind of event which leaves a good taste in your mouth, figuratively speaking. It would have left a good taste literally too, but a conversation with Alice escalated and I ended up determinedly chewing on a handful of Lapsang souchong leaves as we headed to the post-Vector pub.