The first thing to know about Game Developers Conference is that it’s completely exhausting. Whether you are a game developer, a writer, or a neck-bearded wolverine in a utility kilt, this is the maxim. From Tuesday to Friday, my days went like this: oversleep, race to catch the tail-end of the 9 A.M. session, spend all day in sessions taking mad notes, hike back up Powell to the hotel and hammer out news as fast as possible, finish by 9 P.M. in order to catch up with compadres at bars and parties around town, stumble to bed before 3:30 A.M. After just one day of this routine I was ready to fall out.
That said, it’s not Sarajevo. It’s a game conference, which means you can randomly set off in any direction and around the corner find a round of virtual foosball being played, an indie game you’ve never heard of, a Crystal Castles arcade cabinet, a boardgame in the park, or a guy in a suit handing you a controller to blast an alien’s head off with. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, it was these unplanned and unprecedented moments of kicking back with a good game that provided me the motivation and R&R to resist crawling under the skirt of the press room table and catching up on some much needed shuteye.
G.D.C. isn’t E3 either. It’s not the type of convention you come away from with a “best games of show.” However, there’s a handful of extremely praiseworthy games that saved my butt from physical collapse and mental exasperation. My thanks to those who made them; I owe you a cold beer, macchiato, or glass of wine, your pick.
Samurai Gunn, TeknoPants
Wednesday. Before getting to San Francisco, I hadn’t paid much attention to Samurai Gunn, the, Smash Bros.-styled, four-player, retro-fighter with one-hit kills. That was a mistake. It’s probably the most pure FUN! I’ve had with a game this year. Tommy Rousse, a fellow game writer who I had the pleasure of meeting briefly while stuffing spring rolls in my maw, still agape from the jaw-dropping NASA session, was telling me that he had been training for three weeks to win a Samurai Gunn competition at G.D.C. He got my attention.
Later that night, at All Other Parties Are Trite and Dull, an event thrown by Wild Rumpus, I was lucky enough to try it. The strategy here is to stay low, watch your back, make swift confident movements; it’s a lot like walking through the Mission district after midnight. My first stab, I got my ass handed to me, but the second time I played well enough to force a showdown with the guy in first place. The screen cut to a 8-bit version of a sunset you’d see in a Kurosawa movie, my pixellated polar bear against his hooded samurai. He jumped around and slashed while I stood still, and, when he landed nearby, I disemboweled him with a single strike. I quit while I was ahead. It was the best I felt all day.
SoundSelf, Robin Arnott
Thursday. I was very much anticipating the CD Projekt Red talk on narrative branches in Witcher 2, but it turned out to be a bust, so I dipped early and made the half-a-block trek from Moscone to the Ahhhcade exhibit in the lobby of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Robin (who a few years ago created the sensory-depriving Deep Sea, and more recently was the sound designer on Antichamber) was showing his interactive mandala of a shamanistic journey called SoundSelf. It’s a hard game to describe and I wouldn’t bat an eye if I learned he got the idea from Timothy Leary.
The room was cool, the lights were low, and I plopped down on a beanbag in front of a projection of complex geometric formations and said “Ahhhhh,” literally and figuratively. The way it works is that you chant into a microphone (think: Om meditations), your voice goes into the machine, the colors and shapes strobe beautifully, and eventually it gets around to hauntingly echoing your vocalization. To see it is one thing, but to play it is another. It’s trance inducing, spiritually uplifting, and refreshing. Afterward, I told Robin, “I felt like I did something important when I made the solid circles and shapes appear.” He put his hand on my shoulder and said that I did. I’m ready to join his cult now.
Bientôt l’été, Tale of Tales
Friday. By the end of the week, my brain was Jell-O. If I had to choose a flavor, it’d be cherry, I guess. I was planning to get burritos with a developer friend at twelve, and while waiting, I drifted around the indie booth and wound up playing Bientôt l’été. If you know nothing of it, Bientôt l’été is the quintessential art game. It’s narrated in French, it’s set on the Riviera, and the theme is inspired by Hiroshima mon amour. You meet your unrequited lover at a cafe; sip wine, smoke cigarettes, and play chess; and exchange desperately romantic phrases from the novels of Marguerite Duras. There’s a button for closing your eyes. It’s actually great.
The Tale of Tales team hadn’t made the long flight over from Belgium, but the sound designer was on hand, and she was kind enough to listen as I rambled about Kierkegaard, Jarboe (formerly of the band Swans), and how Bientôt l’été was so relevant to my current love situation––which had just precariously tumbled into my life––that I felt predestined to be playing it here, now. I’m sure she thought I was a total boob. I gathered some romantic phrases by closing my eyes on the beach, and went to the cafe to say them, but as I moved a rook across the chessboard, I couldn’t find the right words.
About the Author:
Jason Johnson is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamasutra, Unwinnable, GameSetWatch, FingerGaming, WSJ Speakeasy, and The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. He owns 27 Sun Ra albums.
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