Over the weekend of January 20–22, 2017, over 200 artists, programmers, writers, and video-game fans gathered at Rapson Hall on the University of Minnesota campus. Their shared goal would propel them through sleepless nights and countless bottles of energy drinks and cups of coffee. They had signed up for Gamecraft, the local site for the 2017 Global Game Jam—an international festival of creativity that encourages creators to produce and prototype games in all media. According to the Global Game Jam site, “The brief time span is meant to help encourage creative thinking to result in small but innovative and experimental games.”
The creative thinking began with a short presentation to the crowd of designers, during which a short video offered tips for being creative and keeping your wits sharp over the marathon weekend. The video also introduced the theme for this year’s jam: games created would have to incorporate something relating to the concept of “waves,” in whatever way each team interpreted the word. After this introduction, collaborators met in the center of Rapson Hall for sandwiches and caffeine to team-build and brainstorm together. Teams that felt they were off to a good start were offered the opportunity to pitch their ideas to the entire group, either as an exercise or as a way to recruit needed members. Work on the games began in earnest around 9:30 p.m. Friday as teams set up their work areas and unpacked their towers, monitors, and virtual-reality gear. Even as a bystander, I could feel the excitement and creative buzz all around. These people were there to do some work.
Andrew Herbst, one of the creators of Circuit Breakers, explained that this first step was a big challenge. He and teammates Nicholas Pumper, Lane Branwall, Stefen Menzel, and Bryan Schumann came up with several ideas that just weren’t working; they “just didn’t have that something that makes it all gel.” Finally, Herbst stopped for a break, took a long walk, and came up with the idea of a scrolling game that featured Tesla and Edison in a classic arcade-style battle. After that brainstorm, the rest of the weekend became an effort to make that idea work the best way the group could. When asked what the hardest part of the weekend was, Herbst said, “Taking that nap and then having to get up . . . but then you think you just have to get up and go make that game—that’s exciting!”
Another team’s effort, Echoes of Kai Anders, isn’t so much a traditional video game as a visual novel that plays out something like a classic choose-your-own-adventure story. Players assume the role of an investigator with an “empathy enhancement chip” that allows them to read the brain waves of people they encounter. The project took full advantage of the “neon noir” option suggested by the jam organizers and built a world that echoes Blade Runner and other ’80s cyberpunk classics. Producer Stephen McGregor enjoyed the challenge because he had never worked on such a narrative project before. “I didn’t realize how much dialogue we had to write,” he said. “The writer is very busy.” He added that with a team of seven designers—Adia Alderson, Sara Ferret, Beth Korth, Charlie Mackin, Troy Strand, and Abdiwak Yohannes—most of whom had never met each other before, he the biggest challenge for them was keeping all the assets organized and all their efforts coordinated.
Several teams took the theme of waves as the watery kind. Wave Jumpers offers surfing adventure. Fish Team VR lets players use virtual-reality gear to defend fish from approaching sharks. Neo Noburu combines an anime-cyberpunk aesthetic with an environmental theme. In this last game, players must scale buildings, power lines, and roofs to escape rising ocean tides in an effort to see what is at the top of stratified city. Kelsey Maher, one of the artists on the five-person team (which also included Ryan Biggs, Krista McCullough, Marcie LaCerte, and Bree Lindsoe), explained that their biggest problem was scaling back the massive amounts of art and backstory they created in the brainstorming and generative phases of the weekend for the actual creation part. Learning to pare down their ideas into something they could accomplish within 48 hours was the challenge. “I’ve had my nose to the grindstone so much that I haven’t been able to go out and look around as much as I wanted, so if I do this next year I want to make something a little more simple,” Maher said.
Gamecraft is managed by GLITCH, a local organization that offers many resources for the development of digital games and interactive storytelling. While Gamecraft is a single annual event, GLITCH offers year-round workshops, meetups, and online forums to support the digital gaming community. The organization is always looking for new members and welcomes anyone with an interest, regardless of skill level or experience.