Gaming

WordPlay in Toronto


So last week  Jim Munroe, the comics writer of Therefore Repent!, novelist, and the co-producer of the controversial Pipe Trouble game, invited me to the first-ever Toronto WordPlay Festival of Writerly Games on November the 16th. The WordPlay Festival is an event that the video game arts Hand Eye Society, of which Jim Munroe is also the executive director, in cooperation with the Toronto Public Library and with support from the Toronto Arts Council, celebrates and examines “the use of words and writing in contemporary games.”

This is not the first time that the Toronto Public Library has cooperated with either Hand Eye or the Torontonian video game scene. Not only did Jim Munroe create an interactive alternate reality game in the Library back in March of this year (in which you are part of the Literary Resistance attempting to prevent the book-burning culture from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 from ever happening) but last year the North York Central Library hosted both a Gaming Journalism Workshop for Gamercamp and a Writing for Videogames Workshop by Kan Gao: the creator of the beautiful independent Adventure RPG game To the Moon.

In fact the introduction to the Festival in the Atrium was made by Ab Velasco, a Communications Officer for the Toronto Public Library who, among things, helps facilitate special events at the Library including the Toronto Comics Arts Festival, and workshops such as Kan Gao’s and Gamercamp’s (where I first saw him). In fact, he mentioned that there is even an initiative in the Toronto Public Library system to make game-making technology free and available to library patrons as well providing eventual access to a 3D printer. This is pretty amazing news and you can tell that Ab Veslasco is having a major hand in these developments.

The Festival took place at the Toronto Reference Library and it was divided into two segments. There was a panel and a discussion that took place in the Atrium, while the WordPlay Showcase opened up its terminals with over-twenty text and story-based games to the public in Learning Centre I.

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The panel was called “Where Prose Meets Play.” It was moderated by Jim Munroe, and its other panelists were composed of freelancing conceptual artist and illustrator Rachel Kahn, game designer and animator Matt Hammill, Canadian writer, computer programmer and creator of Dinosaur Comics Ryan North, and Canadian science-fiction writer Peter Watts. Essentially, the entire first Panel looked at a wide-range of topics including the differences between storytelling for prose, comics, and writing for video games. It was some really interesting stuff: from Peter Watts stating that he had to write some very obvious descriptive passages for games that wouldn’t have worked in prose, to Rachel Kahn talking about how architecture and environment can tell a story. What I really found interesting was the discussion that examined the line between allowing a player too much freedom or giving the player too much structure and how it would be utterly fascinating to make a game, be it electronic or in book form, that allowed a player to choose the ending to their story.

WordPlay Panel

After a half-an-hour intermission there was a discussion with the Chicago-based group Cardboard Computer who created the magical realist point-and-click game Kentucky Route Zero. It was basically an interview facilitated by Miguel Sternberg, the founder of Spooky Squid Games and the creator of They Bleed Pixels, with Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt.

WordPlay Discussion

Unfortunately, I was not able to fully get into the discussion due to two factors. First of all, I had never heard of, nor played the game though there were some interesting thoughts that the creators were spinning around such as making a game about a character whose choices are limited by debt (a fact of life that many of us are all too familiar with nowadays), and a game level that takes place in a museum or archive filled with old video games. Unfortunately, it is entirely possible that I am combining two different ideas mentioned in this discussion into one.

The other reason I had difficulty getting into the Kentucky Route Zero Discussion is due to the fact that the acoustics in the Atrium, even with microphones, were not that effective and announcements from the Library would drown out the speakers at key points. This also affected my following of the panel before it, and it is my only complaint about the Festival’s arrangement.

But since then I have done a little bit of research on Kentucky Route Zero. It is a game in five acts that, according to the WordPlay Festival bookmark, has literary influences from a writer named Flannery O’Connor. Once I looked up who this writer actually was, I saw that she utilized what is called the Southern Gothic Style: writing that relies a lot on heavy regional influences and grotesque characters. The game itself is apparently about a mysterious highway underneath the caves of Kentucky and the strange people that travel it.

I want to make a point of mentioning that not only did WordPlay occur one day after the release of the PlayStation 4, but it also featured a premier of its own. Off to the side of the audience were two desks with half-empty glasses and brick sandwiches (yes, you read and saw that right, they were actually brick sandwiches) and two Oculus Rift headsets lent to the event by the Toronto independent game designer and community work space Bento Miso.

WordPlay Brick Sandwich

Now, I’d heard of this next stage in virtual reality gaming but I didn’t really think much of it. I mean, I’d heard that these systems can cause dizziness and nausea, and I still have memories of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy and so many other virtual reality promises and hopes throughout the years that eventually rendered me to the point of apathy.  But I knew that since I was covering this event, I felt compelled to try it out. I didn’t actually get to checking out the Oculus Rift until much later. In fact, I only came to them as the Festival ended and the Reference Library was closing for the night. I thought I was too late.

However, a very helpful volunteer or Cardboard Computer staff member got me an Oculus Rift and I got to play, for a while, a Kentucky Route Zero intermission level or chapter entitled “The Entertainment.” It was strange because by the time I got to it the table and items on it, including the brick sandwich, were being packed up and I had nothing to touch, but I was … impressed. Unlike the rest of Kentucky Route Zero with its pixilated 2D graphics and third-person perspective, this was first-person and it was pretty cool. Cardboard Computer made  a three-dimensional room which, like its original game looked like it was made from angles of paper or “cardboard,” but it also attempted to play with light and shadow and the distance of sound when you move your head. But I think what I found the most intriguing is the fact that there are dialogue boxes containing narration that give you physical cues as to when you should look up and listen in on a conversation. It is like being able to explore but there is also a story that subtly acts like a script when “your part” comes up. That line between free choice and structure is a theme that comes up again as it gets explored and played on in this game. I just want to add that playing an Oculus Rift for the first time with a Wii remote was an interesting experience for me as well.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I got to check out the WordPlay Showcase with that whole collection of story-based games featured on each terminal in Learning Centre I. During the Discussion with Cardboard Computer I ran into Ian Daffern again, a fellow writer and creator whom I actually collaborated with in  the 2013 Toronto Global Game Jam–my first–and he told me that he created a Twine game called TRUNKED.

Now, I have really wanted to talk about Twine on G33kPr0n for a very long time and I always take time to mention them elsewhere. Twine is software that allows writers that may not necessarily have much programming knowledge, to make interactive text-based games or stories. So I only managed to play his excellent game twice (where I died once and then actually realized that my gut instinct about a certain item could help me) before the next and final part of the Festival began.

I am referring to Christine Love’s Hands-on Workshop: Make Interactive Fiction Workshop.

For me, this was the highlight of the WordPlay Festival. In addition to the fact that Christine Love is the creator of many intensely story-based games such as Digital: A Love Story, Analogue: A Hate Story, and Hate Plus that I truly respect and adore, I was also getting the excuse to use Twine for myself and make something. After Christine Love took about fifteen minutes to run through the basics with us, she then gave us five minutes to come up with an idea, and gave us the rest of the hour before closing time to implement it. I managed to make a template to follow for what will hopefully be a series of future Twine stories to come.

WordPlay Workshop

You can even see me in this photo if you look closely. I’m asking someone for help.

But just as there is a fine line between freedom of choice and plot for a player to navigate there, this article has also been a fine line between coverage of an important event and my own personal experience.

Anna Anthropy in her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters talks about the importance of developing game-creation software and technology that is available and easy public use. She has often advocated and created many games using Twine software. It is an idea that can go beyond, or change video game industry culture and allow people who ordinarily don’t have voices in video games to express themselves and let people interact from their perspectives. It is something can change games as a medium and also the very nature of what they are. For me personally, I always felt sad because I always felt limited in what I could with games due to a lack of visual artistic ability and programming knowledge.

But what Twine allows me to do is use my own skill with words to make the games I always wanted. And having an interactive teacher, as opposed to some tutorial videos, gave me some of the basic keys to the kingdom of making interactive worlds and that, for me, is golden.

Finally I just want to also ask you, the readers of G33kPr0n, to  please check out all the hyperlinks provided above, look at the rest of Hand Eye’s Fest Pics and Showcase Links and even consider making some Twine stories of your own. If I can do it, so can you. I learned a lot from this event and I can best summarize that feeling in the title of my own very short Twine game.

Level Up

Photo Credits: Stephen Reese