The past decade has seen the curious rise of what have become known as ‘game jams’. You can probably guess what a game jam entails (unless a chunky fruit spread was the first thing that came to mind): the term ‘jamming’ is borrowed from musicians’ impromptu free-for-all practice sessions. Rather than garage dwellers noodling away on guitars, however, picture game developers armed with MacBooks and Xbox controllers, putting together improvised code for bite-sized videogame projects.
Game jams are usually based on a set theme, and often force developers to produce work within a very short period of time (typically 48 hours). Many developers find that working to such strict constraints encourages creativity and new approaches to game design, and numerous organised game jam events are now held each year, both in physical locations and online. Leading the charge is the Global Game Jam; at its seventh annual event in January this year over five thousand games were produced across nearly 80 countries.
Once typically held, garage-band style, amongst groups of friends or within small development studios looking to generate new prototype ideas, game jams have gone mainstream – and as in the music world, some of the best garage jammers have risen to prominence and even fame. In the past couple of years, the popularisation of jamming has turned fun weekends prototyping offbeat game ideas into a legitimate way of crafting finished games that go on to achieve retail release and financial success.
Successful jam-conceived games include the amusing but affecting game Papers, Please, which juxtaposes human struggles with the mechanical procedures of a dystopian country’s totalitarian immigration process, and the Melbourne-made, super-polished multiplayer cult hit Screencheat.
It’s pretty remarkable that, in a world full of by-the-book Assassin’s Creeds and Battlefields, games like Screencheat and Papers, Please have managed to hook such a wide audience (especially as the latter explores themes that many established big-name game publishers wouldn’t touch). On the other hand, some fairly silly game jam projects have also been transformed into retail products – Surgeon Simulator 2013 uses an obtuse control system to put the player in the shoes of a surgeon, performing complex procedures such as heart transplants with hilarious/horrifying results. And then there’s Goat Simulator, which sees players inhabit goat avatars with the express goal of venturing into the open world to wreak as much havoc as possible (primarily by punting stuff around).
The retail releases of both these games embrace the bugs and glitches found in their original game jam prototypes, encouraging a specific brand of entertainment that makes them highly popular with YouTubers. There’s no doubt that a formula is emerging for such success – pick a lovably random theme, build a glitchy game around it, and reap the reward of having numerous Let’s Play videos explore your oh-so-ridiculous project, thereby doing your marketing for you.
Both games have sold extremely well. Surgeon Simulator’s developer, Bossa Studios, shamelessly followed the same formula for its next game I Am Bread, which has the user play the role of a slice of bread that flails awkwardly about a kitchen in its objective to ‘get toasted’. Unsurprisingly, its wacky concept earned it instant internet popularity. Goat Simulator’s developer Coffee Stain Studios, meanwhile, seems to have abandoned its excellent Sanctum series to focus on delivering further updates for goat physics.
Unfortunately, game jammers have hit upon a formula that undoubtedly works – and it’s likely the quality of independent games will continue to plunge in favour of even more YouTube-ready silliness.
It’s worth mentioning that Bossa’s current, ambitious work-in-progress Worlds Adrift (which looks just as thoughtful and dreamy as you might expect from its name) is a welcome break from its recent output of comedic games with awkward controls and absurd subject matter – though sadly its announcement did not garner nearly as much attention from gamers as its previous two titles.
It grows difficult to hold videogames up as a sophisticated creative medium, when juvenile ideas are popping up on gaming storefronts every day. In a world where YouTube gameplay videos narrated by hollering amateurs hold as much clout – if not more – than professional game critics, I worry that developers may be swayed to choose an easier, less imaginative, and more vacuous path to success.
Game jams, once the territory of independent coders working from their bedrooms, have demonstrated that they have the potential to produce commercially successful products. Let’s not forget that out of this same ground can grow more innovative and original concepts as well. Let’s not forget the brilliant, moving experiences videogames can offer. There’s a place in this world for games about baguettes flapping haplessly across countertops, but I eagerly await the next Papers, Please – something that leaves you a little empty after playing it, but for all the right reasons.