My first hand experience with Global Game Jam 2012, or #ggj12 as the twitter users amongst you know it, is pretty lite – boarding on non-existent – until today. I discovered earlier in the week that the university where I studied my undergraduate degree were taking part, and out of two parts nostalgia and two parts curiosity I popped in to see what was going on.
For those of you who weren’t already aware, Global Game Jam (GGJ) is essentially a big get together where students, hobbyists and industry professionals all around the world take part to make games based around a theme, which is a closely guarded secret until a few hours preceding the event. The teams then set themselves up for a whirlwind 48 ours of programming, rigging, modeling etc with the goal of presenting a finished game at the end. Heaven knows how many taurine saturated souls will still be living after this sleep deprived weekend, but the prospect of potentially thousands of new games being produced is one that I, among many others, get very excited about.
Sadly I didn’t have the foresight and the inclination to put a team together this year, but it’s certainly something I’ll look to do in the future. The thing that really piqued my interest with GGJ 2012 is the theme the entrants are working towards – Ouroborus (or the circle of life). To put it more plainly though, what entrants were shown was this.
The image is actually taken from Wikipedia, where the page details of what it means, something I know the majority of entrants were pleased for. My initial reactions were of joy when I saw the picture of the snake eating it’s own tail; the cyclic process of life and death creating a concentric circle, something destined to repeat ad infinitum. If you hadn’t already guessed, the concept of Ouroborus is something I’ve always appreciated and in a game’s design context it screams potential in a ludic or narrative capacity.
One of the things I liked most about Infinity Blade on iOS was it’s cyclic method of progression. You’re very unlikely to complete it in the first run through, ergo you will die and have to restart. Fear not! This doesn’t mean that you’ve failed, merely that in your re-birth you must try again. There is some vaguely Jungian concept around collective or shared experiences, that in your rebirth you retain the experience (and equipment) of your former self, ready to take up the challenge again. Now obviously, the real challenge here is to complete in with the fewest deaths possible, demonstrating your superior blade-work, but the emphasis on embracing rebirth rather than penalising death is a compelling instance of this ouroboric concept in practice.
The most obvious example of this kind of ouroborus in contemporary popular-culture is Groundhog Day. Whilst this isn’t a game it does show a type of trial and error, which has a certainly “gamic” quality about it. Very few games embrace the idea of a cyclic gameplay system in a narrative fashion – the above example of Infinity Blade is one of the few I can think of. The truth of the matter is that within the very DNA of gaming is the assertion that you’re going to fail an need to restart. Beginning in arcades death meant pumping more money into it the yesteryear equivalent of the “micro-transaction”. Very few games are willing to make a narrative in which this idea of repetition of death and rebirth is anything more than facile attempt at grounding “respawning” in the internal logic. I hoping GGJ might throw up some examples that make a feature out of this, rather than the usual brushing under the rug.
Of course this interpretation of “the tree of life” is only but one way they can go with it, with the thousands of participants worldwide current taking part, we’re going to see examples that no one would have initially expected. As the GGJ takes place in 48 hours we’re unlikely to find many titles exhibiting the level of polish, which Infinity Blade waved in our faces, but the whole process is about cultivating unique and innovative ideas, potential mechanics, which can be taken away and built upon. I’ve watched too many projects start and never go anywhere (I’m guilty of this too!), but the emphasis is finishing what you started – just get out there and do it.
When GGJ 2012 is over, head on to the University Campus Suffolk GGJ node and see what their students have been busy working on!
Chris Green is a narrative designer/games writer who loves to talk story. Having recently finished working with Bossa Studios on Monstermind, the first PvP Facebook RTS and worked as narrative designer on some indie projects, he’s always looking for that next, great project. Get in contact if you’re the one with that project!