48 Hours of Fun
by Ohi Ahimie
I sat at my laptop with an uneasy excitement about the next two days. The task ahead of me seemed equal parts daunting and exhilarating, and yet I felt ready. I had assembled a weekend’s worth of snacks, felt my creative juices flowing, and my code editor was open. I was ready to take on the Edmonton section of the Global Game Jam.
A game jam is an event where participants get together and have a short time to make a video game. Ahead of time, the jam organizers secretly pick a theme for the games to follow, and this is announced at the opening ceremony. From then, it’s off to the races.
The opening ceremony began. We were greeted by friendly organizers urging us to have a good time, and then we watched a surprisingly high production value video. You will notice that this was an arm of the Global Game Jam, but game jams don’t have to be these huge, international affairs. If you’ve got some interested friends and a weekend, you’ve got a game jam. The theme for this year’s jam was “Lost and Found”. There were also plenty of subthemes and diversifiers. I was particularly intrigued by the one about “fake news”.
It was time to brainstorm. I came up with a few ideas, each one building on top of each other, until I was satisfied. As interested as I am in making games, there aren’t many times where I get to attempt game design. I thought about goals I could give a player, and the emotions I wanted pursuing those goals to generate. I wanted them to feel lost and like they were scrambling to get things done, so I decided to make them an administrator of a rapidly growing social media site. Let me explain.
Imagine the blue dot is a user on a social media site. The orange dot is one of Blue’s friends, and the green dot is one of Orange’s friends. What if Green was a troublemaker like a hacker or fake news spreader? You don’t want these people on your site, so you have to get over to Green and ban them. But right now, you’re looking at Blue’s profile, so to get there, you have to “hop” to Orange and then again over to Green. Pretty simple right?
Maybe so, but with time, people’s friendships change, and new users are going to show up (and that means more troublemakers too!). Pretty soon, you’re going to be managing a mess and wondering how you’re going to get around.
I would love it if a player said, “Hang on, I used to know my way around here,” or yelled “Oh come on!” if a crucial connection changed just as they reached it.
The best part about this idea is the simplicity of it. Probably the most important thing in a game jam (aside from having fun) is managing the scope of your game. You don’t have the time to tell an epic story or create the world’s prettiest graphics. What you can do is come up with a simple, but very good idea, and explore it as best you can.
Working in teams
I looked up excitedly, ready to share my cool idea with someone, and realized that the Discord server had gone quiet within minutes of the opening ceremony’s conclusion. The organizers had offered to make channels for each of the teams, but no one took them up on it.
This was my second jam ever, and the last one was also held amid the Covid-19 pandemic. At least in the first one, I had been part of a team where we spent the first couple hours brainstorming together. Team ideation was show and tell. It meant excitedly relaying your ideas to people and hearing their interesting takes. It was a good way to get early criticism and modify your plan to be more doable in the allotted time. It was combining different ideas into bigger, cooler ones. It was also getting off topic and having a good chat with people you had never met before.
I remembered the organizers expressing the hope that we could do these in person again someday, and I found myself wishing with them. I realized that this feeling was partially my fault, as I chose to go solo this time, but even then, I wondered about in-person events. I’ve been interested in game jams for years, and to me they have this mythical “sit down and talk about each other’s games over pizza” vibe I’ve been dying to experience. Oh well.
Why am I going it alone?
Lately, I’ve been working on a game engine, which is a set of tools and software for making games, kind of like the game’s skeleton. Doing this is only slightly less crazy than inventing a new language because you want to write a book. Slightly. But hey, it’s fun and I learn a lot doing it. I thought the jam would be a great time to push my engine and see what it could do. Not being in a group this time meant more work, but this was my baby. I would have to rely on free sources for art and sound, but I could focus on what I was good at: coding. So, I got to work that night starting to build the base of the game. A few hours and interruptions later (I should have cleared my schedule better) I called it a night.
Creating my game
I woke up on Saturday and got back to work. A little after I had finished the foundation for the game, I saw someone had said they got their base mechanics down yesterday. My face fell for a second, and I started working faster. I did a lot of work consistently that day – taking breaks, of course. Hours felt like minutes. I must have gotten into what psychologists call a flow state several times, and for hours.
Programming is working on a series of short problems that make up a bigger problem. It felt like I was solving puzzle after puzzle, and it made me feel clever and like I was covering lots of ground, making lots of progress. There is this archetype of “the obsessed artist”, and this is the closest I’ve ever felt to it. Little else existed, and it’s a good feeling. I think that’s part of the appeal of jams. I’m a procrastinator lots of times and a perfectionist others, so a hard and close deadline like this is great for both halves. You must be done at 5 PM on Sunday, so you’re going to get the dopamine from hitting lots of little milestones in that time. Hopefully.
I wanted the players to feel lost, but not that lost!
This is where it becomes a tragedy. I described programming as solving lots of puzzles. Another way to see it is as a Matryoshka doll of problems. Without getting into details, trying to do things with a series of connected points is a lot more involved than you would think. There is an entire mathematical/computer science discipline devoted to it! Making the game was like fighting a hydra; cut off one head and two more take its place. I look back at my thoughts and mental images of what the game would be like, and I laugh. It looks so clean and tidy, but how was everything going to be managed? Magic? There were small, but important, details I hadn’t thought of as well as the standard blindsiding you grow to expect working on anything creative. Take a look at this image:
It’s a mess! I wanted the players to feel lost, but not that lost! I said that my game’s scope was well managed for my ability and time, and I stand by that – if I used a real engine. Alas, I entered a house building competition where I would first have to invent my own power tools. Things weren’t looking good in the wee hours of Sunday morning, and I officially threw in the towel at 2 PM.
But I regret nothing! In life, sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn. And I learned a lot this weekend. I wrote some nice code that will be useful again in the future and I got a taste for working with my engine. And making the progress I did was fun; I just don’t have a game to show for it.
Some notable games at the Global Game Jam 2021
But, what’s a game jam without games? Some notable ones to me were:
Laika, a game about rescuing the famous dog from orbit
The hilarious Socks and Found. A shoot-em-up, but with socks.
It’s a bit of a bummer that I didn’t finish my game, but my fellow jammers encouraged me, saying that the important part was that I tried to make something.
It reminds me of a saying I heard, where shooting a target isn’t about hitting the bullseye, but rather that you took aim in the first place.
Global Game Jam 2021
January 27 – 31, 2021
website: Global Game Jam Online | 27 – 31 January 2021