The third annual London Games Festival has officially kicked off in the capital, with many events going on to get developers, businesses, artists and just people who love games to get involved, whether that’s indie game show Rezzed, the Games Finance Market for start-ups, investors and publishers to get together, a huge cosplay parade to celebrate everyone’s favourite games characters or the prestigious BAFTA Game Awards at the end of the week to celebrate the best games of the year. It’s interesting then that the event that begins the week is also perhaps the most left-field of what you might expect from a festival celebrating games.
Now Play This is a three-day festival of experimental game design, and isn’t your typical games show. Located in the New Wing of the classy Somerset House, it’s more akin to an art exhibition, consisting of over 30 different games placed into different themed rooms, most of them meant to be experienced in little more than a few minutes. Of course, instead of just looking at it and pondering over how the signs describe each exhibit, you can interact with each game, which will differ from a typical gamer’s experience. Because while there is the odd exhibit using a gamepad, there’s also a mixture of physical and digital games that are made to be accessible to a general casual audience who may have no grasp of gaming language and find the mere sight of a joystick intimidating.
Of course, unlike other art exhibits, many of these games are also already available on indie site itchi.io for dirt cheap or free, so you might wonder what the big deal is of going out of your way to visit. Well, apart from getting a different context, some experiences are greatly enhanced with some clever DIY customised controllers. One interesting game I tried was essentially a kind of 2-player Warioware where you have to figure out the controls and goal of a given game that pops up, and an attempt to simplify the controls comes by having the superfluous buttons, sticks and triggers of the Xbox controller literally taken out.
One commercial game at the festival is PANORAMICAL is essentially an interactive music visualiser but here given a cavernous room where its psychedelic imagery is projected onto a large screen while guests can crash out on beanbags and just soak up the sensory overload. But the masterstroke here is that this version has been fitted with a controller where you just need to fiddle with knobs to morph the sound and landscape.
Yes, this may not be necessarily the kind of place where someone looking for a twitch-based challenge will be drawn to (though getting a high score in Lost Wage Rampage is no mean feat) but rather it uses the medium in a playful way to interrogate either the process of making games or to indeed explore other serious subjects.
The Non-Fiction room is a particularly interesting one to visit, where the festival-commissioned game The Loss Levels is situated. Created by Dan Hett, this series of micro-games, housed in a DIY arcade cabinet (which I sadly forgot to take pictures of as I got caught up chatting with Aoife Wilson who was also filming a piece about it at the same time), was made as a way to convey his own emotional experiences dealing with the loss of his brother Martin, who was tragically killed in the Manchester Arena terrorist attack last year. It’s not the kind of subject matter you’d think suitable for a very arcadey experience with bright 8-bit graphics, and yet over the course of just a few minutes, it succinctly captures those painful feelings in interactive vignettes, from the flurry of panic upon first hearing about the attack and rushing to find out news, to coping with grief where friends want to rush you in comfort but you instinctively want to avoid contact (or at least that’s how I played that section).
I had a chance to talk to Hett about the game as well, which he said had also initially been met with bemusement. Nonetheless, as a programmer and digital artist, he is merely using the tools that he knows to channel his own emotions like any other artist. “If a painter had a traumatic experience, you’d expect them to pick up their brush and try to express that through their work. With games, it’s really no different,” he says.
Lost Wage Rampage also deals with a serious ongoing issue, the gender pay gap, though in more cathartic amusing ways. Learning that their male co-workers have been getting paid more, the two female store workers of this game go on a Thelma and Louise GTA-style rampage of the shop floor, as you smash into objects racking up your lost wages, all with a satisfying ka-ching sound, engine vroom and a Riot Grrrl soundtrack that makes you think of Crazy Taxi. It’s not subtle but it’s also not a po-faced piece either which can happen when some games want to deal with serious themes.
The same could be said about Yara El-Sherbini’s room-sized installation, Roadmap for Peace, essentially a large Scalextric track that’s apparently modelled on a real road in Israel, showing how Israeli and Palestinians are in parallel but also forced to go on different routes. You’re however not forced to consider this too deeply and can simply enjoy racing two cars around the track.
Ultimately, these are short playful experiences that visitors can hopefully take something away from in the space of an hour (though likeminded experimental creators can also opt to buy an unlimited pass to hang out all weekend and make use of the spaces to network and jam over ideas), and offers just a small slice of the weird and wonderful things going on in games that you’d not likely come across at another louder game convention or digital storefront.
Now Play This is open from Friday 6th to Sunday 8th April at Somerset House, London. For tickets and available session times, go to the Somerset House website.