Freeplay: Parallels

Parallels 2015, Freeplay’s showcase of ten new games at ACMI last night, has got me thinking a lot about the logic, the architecture and the design of games, as well as the culture of independent game development in Australia.

Games like Knuckle Sandwich by Andrew Brophy, and Project Ven by Joe Liu, Ngoc Vu, and Kevin Chen, were presented by clever makers with ideas in abundance, leaving us with the palpable sense that this was one medium among many for those ideas, albeit a highly generative one. Also shown were games in development such as the untitled project between mother-daughter team Lizzie and Marigold Bartlett, adapting narratives from the first-person histories of former prisoners of war; the student project Paperbark, creating an Australian bush landscape with unique fades and textures; and the awesome Vertex Meadow by Ian MacLarty, a development-process-as-game that allows you to create complex 3D landscapes using a highly intuitive set of tools.

As each maker presented their work, we found seminal notions of game development and gameplay discussed – either obliquely, or deeply enriched by the context of the work, making this evening showcase very Freeplay indeed. Do all games need a narrative component? A goal orientation? What is the role of personal agency and decision-making? How does this relate to our experiences in real life? In many ways, games are designed to arouse and satisfy our curiosity, our sense of delight. Encounters with the unexpected as something deliberately chosen are the paradox of the game – and yet, once invested in their world, curiosity and surprise are genuine. This is the essence of play: a commitment for holding fast to that sense of wonder that connects visual, aural and spatial experience into kinaesthetic joy… with all the adventures, missteps, frustrations and triumphs that create those moments. The final project, Broken Sounds, wowed us with its abstractness: a light-emitting device that doubles as a microphone encourages the user to move in natural, erratic or highly stylised ways, with each new gesture emitting new sound.

It’s the very first game, however, that continues to grip my attention. Andrew Trevillian showed one of the works in his Polymodal Arcade series which was as much about language or complex system visualisation as it was about goal-oriented interactivity. A new approach to musical notation which inspires system-bound play, the game was visually stunning and graphically compelling, feeding the desire to understand music more deeply. For me it evoked the seminal work of Belgian trio LAb[au] and their 2002 project which exploited the motion tracking technology of that period to create a 3D scape for composing music by gesturing towards a series of projected objects. Their statement Aesthetics of Perception offers a philosophical grounding for this approach, linking back to the very impressive introduction that Trevillian had offered, spanning kinaesthesia and ideaesthesia (what a delicious concept) with the sets of sensations evoked by the precision of his own work.

Given the reinvigorated focus on the arts in Victoria around the development of the state’s first Creative Industries Strategy, the public conversation about creative practice and creative works has broadened to its most exciting scale in a generation. Finally, it’s not just makers and players but also policy makers and political players who are thinking deeply and rigorously about constitutes creative practice, what powers that work into an industry, and how best to stimulate and sustain that industry. Led by Dan Golding, the Freeplay team is a kickarse community of creatives and connectors who are more than ready for this challenge.

The next day, as I Skype with my sister and her daughter on the other side of the world, little Chloe delights in showing me the world she’d made using the Minecraft Halloween texture pack, waving the phone camera in front of the tv screen as she shows me how her Slendermen move through the space, the dancing flower she’s made, and the “really cool egg” she’s won. She talks in animated detail about how she’s crafted her favourite textures, and then when she tries to show me a house that she’d just made the other day, she realises that the world had become so big she can’t remember where it was… and so I experience – at some degrees of mediated, pixelated and buffered remove – the sensation of being lost in a constructed landscape. She’s still looking for it.

 

IMAGE: Dan Golding gets Freeplay’s Parallels going in ACMI 2 on Saturday 24 October 2015. Photo by Esther Anatolitis.