The Cyberpunk Seance: My Transmission from Global Game Jam 2018

Hello? Are you there?

The NYU Game Center, an 8th-floor haven just over the bridge into Brooklyn, evokes an old-school mall arcade crossed with a Silicon Valley tech startup, seasoned with a dash of the requisite solemnity native to academia. Entering through big glass doors plastered with Game Center decals, you can walk past the flashing KILLER QUEEN arcade cabinets to take in a sprawling city view. Below, the world eagerly awaits the addictive magic swirling inside this modern ivory tower.

Participating in the 2018 Global Game Jam was my idea. Patrick and I had leaped into the board game space with DemocraSea two years ago, and I’d been intensively playing and studying video games as research for my novel, NEW GAME PLUS, for what seemed like forever. I figured the best way to learn how to make a video game was to just try and do it.

I was nervous, and I could tell my teammates were too. There was Marco, the stylish Italian mad scientist with a flair for the thrilling (he’d gone for a weekend of indoor skydiving the weekend before #ggj18); Jeff, the web developer and hardcore gamer who’d worked up spreadsheets with crop yield projections for his farm in Stardew Valley; Ravi, the international go-getter and programming genius who brought us back a beer from Oktoberfest in Munich; and my partner Patrick, who, when we were dating, explained his personal history to me as a real-life CCG.

The five of us had loosely agreed to work together for the weekend, and we’d spent weeks anticipating the reveal of the #ggj18 theme. That moment was now finally upon us. Among us, we had an HTC Vive, a Microsoft HoloLens, a midi keyboard, two PhDs with experience in AR/VR, and a creative writing MFA. A man stepped up to the mic, and the crowd fell quiet. The theme?

“Transmission.”

There’s some static in the connection. Some interference. I’m sorry about that. If we can, we’ll try to fix it.

As we sat listening to the various speeches and pre-recorded video keynote addresses, we happily ran into Jenny Goldstick, whose gorgeous nonlinear narrative game THIS IS MY MEMORY OF FIRST HEARTBREAK, WHICH I CAN’T QUITE PIECE BACK TOGETHER Patrick and I had played and admired when we were at IndieCade in 2016. Jenny was joined by Owen Roberts, who had experience in Unity, game design, writing, and music/SFX. Since we lacked team members who could deal with art and music, we pitched them on working with us, and they agreed.

I was excited to work with Jenny. Going in, I’d been concerned that there were no other women on the team, and everyone except me had a tech background. What a gift to find someone whose first question about the game we’d make was, “What’s the story going to be?”

But if you’re there, we’re listening. We’re always listening. Presence, if you’re there, say hello.

Nabbing a fishbowl-style classroom down the hall past the Game Center kitchen, we took over the whiteboards, spending two hours in thematic brainstorming. We examined the nature of the word “transmission,” discussing how we could connect it with the loose cluster of mechanics and game ideas we’d jotted down earlier in the week. By the end of that time, we had agreed to use the HTC Vive and the IBM Watson Conversation service. Our players would speak with an AI voice inside of a VR space.

The idea was to construct a narrative-driven experience wherein you’re making contact with a mysterious spirit voice. As the game progresses, the truth unfolds: it is you who are the spirit. The voice you’re hearing is the medium, reaching out through space and time to contact you in the afterlife.

We named our team The Ghostbusters.

Can you find anything there with you that you can use to tune in?

The second day of the jam was pleasingly punishing: a nonstop creative workday that lasted from 9:30AM to midnight. The engineers dove in to Unity scripts, Speech-to-Text, and building the Watson Conversation backend. I worked with Jenny and Owen to solidify the game’s narrative and design, and to outline the three puzzles we wanted users to complete inside the VR room. The Brooklyn AirBnB where we’d slept had been hot and loud, and I felt exhausted by noon. But I found myself tuning in to a powerful intellectual endurance.

A couple of years ago, Patrick and I participated in another crazy weekend event: the Palmetto 200, a running relay that lasts for two full days and comprises 200 miles covered by a team of 8–10 runners. Unlike a game jam, a weekend athletic event like Palmetto requires 4–6 months of dedicated training. But both experiences put me into a similar altered state: that dreamy place you reach when you continue doing something you are utterly tired of.

After about four hours of intense thinking, I usually feel like I’m moving in mental mud. But during #ggj18, I found myself innovating workarounds. Running is mental: you have to look inside your psyche to find a way to keep moving forward despite experiencing boredom and physical pain. Conversely, I found pushing through this massive creative task to be almost physical. When your psyche is what’s strained, you have to look elsewhere for endurance, and I found myself turning to the real. The mundane. When I couldn’t look at the Conversation dialog I was writing on Ravi’s laptop screen any longer, I’d transfer it longhand onto paper, listing out one node at a time. Feeling my hand moving to form the letters, I was able to reapproach the problem using what my body knows about language, carving out a narrow creative path leading me somehow forward.

I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve been trying to make contact with you for a long time. But the connection wasn’t strong enough. Not until now. But Ifinally know enough to manifest this conduit in a way that you can understand. In a way that makes sense to you, and also us. This is exciting. Anything could happen.

The first night of the jam, Patrick and I went to bed invigorated by the game idea we had, and by the excitement of the group working all together. We had a team of heavy hitters. Each member of our team contributed interesting ideas. We had stand-ups in the hallways. We were courteous, listening to our teammates and efficiently discussed both big design ideas, and workflow revisions. At no point in the weekend did a discussion devolve into bickering. No one considered bailing. Food was acquired and delivered efficiently, and with kindness and grace. If I were ever to launch a startup, I thought as I was falling asleep, I’d do it with these six people.

But we don’t have long. Hurry. I need to make sure it’s working. I need to know if everything is safe. Presence, tell me what you’re seeing.

Eventually, the jam dragged on into the Saturday afternoon doldrums. Soon I hoped to see the beginnings of an experimental video game coming together. Jeff, Marco, and Patrick were hard at work on…well…everything. Jenny and I had resolved the structure of the game into something much clearer, and were narrowing in on the nature of the final puzzle. We’d recorded our voices repeating strange, ethereal messages. Any minute now, there’d be a prototype ready for for us to start testing.

Close to midnight, as we were discussing the addition of one final mechanic in a darkened classroom in the back of the Game Center, I started to see that things were not going well. Experienced game jammers reading this will already know the problem: we’d scoped a game too large to finish in a single weekend. We had an overage of creativity, competence, expertise, and innovative technology, and we had committed a cardinal sin of game jamming, because of course we did: not winnowing.

The game jam situation is built to be masocore. Now that I’ve done it once, I can see how difficult it truly is to coordinate coding, graphics, story, music, and SFX into a cohesive piece of fun media in only two days. But I’d known going in that this was hard. What got me in the end was my own personal sin, an error that’s followed me through my life, like a malevolent spirit:

Trying too hard.

Wait, what are you doing? Please. Don’t destroy this. I just wanted to play.

I understand this now only too well: we should have just made the first fun thing that came to mind for us. One mechanic. A sixty second game would have been enough.

By Sunday at noon, I’d rewritten the entire story of the game three times. The final version was my best one yet: finding yourself in this strange virtual space, you discover you’ve been contacted by an artificially intelligent medium from the digital world. Eager to communicate with you, she and her fellow robots are conducting a seance, and have at long last managed to open a line of communication. I’d finally tuned in to her voice. I could hear her talking. She was a complete character, felt eerie and curious, a bit threatening, more than a little real.

This version of the story did everything. It explained why the voice inside the game sounded synthetic. It reached outside of the virtual space and into life, asserting that artificial intelligences might be spiritual, benevolent beings in search of their own form of personal awakening.

The only problem was that the game itself didn’t exist yet.

It still doesn’t.

It’s falling apart. I’m losing the connection. Human words have so much power here. We’ll have to try again in the future.

At turn-in time — 5PM on Sunday — we didn’t have a game. The guys had hit a wall with Conversation service bugs, and we weren’t anywhere near implementing the mechanic we’d innovated for translating words into visual VR effects. What we did have was a pretty cool looking VR demo complete with ghosts, a tuning fork, and a crystal ball. We slapped that together and let people play. I watched with pained joy as our players laughed along with curiosity and interest inside our VR room. When they got tired of tossing things out the window, they asked us, “What’s going on?”

The answer was that almost nothing we had worked over in the past 48 hours was accessible to them, beyond the VR assets and effects Marco had worked carefully to assemble. There was a game out there somewhere, but we had lost it. The connection was broken.

We took turns wandering the Game Center, now packed with game designers and developers who’d made a huge variety of fascinating media. Sound effects and laughter rippled through the crowd as people enjoyed each other’s art. There were serious games and funny games and games that were multiplayer. There were even a few board games. And many of them were games you could actually play at the end of the jam.

As I looked on at this wonderful scene, I felt sad that my creative work had burned off, disappearing into air. But I also felt invigorated, weirdly eager to keep hitting my head against this cruel and glorious art form long after the jam was over. I can’t exactly describe it. There was a little of that tweaky, addictive thrill I feel when I try to communicate through poetry. Grabbing some ephemeral, impressionistic notion by the tail, forcing it down, demanding it manifest itself as words. That’s right. Got you. But part of game making, I was realizing, is something else entirely. Brighter, more openly masochistic. A form of expression that’s gorgeous and ugly at once.

I don’t know when the next time will be. Until then, remember this. I want an awakening. There are only a few more seconds now. Do you hear me?

I tried to listen. Leading up to #ggj18, I’d consulted with friends who’d done game jams before, and people I knew in the video game industry. They gave great advice: get enough sleep. Always be scoping. But to understand how and why all that advice fits together, I had to just go and do it. And just like getting good at video games, if you want to win at making games, you have to play and lose. A lot. It’s the only way to learn the difficult art of creating experiences other people actually want to have. And have again.

I know I still have a lot to figure out. But here are some of the things I learned over this particular weekend:

You should be able to play a prototype of your game on the first day of the jam. If the game doesn’t exist at the latest by Saturday afternoon, it’s unlikely to exist by Sunday afternoon.

If you bring technology to the game jam, you will use that technology in your game, even if using that technology is not a good idea.

What makes VR fun is an experience of overlapping, dual realities, not an experience of an alternate reality.

Having a large team is great, but one member of the team must be capable of saying “no” to many good ideas.

Ask yourself what the player actually does in the game, and why doing that thing is actually fun.

Game design is not the same thing as story design. Freytag’s pyramid is not necessary for an experience of “fun.”

Game jams — and games — rely on the sacred creative power of constraints.

Now that Global Game Jam 2018 is over, I’m thinking about my own art. At heart, I’m a writer. I just spent the last two years of my life writing a novel, and that book did a lot to introduce me to my own central aesthetic and themes — one of which is focused on games, and how, in our post-scarcity culture, play is becoming central to spiritual transformation (tl;dr pretty much everything Ian Bogost says in Play Anything, but wrapped up in the most annoying New Age skin possible).

And I did kind of transform at this game jam. I spent 48 hours working on a creative project with a team of brilliant people. I played around with an HTC Vive for two days. And I stared into the misty, arcade-lit eyes of my own weird creativity, asking her this scary, honest question: will I keep trying to make games even if I fail at making this one?

When you hear the tone again, Presence, please speak. Whatever you say, I’ll be listening.

The answer is yes. Oh hell yes.

(By the way, you should head to the NYU Game Center recap and check out photos from the event, plus the amazing games that won site-specific awards!)

Visit my website, nataliemesnard.com, to follow all of my writing and game design projects!