A couple of weeks ago, Simon, Ivan and I went to Berlin for You Are GO!, Berlin’s amazing pervasive games festival. This is our writeup of what happened – and, due warning, it’s pretty long. There were an awful lot of games, you see…
Pieces of Berlin
Arriving after a slightly calamitous and stressful journey from London – it’s a long story – I went in search of a relaxing game that would let me take in some of the city. Pieces of Berlin by Erik Burke and Lynn Maharas is just such a game. Using beautifully crafted acetates containing fragments of photographed sites in the city, with the remainder rendered in line drawing, the game exploits Berlin’s stunning plethora of graffiti and street art. Essentially it’s a treasure hunt where you find a location matching a particular acetate and line up the image with the real graffiti to reveal a missing symbol that leads you to the next location. My teammate Dan and I raced against three other teams for a prize of chocolate. In practice the pace was quite sedate, we never broke a sweat and quite happily rolled into the finish line twenty minutes ahead of the others. Victory, a nice stroll and free chocolate: what more could I want?
Tiny Urban Game
Well, the next day I awoke with an urge for some serious strategic play and Invisible Playground’s Tiny Urban Game was there to oblige. Inspired by the legendary Big Urban Game , T.U.G. has a simultaneously witty, mind crunching, ‘curses why didn’t I think of that!,’ type mechanic which cleverly uses the timings of the pedestrian crossings on a single intersection. Four teams battle it out to keep control point of scoring territories marked in chalk on the pavement, via the placing of a limited amount small coloured markers within them. The catch is that only one team can occupy one section of pavement at any one time and of course you can only cross the road on a green man. My team suffered at the hands of a dastardly strategy from the green team who used timings of the crossings to control two pavements and block us into a lower scoring one.
Now it was time for my offering, Pingus. Having been played at several Sandpits and also IgFest, this is a well seasoned game, but Berlin’s unpredictable weather provided a new twist. In the game, two teams take it in turns to be environmentalists who try to save a breed of suicidal penguins, i.e. the other team, who stubbornly walk forward no matter what obstacles lay ahead. Normally Penguins die by colliding with lamp posts, trees etc. but as the heavens opened I was forced to introduce a new rule whereby Penguins also died if they got wet leading to a satisfactory spectacle of environmentalists scuttling around with numerous umbrellas.
The finale of the festival was Asteroids, a collaboration between the Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra and hosts Invisible Playground. I didn’t get to play this game as it was full up but it was just as entertaining to watch. The orchestra really was an orchestra, with twenty or so musicians comprising rhythm section, horns, strings, and even a harp. They played a bizarre mixture of 1950’s big band, sci-fi-esque references and avant-garde improvisation all seamlessly packaged in original arrangements. After about ten minutes or so of playing the orchestra settled into a spooky loop of music and the game began. This consisted of a number of players roaming around with speakers each of which had a section of the orchestra’s music quietly playing. Many other players had to find matching speakers for which they would get points. After a certain period of time the band would pipe up again for another interlude before the next round of play. This was a highly successful fusion between music performance and game ending the festival on a high note (pardon the appalling pun).
Bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived I stumbled through Berlin on a damp Saturday afternoon searching for You Are GO! As two men ran past, holding cardboard structures, shouting something in German about a bomb getting wet – I knew I was close…
Although this was an international festival, spanning several continents, the first game I played that evening had a distinctly English feel. Bristol based SlingShot (of igfest fame) put on a foxhunting, tweed-wearing, trail-sniffing extravaganza entitled Hounded. As a fox I had to traipse the streets of Berlin with my team (skulk?) of five other foxes, sniffing pre laid out scent boards (small square foam bards smelling of bubblegum, wood smoke and fish amongst other things) – at the end of each trail was a word that we texted in to gain points. Easy enough, right? Well, in theory yes, but add the danger of dogs chasing you (they had real German shepherds) and it all changes. Once caught (losing your tail will cost you 10 points) you yourself would become a hound and have to catch other foxes (gaining a princely sum of 5 points per tail caught). OutFoxed, our witty-ish team name, were great trail-sniffers, and although we avoided capture until 10 minutes before the game finished we didn’t do too well over all. It appeared that other foxes who were more cunning in their plans, which included early self-sacrifice in order to catch other foxes… This was a brilliant game that tugged on our basic survival instincts, kicking off my festival experience with theatricality, heart-pounding moments and cardboard foxtails.
A relaxed evening of food, drinks and international merriment was enhanced by a number of drop-in and play games that were taking place in and around the bar. The largest of these was delivered by the aptly named Gigantic Mechanic with Shadowplay, which was projected onto a huge outdoor screen for all to see. Standing in front of the projector the players cast shadows onto the screen, attempting to cover flying green spots for a few seconds until they grew and burst – the more spots you burst at the same time, the higher your points – but watch out for those pesky blue spots which if burst will cost you one of your three lives. There was lots of tactical shadow construction including the use of coats, skirts and umbrellas to aid the process. Not only was it addictive to play, but also to watch, sat in the bar on the other side of the screen.
Before we took to the streets with Stag Hunt, I had just enough time to become a food-carrying ant in Feromon by Viktor Bedő. In a small leafy forest, a mere two-minute walk from the You Are GO! base, a group of us was split into two ant colonies, and on the sound of clacking wood were told to set off in search for food. It was a lovely, gentle game which saw everyone moving from tree to tree each time the wooden blocks were struck (attempting to avoid the other colony’s warrior ants that would paralyse you for three turns). Upon finding food you had to mark your journey back to the base with a trail of chalk powder on the floor, which created some beautiful patterns.
Gentrification: the Game
The first game I was involved in, on the Friday night, was Atmosphere Industries’ Gentrification: the Game. I didn’t play – instead I was a judge, taking the part of the local art critic and assessing the chalk drawings and neighbourhood spirit of different teams. (See the picture above for my best art-critic stance.)
I knew quite a lot about this game – it had run at the 2010 Hide&Seek Weekender, in fact – but I’d never actually seen it played before. Four teams (two of “locals”, two of “developers”) set about improving or protecting their neighbourhood, claiming properties, hosting parades, creating street art and scrawling massive chalk circles across the footpaths. It was great to see it in action, but the thing that fascinated me most wasn’t the gameplay: it was the explanation, the bit before everyone set off.
Gentrification is a pretty complicated game, by street-game standards! There’s a lot of rules to grasp, and strategies to discern from the way those rules interconnect. And players of street games can be extremely, even notoriously, short of attention: you can count of them to listen for a couple of minutes, sure, but after that, who knows? The explanation for Gentrification ran closer to ten minutes, and that’s not counting the extra elements that were introduced after the first round – but the game worked brilliantly, maybe because (again, really unusually for a pervasive game) it was long, close to two hours. By the end the players were strategising and plotting and asking if they could play for even longer. It’s made me think about games outside the half-hour or hour-long time-slot that the form encourages, and asking people for an extra investment of attention in return for a type of play that they couldn’t have without it.
Crossboccia is a charming play-anywhere version of boules/boccia/petonque, with gorgeously-patterned beanbag balls that go thwonk when you throw them. The idea of a ball game that you play while wandering around the city isn’t new – there are any number of golf-in-the-streets variants, the lovely Bocce Drift, and so on. But this is the first one I’m aware of that’s not just a game, but also a product. You can buy Crossboccia sets, and they feel like the sort of thing you’d pick up in a Toys R Us, or even a Waterstones game section. It’s fascinating to see a pervasive game that feels so mainstream, and although I don’t think Crossboccia has the level of ubiquity its design hints at yet, it makes it clear that it’s possible.
Hold the Line
Cross the Line was another of Invisible Playground’s games. Players scuttle between trees, trying to pick up the sound of codewords transmitted by radio from each one, all the while dodging an enormous spotlight that was moving regularly around the playing space. If the light hits you, you’re out. If you collect all six codewords and get back to safety, you’ve won.
It’s delightful for a lot of reasons, and great to see a real-world implementation of the “avoid a regular patrol / danger zone / etc” mechanic that’s so common in video games. (Invisible Playground have investigated the same area in their game from a couple of years ago, F Be I, See I A). But mostly it’s great because it involved a thonking enormous spotlight, whooshing around a park in the dark, right next to a still-open slightly-drunken art exhibition, at midnight. Berlin is, it turns out, wonderful.
Johann Sebastian Joust
The Copenhagen Game Collective’s Johann Sebastian Joust is almost impossibly good and straightforward and beguiling. Six players, each with a Move controller glowing a gentle pastel, try to keep their controllers steady and slow-moving, while trying to nudge other players’ controllers – or the players themselves. When a controller moves too fast, it flickers red, and the player holding it is out. Last player left is the winner.
It takes two or three minutes to play, and the rules are so, so easy to grasp – watch a game or two and that’s enough. Players drop out and just hand their controller on to someone else, who plays a few games and hands it on – there’s a constant organic flow, and the designers never have to tell anyone the rules, because they’re communicated so neatly just by watching and by players inducting the player who’s replacing them.
Mehringplatz Tron is a gorgeous game, that fits so beautifully into the Mehringplatz (pictured above – the place where it ran) that it’s almost frustrating: I’ll never get to play it anywhere else.
Two teams don headphones; one team’s glow with red LEDs, the other with green. Players distribute themselves around the wide circle of the Mehringplatz, and then walk: anticlockwise for red, clockwise for green. If you meet a player of the opposite colour, you bounce off each other and change direction – unless one of you steps aside, in which case the stepper-aside has to wait until a gong sounds on their headphones before they walk on. The aim is just to get around the circle – and to be on the team that gets the most people around before the game ends.
The most interesting things about this are, for me:
- How it relies entirely on the asynchronicity of the mp3 players – if they were in time, it wouldn’t work, because everyone’s gong noises would come simultaneously;
- How the fact that it’s dark and everyone’s glowing and you’re listening to music acts to make people feel far less self-conscious – at least half the players would, after stepping aside, dance on the spot while waiting for the gong to sound;
- How such a tiny, tiny choice – should I step aside or not? – built up into a whole game, with shifting dynamics and hope and strategising and frustration and triumph.
Of all the games I played, it’s the one that’s made me think the most about what sort of pervasive games I want to design next; the enormous, almost bewildering simplicity of it, and the complexity that arose, is fascinating.
The One and Cowgirl Cowhunt
These two games both came from Catherine Herdlick and Gabe Smedresman, and though they were very different in terms of story and mechanics – in The One, you’re a warrior trying to destroy and control alternate versions of yourself from different universes; in Cowgirl Cowhunt, you’re a cow trying to find grass to eat – there were a few really interesting threads that ran through both of them:
- They both had simple lovely costumes for different roles that communicated important information about how players should behave – for example as a cow in Cowgirl Cowhunt, I had a cow mask that restricted my vision, and earplugs that muffled the world. The mask wasn’t just to let other people know I was playing, and what I was doing; it directly affected my experience of the game.
- They both had rulesets that fit onto teeny-tiny A6 pieces of paper – one-sided, as well; German on one side and English on the other
- Both of them had different roles for different players – and each type of player only knew as much as they needed to. As a cow, I didn’t really know what the cowgirls or rustlers were about, and I didn’t need to. As the surviving me from my set of universes, I didn’t know what the mes I’d conquered were tasked with, and again, I didn’t need to.
The seamless fitting-together of different roles into games that were fun and easy-to-grasp for everyone was pretty amazing.
And finally, almost at the end of the festival, we ran a version of the good old Soho Stag Hunt, the pervasive game I helped design back in the Earlye Dayes of 2007. This time we added an evil stag, as pioneered by Tim Sweetser and Obscure Games Pittsburgh. It was lovely as always to see people running around waving balloons and chasing after smartly-dressed stags, but I won’t go into details – all I really wanted was an excuse to post the picture above of Simon and Ivan as the good and bad stags, respectively.
(All pictures from Invisible Playground.)