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w00t Festival and "Nowhere I'd Rather Be"

Disco traffic lights and a planetarium.

Disco traffic lights and a planetarium.

Nowhere I'd Rather Be is a Utopian exploration craft game, designed for w00t in Copenhagen. It ran on 31 May 2014, in a little park, near Tom Rusotti's excellent Laundry Badminton and Cyborg Games' lovely and vertiginous The Great Gottlieb

I ran a few different things at the festival - a game of Karaokards at the party, a talk on the Sunday - but this one was new, designed specifically in response to some of the festival's prompts. It's a game about what we want in our cities, and about how utopian ideas come from variations on existing ideas and realities. It's also about double-sided sticky tape and glittery paper and tiny shards of wood and sneaky trading.

One team works on their giant rotating sphere.

One team works on their giant rotating sphere.

Ten teams each received a bundle of words drawn from descriptions of things in the surrounding area, and from different people's ideas for what might make it the perfect place. The teams had to work these words into sentences describing imaginary additions to Copenhagen - and then grab craft supplies in order to make those imaginary additions real. 

Mysterious civic additions.

Mysterious civic additions.

The rules had a few different elements - there was some complexity to how you chose your craft materials, for example, and the potential for trading later on - but the core was simple:

  • Make up a sentence describing something you want in the perfect city, using the words you've been given (up to three)
  • Build those perfect things, and add them to the collective tiny city (again, up to three things)
  • Each addition that fits a sentence you've made up is worth a certain number of points, depending on how many words it uses - but watch out! If someone else figures out your sentence in advance and builds something that fits it then you split the points with them.
  • There are extra points available for the most beautiful and ingenious additions, the most complicated descriptions, and buildings that are based on something real in the nearby area.
w00t itself in miniature form.

w00t itself in miniature form.

Some teams constructed one giant sentence using all their words; some made shorter but ridiculous descriptions; some tried to come up with things they really wanted in the city; some went for things that sounded as absurd as they could manage, in the hope that nobody else's constructions would fit their rules (this backfired when we ended up with not one but two antigravity green gardens). And then they built.

Then they glued together tiny wooden scraps, and rearranged words, and frantically traded trees and tinsel and glitter and card in the final minutes to put the finishing touches on their miniature cities. It's always wonderful to find out how extraordinarily engrossed people can get in making stuff. There were elaborate fantasy sci-fi constructions, castles, a crane reimagined as elaborate towers, a dramatic swimming pool with googly eyes and a giant menacing pair of scissors poised to behead wrongdoers, even a miniature version of w00t itself and a boating lake with real water. 

And as if that wasn't enough: I managed to get rid of the leftover craft scraps from six years' of game projects, everything that was not quite useful but not quite useless enough to throw out. And if you don't think that's a good outcome for a game then there's something wrong with your assessment criteria.

A boating lake with water, yes.

A boating lake with water, yes.

The festival as a whole was wonderful, filled with sunlight and board games and running-around games and talks and parties; I didn't get to play everything I wanted to, but of the games I did play I was particularly taken by Jakob La Cour's The Avatar Controller, and by the Copenhagen Game Collective's Human Tower Defence. They're both games that exist within reasonably familiar live-game genres - "games where some players can't see and the other players have to guide them from a distance" and, er, "human tower defence", respectively; live games haven't really firmed up their genre names yet - but they do unusually intriguing things with their respective forms.

The Avatar Controller gives you a digital interface to control your human player, in a slow, clumsy, amazingly watchable cannonball fight between three robotically-moving "avatars" in a low hedge maze. You press a button, one of eight (things like "left", "duck", "right", "forward"). On a lag of about half a second, your avatar hears you through headphones and obeys. 

There's a great sense of contrast between the avatar players - who move slowly and carefully back and forth, occasionally getting caught in bushes - and their "human" controllers, who run frantically around the edge of the space craning to see in. This contrast is absolutely key to the success and charm of the game, with spectators looking back and forth between avatar and controller, standing on platforms to see into the maze, gasping and cheering at key moments. The three avatars are roughly identical, the players who represent them hidden by patterned polyhedron headwear and white jumpsuits, and this too is really important - you'd think the difficulty of telling them apart would decrease spectator investment, but actually it's part of the compelling oddity of the experience. It also means that whichever avatar wins, you as an audience member feel justified in cheering out triumphantly.

Two avatars remain.

Two avatars remain.

Another important element of it is that as an avatar, you're not blindfold - you can see the inside of your strange paper headcube with its zig-zagging green and pink patterns, and shifting sunlight on the outside. It feels very different from not being able to see at all, much less about having your surroundings separated from you and more about having a different filter to encounter them through.

Meanwhile, Human Tower Defence is an energetic game where an ever-decreasing number of players try to make it along a path without being hit by the defenders - who are players who've been eliminated in previous rounds, and who are now standing on platforms and throwing balls. It's very simple and perfectly judged - the shrinking team of attackers has to complete the course seven times, and as the game proceeds, both sides receive "upgrades" (such as shields for the attackers, or extra balls for the defenders) that make them feel simultaneously more powerful and more scared of their opponents. The production was perfect for the context, with rules explained gradually as the game went on and jolly repeating music all helping to get people involved quickly.

Almost every player had to go through a switch of loyalty from attack to defence at some point, as soon as they got hit, and this was perfectly managed - as an attacker you felt a genuine desire to stay safe from the defenders but once you'd been hit, you were rushed to a role in defence and felt a new sense of power and vicious enmity. 

Almost everyone joined in, running through trees that we'd all played different games in earlier, and it made for a great and unifying finish to a really wonderful festival.