Good times at A MAZE Berlin
A report from an indie games festival and a leap of faith in Naughty List News #94
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I attended the A MAZE 12th International Games and Playful Media Festival in Berlin this week, and it was ama- fantastic. It is, and always will be, an absolutely tiny festival with attendees measured in the low thousands. But that means that everyone who knows anyone in the indie games scene will be there, and it’s a great excuse to catch up with the friends you don’t get to see as often as you would like.
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While you can play indie games in the exhibition hall, it’s never my main focus. I’m just not a fan of playing games in an exhibition setting, but I love engaging the developers who are brave enough to exhibit their games. Luckily, there are also plenty of interesting talks every year.
The organizers at A MAZE always take great care to invite speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds. You don’t just get to hear from interesting game developers but also from people with a background in contemporary art, historians who use a game engine to engage with their subject matter, and people doing what can only be lovingly described as “completely unhinged shit.”
Here are some of my favorite talks from this year’s event:
While speaker Jeremy Couillard originally wanted to talk about some tabs he had open in his browser, he changed his mind and used the time to talk about critical games instead. He borrowed this term from the book A Critical Cinema and noted that it’s different from the term avant-garde.
The way he describes it, avant-garde is where the artwork comes first, and commercial projects follow, while critical media is the other way around. The classic avant-garde example is fashion: The impractical designs you see on the runway at a fashion show trickle down all the way to the design of the €10 sweater you buy at Primark.
Critical media then, is art that cannot be understood without putting it in the context of the commercial projects that preceded it. Mr. Couillard points to Cruelty Squad as an example of a critical game, a bewildering first-person shooter that subverts the themes and conventions of games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Splinter Cell. I’ve played Cruelty Squad, and his description is spot-on: It is a very smart tactical shooter that intentionally hides behind a facade of ugly visuals. But the game is incomprehensible if you’re not intimately familiar with the genre.
I could probably write a thousand more words about this talk because it was something that really got the mental gears going for me!
Using transmedia for world-building
Disappointingly, this talk was not about transgender representation in video games but instead about using different types of media to build a shared world for your games. Igor Simic and his team at demagog studio built three games in the same post-apocalyptic world. They started with the golfing game Golf Club: Wasteland, then the puzzle platformer sequel The Cub, and finally, the turn-based strategy prequel Highwater.
These are radically different genres, yet the games share characters and are set in the same world. The same themes of loneliness, ecological collapse, and post-humanism are present in all three.
While making these games, the studio also released music videos featuring the post-apocalyptic setting. Mr. Simic has a background in contemporary art and wouldn't describe himself as a “gamer.” He said that music videos set in video game landscapes had helped him get into their worlds in the past.
This stunning talk showed the power of inviting people outside the games industry to think about games as well. It’s such a brilliant way to think about how games can be used to reinforce the same artistic message from different angles that I’m surprised other studios aren’t really doing this yet!
Frustrating the player, and why we love to do it
Although I unfortunately missed the opening, this was still a really interesting talk. Art director Goldie Bartlett and writer/programmer/designer Jason Bakker discussed their game Wayward Strand. They purposefully minimize the player’s power to allow other characters more agency. This means the player might be tasked to talk to an NPC who indicates that they really don’t want to talk to you. The question for designers is then: How do you give NPCs enough agency in the story while preventing them from becoming “puzzles” for the player to solve?
I’ve previously discussed adult games as power fantasies in this newsletter, and it was heartening to see that other people are having deep thoughts about player agency in games as well.
All Games Should Have (list of stupid things Gwen likes)
Gwen Foster spoke about what she likes to see in games, including cats, dogs, chickens, pizza, and chairs. Absolutely unhinged shit. No notes. You love to see it.
The format for HYPERTALKS is straightforward and effective: We start with the official anthem, and then seven speakers are each given five minutes to talk about a topic of their choosing. Some talks are really interesting, and some talks are really not, but none of them are allowed to overstay their welcome. And it’s always a barn-busting good time.
Memorable talks this year were about the prophesized death of VR, how to find games to sign as an indie publisher, and decolonizing your mind by playing more games from Africa, the Middle East, and other regions not well-known for their thriving games industry.
If there’s one event you shouldn’t miss at A MAZE, it’s this one!
Inspiring the Youths™
While I am a AAA games programmer by trade, I also like to pretend I’m part of the indie games scene. I suppose this newsletter helps in that regard. I’m secretly a very outgoing person and have no issues initiating a conversation with a stranger if I’m in the right mindset. But whenever I talk to some extremely cool indie game developer at a conference, they’re always starstruck by my senior title and mostly want to hear about my work in AAA games. And I get it! I’ve been the awkward twenty-something who wanted nothing more than to work at one of the bigger game companies myself. But friends, I want to assure you that the grass is always greener on the other side.
It’s true that there’s a lot more money sloshing around in AAA and that it’s very difficult for indie game developers to get funding for their projects. But as an indie developer, you get complete ownership of your crazy ideas and can put your game in people’s hands relatively quickly. I’ve been working on the same AAA game project for 18 months now, and there are at least 18 months to go before this game is in players' hands.
So if you’re one of the people I spoke to at the conference, I want to assure you that I think what you’re doing is really cool and important, and I hope everything works out for you in the end. ❤
Leap of faith
I’ve attended this conference every year since 2016, and it holds a special place in my heart. When I was there for the first time, I had a job interview at a Berlin-based games company the same week, and it was at A MAZE I heard the good news that I would be moving to the city. It was at this event that I dared to make the leap to move abroad and further my career.
I think it’s time to make another leap of faith. Next year, I plan to give a talk of my own about adult games at A MAZE. I want to talk about why adult games are important and how I designed my own adult game from the ground up. At the very least, I will write this talk and find a way to get it out there if the organizers aren’t interested.
Hope to see you there next year! 😘
Writing Wrap-Up 📖
Supernatural romance Seducing The Devil is now in Steam Early Access. A young man is in an open relationship with his girlfriend and her mother when he meets his online girlfriend abroad and has to choose between love and lust.
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The Free Speech Coalition is discussing financial discrimination by adult businesses in Congress. Over a dozen in-person meetings with House and Senate offices are planned to see what legislators can do to help.
Reddit will allow users to upload adult images from their desktop. Communities must be set to 18+ to allow adult content to be uploaded.
Artist spotlight 💡
Thanks for reading this far!