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the endless forest
gaming creativity at gamecity 07
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Games grow up at last.

Playing mainstream games can bring about a lot of déjà vu: one murky squad shooter resembles another; rival sports games can be superficially indistinguishable; RPG environments could be interchangeable. Despite the fact that the videogames industry is a home to vast amounts of creative talent, it sometimes feels like the creativity itself is lacking in character, artistic originality or innovation. But it is there, as evinced by much of what was included in the line-up of the Nottingham festival GameCity, now in its second year.

Even within the world of major publishers, unique titles do get backing – Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi is once more working with Namco Bandai, on his follow-up game Noby Noby Boy. In his rambling keynote presentation, the eccentric auteur expressed his own reservations about games, saying "As people have different personalities, different media should have different ways of showing and playing…. In reality we rarely see such variety." But talking to Collective later, the former sculptor did express a modicum of faith in games as an expressive medium, saying, "All the artists' media are quite close in a sense, you can only express what you want to express, and people will only understand what they want to understand."

Noby Noby Boy and Wipeout Pure.

Takahashi demo’d Noby Noby Boy at GameCity, inviting punters to take a PS3 joypad and give it a try. Noby Noby means "stretchy stretchy" (and, according to his Japanese-English dictionary, "I feel ill at ease when my husband is not at home") and its playable Boy is a funny little quadruped who can be elongated, twisted and thrown into the air. Although what it's about isn't clear. Takahashi said, "I haven't managed to explain it to anybody yet. Even my boss…" The game's objective was "confidential", but he even questioned whether games need objectives. He seems to be a believer in fun, telling us that pure play "is one of the key aspects of life."

Jon Burgerman, a Nottingham-based artist who got involved with Sony on a project that allowed artists to design levels for Wipeout Pure on PSP, also expressed a sentiment about a more open type of gaming, in reference to games like Animal Crossing and Little Big Planet which are pointing the way towards a sort of social network/game hybrid. "Maybe we'll just lose sight of whether it's a game," he said. "It can be a game if you want it to be."

Burgerman believes working with games developers isn't that different from more traditional outlets. "In the same way as someone will say, 'I've got a gallery down the road, we want you to do something for it,' the developer will go, 'We've got this computer game; it's a space and we want you to do something with it.'" Given the nature of the modern creative business environment, more culture mash-up is likely. "There's a breed of artist that operates across media,” says Burgerman. “They’re utilising new technologies, and email and the internet, and they’re able to work internationally while staying in one room." And as such can work with games developers more easily.

Night Journey and Global Conflicts: Palestine.

A significant area where innovative games design can be seen today is in the indie scene, where games developers and creatives are working in parallel to the mainstream game industry. They can take advantage of new technology advances, such as direct download distribution. Indiecade, the preserve of such "one room" creators, was also at GameCity and featured such fare as Night Journey, a game from no less a figure than artist Bill Viola.

This area of development demonstrates a diversity that is just not apparent in mainstream games, ranging from those that toy with the traditions of platformers (like Braid) to “serious games” that deal in real-world issues (such as Global Conflicts: Palestine), to experiences that eschew the notion of videogames predicated on shooting and fighting (such as Cloud).

As fine artists get more involved with the industry, as developers take more risks and the indie scheme grows, we are seeing more and more innovative games; the medium is growing up. Now there's just the matter of content, and how mature it can hope to be in the face of the abiding "games are just for kids" prejudice. I'll be looking at this in the next post-GameCity report. So watch this space.

Daniel Etherington 01 November 07
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