Excessive matters are perilous to me. For years I avoided digital stores to prevent myself from getting littered with tons of games from sales I will never play. Even though I had played Warcraft II and III enthusiastically, I didn’t even consider joining World of Warcraft for a second when I was 18 and it came out. I knew my vices and I knew better.
As it is with good resolutions: Their success varies. I have really messed up with the digital stores. My libraries are now bursting at the seams. I constantly hear about supposedly or actually worthwhile games and especially the indie sector has made it harder to keep track. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Indies have long since entered the mainstream and the boundaries are blurring as big players publish titles of small teams to jazz up their portfolio. At some point, I realized that under the surface of the shiny, polished world in which Shovel Knight and the Master Chief shake hands, deep and dark chasms are opening up. Countless unfamiliar games, currents, scenes, subcultures. Up there I got my proper magazines, metacritics and YouTube channels, which support me with me a nice and clean overview of everything. I am in control.
That is exactly why the glance into the darkness of the “sub-indies” frightened me. If I were to descend, I would be lost and disoriented, mysterious eyes would gaze at me and temptations would pull me in all directions. Breath of the Wild would be no match. I slammed the door to the basement and made myself comfortable in front of the fireplace with Hollow Knight and God of War. But the seed was sown. I don’t just play games, I’m into them and their cultural implications. I want to be an expert, not an idiot who stands on the sidelines while all those stuck-up intellectuals look down on me! I now knew about this vast ocean and that it presumably contains uncompromised gaming experiences, far away from the glittering market that make me but a dumb consumer. But it is so damn cozy in front of the fireplace.
And so I have always avoided game jams. It’s a can of worms that I never dared to open due to self-protection. Every single jam shovels out more games than EA can produce in a century. The easy to handle distribution platform itch.io is the limitless cosmos of this madness. Thousands of game developers are creating new games that go unnoticed every day. I stayed strong and treated itch.io like I treated World of Warcraft.
That was until the summer of 2019. For quite some time now I have been following Mark Brown’s YouTube channel “Game Maker’s Toolkit”, which constantly delivers clever takes on game design. Mark Brown has also been hosting his own Game Jam – on itch.io – for several years now and runs a Discord server where a bunch of smart and likeable people meet for daily conversations on those topics and many more. In the summer of 2019, when that year’s jam was nearing, a joyful restlessness arose on the Discord and being in frequent contact with the people pulled me along. Since the developers and the games weren’t that eerie dark sea full of wonders and monsters, but the very fine people of the GMTK universe, I was able to get involved. And how I was rewarded for that!
Individual developers or small teams set out to create a playable product on a given theme within 48 hours. Although I didn’t actively participate, I followed the progress of many of them. They got anxious when their initial idea crumbled, went to sleep for a few hours with unsolved problems, and then set out on the home stretch with unrestrained passion. More than 2.600 games were submitted and after the deadline was reaches, it was a week of playing and judging and chatting before the winners were announced. People were excited when they had discovered a great game and shared it with the rest of us and everyone was happy for others when their games did well.
That week I spent a lot of my time playing through the submissions, streaming it and talking to the developers about their work and experiences. There were some astonishing results that had the potential for a full release. But much more precious were the insights into the development process and the experiences of the developers so far. I never really had an insight into those things. Remember? I am the dumb consumer at the other end! We still talked for months after the jam, and not just about video games anymore. We all had a common pop cultural base, but over time it became clear how different and scattered across the globe we lived aside from that. It was like pen pals. But it was that first week in which I learned a lot and was able to take on new perspectives: When a developer asked me if I had also made a game, I denied, stating that I was not a developer. Her deadpen answer: “That’s the dumbest reason not to make a game.” Everyone was a developer as long as they were interested in it. She pointed out the various fields of activity. I could write dialogues, test demos for feedback, create music, collect ideas or write concepts.
I was moved by this approach. In fact, I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of getting involved. It’s like when people say they suck at math because they got bad grades in school: Nonsense. Everyone can contribute. You don’t have to have studied something or be a technical expert. You don’t need grades and degrees to be a valuable member of a society. Nor do you need programming skills to help create a fun, interesting or innovative game. And that is how I look at the whole jam and the community: There was no competition or resentment. It’s people who often have to struggle with difficulties in their lives and develop games out of passion. Who have no expectations of success and don’t want money for their work, but just to create something. To learn and to better themselves at what they love. And hope that someone plays their games and even likes them. I have rarely experienced so much concentrated positivity. And this summer of 2019 is still echoing. I am grateful to have been part of it in some way. Maybe one day I can really help to create a game. But all too often it is just nice to sit in a cozy living room. With a cup of tea. And Doom.
The annual GMTK Game Jam is organized by Mark Brown on itch.io. The respective motto brings forth very different ideas – from puzzlers to narrative comedy games. In 2019 the itch.io server collapsed at one time because it was the biggest jam ever held there – until that record was broken again by GMTK a year later. Some of the games created in the jam are now available as full versions on Steam or on the Nintendo eShop. I don’t really have a fireplace.
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