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Games with People, 2016.

This article was originally published on my Patreon, patreon.com/hannahnicklin

One Way Trip

As we crawl squinting out of the cave of the end of 2016, 2017 glares at us, shining all up in our faces. Late (as usual) to the party, I grab my laptop and write for you my GOTY (Games of the Year) list. It’s only loosely ‘2016’ – they don’t have to have been released this year, just things I played for the first time this year. And my GOTY has a theme, of sorts (with one outlier I shall tie in because of its diametric opposite to the theme). The theme is non-multiplayer multiplaying – that is, a way of exploring how the best experiences I’ve had with games this year have all been with people, in some way, even though the games weren’t designed that way.

One of the things a game designer can rarely design for (except in an exhibition or installation context) is the layer of play that happens in the place of play. There’s the layer of the game in the console or PC, then the layer of the interface with that game – those things are set and/or within the control of the game designer. But there’s also the layer/context of the place the play happens; a lounge, a bedroom, a party, an evening with the family, after the kids have gone to bed, with your housemate, on a train, your girlfriend’s house, by a bus stop, while you’re supposed to be working, while dinner cooks, with the windows open and a summer thunderstorm outside, etc. Smells, sights, stress, relative comfort, company. In the article on Tony Hawk published recently I talked about the theatre of the game – without an explicit multiplayer format and yet with short free-play levels that connected to the theatre of the sport; ‘look what I can do!’. 

The games that stuck with me most this year were played by, with, or around others. Except the last one. And I therefore write this GOTY article in consideration of how that Other Layer of gameplay affects us, that layer designers typically have no control over. Let’s go:

ABZU. www.abzugame.com   

I played this on my own first. Well, not on my own, with my housemate Pat in the room, but he was doing something else mostly. I’m not very good with FPS controls so as soon as I pick up a game on a console I’m nervous – do I need to be able to orient myself and react quickly? I felt this especially ABZU, which is about water; swimming.Did you know that I was a competitive swimmer? Did you know that for 10 years of my life I swam everyday except Saturdays? Did you know that there was a time when I felt more at home in water than I did in the air? When I dream about flying, I dream that I am swimming, I dream that I swim strong and powerfully through the air, sculling to stay up when I stop. I was 8 years old when I realised for the first time that swimming was a small kind of superpower. My brother and I went on holiday to Center Parcs – and under the huge ‘Tropical’ dome set against Sherwood forest me and my brother discovered that we had a small kind of superpower, surrounded by people who didn’t know how to move through water, who fought it, who would crick their necks afraid they could not breathe and turn themselves into shapes that sink, make it harder. My brother and I moved through the water… thoughtlessly.

I pick up the PS4 controller and think of the double insult that the game will throw at me if I can not just ‘not control it well’, but not control a swimming game well. But they catch it, they catch it just right, the thrill of the speed, but also the thickness of it, how it slows you, how you scull and slip and slice your way through. Diving! The thrill of power behind acceleration, the slower-than-air grace of a spin or somersault, a rip, a clean entry. The tasks are there because it’s a game and it has to move you about a bit. Show you progress. They’re not all tasks I don’t want to do, the most alive bits are when I chase a shark, or gasp at blue whales, I do a lot of noodling around. I make friends with fish. 

My favourite thing about ABZU, though, is showing it to my brother. My brother visits my house for the first time since I moved in. In the day we look at some huge pieces of metal in a gallery near King’s Cross. In the evening I make us dinner and we play ABZU and Virginia. ABZU is a thrill to watch him play; what he discovers that I don’t. I remember how he would swim differently to me. I remember that my brother was long and tall, always a head above boys his age. I remember how his stroke almost seemed lazy, the way he would have to move his arms through such a long path. I remember how I was always a sprinter, punchy, backstroke was my best, I loved the rush of a perfectly executed backstroke start: good grip on the wall with your feet, tensing at ‘take your marks’, the gun, the arc, the rush, cutting into the water, dolphin kick to the surface, first breath and knowing that you already found a second on your nearest competitor. He plays ABZU dramatically differently to me, the way he would swim, it’s methodical almost.

One Way Trip playstation.com/en-us/games/one-way-trip-ps4

One Way Trip

A large number of the games I know about are games I do not play. There’s a great article by Robert Yang  about games as thought experiments – there’s a few ways to take that sentiment, and one of them is that understanding the premise and rules of a game are in some ways a way of playing it. Of playing it out in our heads. I mean it more literally here, though. I’m talking about Pat. I have a super great housemate who amongst being clean, tolerant of bike stuff, and nice to be around (best housemate traits) is also an incredible curator of games and collector of games-things. It’s pretty easy to say that the majority of the games I experience are ones I don’t play, but ones I’m around when they’re being played by Pat. As I work on my laptop, emails, or articles, or research, Pat will be sat on the PS4 playing something. Most of the time this feels like a thing I can happily put out of my mind as I work, occasionally glancing up and asking half-interestedly about a monster, character or plot point. This year, however, there’s one game I just couldn’t stop looking at. And in fact, that I specifically asked Pat to play, because I just wanted to be around it. 

One Way Trip is a game ported to the US PlayStation Store (it’s v easy to get a US account to play it with in case you’re wondering). It’s a piece of interactive-graphic fiction with the best goddam soundtrack I ever heard. The plot is summarised online as “You, your brother, and much of the rest of the Nation have been poisoned. You have six hours left to live, and you will spend them hallucinating as you die” and has the most inexplicably low review score I’ve ever seen. It’s a masterpiece of aesthetics and low-fi hip hop, it’s hilarious, it’s ridiculous, the animation and illustration is vibrant and hallucinatory and could cover a record or a punk zine, and the music I could listen to all day. Each bit of animation hops in and around the beats and adds in layer after layer to the almost incomprehensible story which as both form and content perfectly represents its premise. I have written to Michael Frauenhofer to ask him to make the Bandcamp albums Pay-what-you-want rather than free so I can give him some money for them. In the meantime, I ask Pat if he can play some more of the game. The tracks seem better in the game than out, somehow.

Lieve Oma vltmn.itch.io/lieve-oma 

Lieve Oma

I’m on a date. It’s not really a date. I’m with someone I’m dating. We’re not really dating. It’s that bit. We’re in Berlin. There’s a room of games and queues in front of many of them. I’m laughing. There’s an excitement in my stomach which is often the thing I miss the most when I think that maybe I should get out there again – the feeling in your stomach like laughter and whisky and GCSEs. There are people around who know us both and we don’t know if this is a thing and can’t really be bothered to get teased or gossiped about. It feels like they’re always looking at us. Even when they’re not in the room. Even though no one has noticed this feeling in my stomach and our attention to one another.

We find this game open. No one’s standing in front of it. I put my glass of ‘it comes in two colours’ wine down, and we spend a few moments playing Leive Oma. The colours are beautiful. I like controlling the camera like I’m shooting the movie. The dialogue which feels a little stilted or in-translation at the beginning begins to feel like ‘actually this is not how my grandma talked to me, but how someone’s specific grandma talked’. Northern English grandmas don’t go in for ‘sweetie’ epithets, but this isn’t a northern England grandma. The game shifts subtly and I know I am not this character, though I could be, as the character I speak as is pleasingly un-gendered. I pause for a second and think about how I’d feel to play this game and ‘control’ the dialogue of the grandma and not the the child.

We move on. I’ll play the game again on my own a couple of months later. This time I’ll play it long enough for the season change and the heron reveal. It captures most that feeling I recognise of seeing a beautiful thing from nature in front of me, suddenly, ordinary and extraordinary simultaneously.

Inside playdead.com/games/inside

inside-ending-explained-2
This year I became friends again with someone who I used to date. We didn’t talk for a couple of years, but last year we met by accident and remembered that we’re good together. Just not that kind of together. We’re still at the bit where we don’t talk too much about our boyfriends or girlfriends, where we have the occasional moment or hug where we have to suddenly readjust; it’s not feelings, but the space where feelings used to be. It’s not sad, but… you know what I mean? 

One weekend, Pat’s away at some festival in Texas, I cook dinner and my friend and I hang out, we’d planned to watch some cycling on the telly but when he arrives I’m playing the first bit of Inside. Instead, we get steadily drunker and solve puzzles together. Our brains function perfectly together, anything I can’t see instantly he can right away. I love the lighting, and the controls, which are light-touch and never make me feel on the edge of my capability. The puzzles are well-balanced, pleasing to tangle with and the animation tactile, the fiction behind the world lightly delivered, if broadly painted. In the space of the evening we get about 3/4 of the way through. We don’t finish it. We get too drunk and laugh too much, and he gets an Uber home. We hug before he goes and he kisses me on the cheek. I still haven’t finished it, it feels wrong, to see how it ends without him.

Cribbage with Grandpas cribbagewithgrandpas.com 

cribbage with grandpas

This is the game I have played most this year. This is a game I have played with an array of Grandpas. At the beginning I design my own. The Grandpa designer is perfect, just the right mix of colour matching/blocking, and options, just the right selection of skin colours, features, gestures towards characterisation, and personality, that leave room for you to infer much more. I design 3 grandpas to begin with, each of them a grandpa of colour. I have had no grandpas in my life that I would wish to play cribbage with so my instinct is to design fictional grandpas, it never even occurs for me to build my own. And because I feel like there’s probably a low representation of grandpas of colour in my life, I create three fictional grandpas of colour to play with, something which Pat describes as ‘one of the most Hannah Nicklin things I ever heard’.

I get a lot better at cribbage. I love the characterisations and quips the grandpas add to the game. It isn’t until I describe the game to my friend Alice that I think of real-grandpa grandpa design. I invite her to make a grandpa for me to play with, and her instinct is to make her own. We carefully construct him, she laughs at how weirdly accurate it looks and feels by the end. We set him as a hard-difficulty and for a couple of weeks he is my biggest adversary. Grumpy and largely silent he destroys me game after game. My first victory against him is the biggest rush I feel that whole month (a month in which I am performing daily in front of audiences of 80-100 people).

The month following I drop my phone in a toilet bowl while bleaching it. The phone dies. ‘That’s fine’ I think, I forgive myself, because life is too short to get het up about this kind of thing. I get another phone off eBay. It’s fine, I backed my phone up pretty recently. When I reinstall my new phone, I discover I have only one grandpa. The first; Sanjit. I feel sadder about losing those 3 later-made grandpas than I do about losing a whole month of pictures. I still haven’t made new grandpas and I feel bad about losing Alice’s especially. There’s just me and Sanjit now. 49 wins to his 50.

The Long Dark  hinterlandgames.com

The long dark

I am alone, mostly it doesn’t matter I’m a bit slow on FPS controls, the only time it’s hard is when the wolves come, and really, hard and panicky and not knowing if I can get away feels appropriate. I start to play it at dinner. Pat goes to bed. I play it until the early hours, my eyes scritched open as I wonder if I can make it to the next settlement, supplies are running low here and I’ve managed to craft fishing materials, mended all my clothes, maybe if I find enough food here to move on I can investigate further, learn more, survive better. I’m so tired I press the wrong button. Instead of stashing the fish, for cooking later, I accidentally eat it. I’m tired, and a stupid mistake gives me food poisoning. I was exhausted and a stupid mistake killed me.

That’s how most of us die, if we’re honest, come the apocalypse. With not enough drinking water. Or too cold. Or a small cut and no antibiotics. Not enough knowledge about medicinal herbs. A bit of fish that’s gone off. Cold, alone, and mundane. This is the game I play the second most in 2016. I think most of all I need the fiction that I can have another go.

The long dark

Of loss and understanding.

A builder's van from up the hill. Apparently my borough was the second highest 'Remain' after Gibraltr.

A builder’s van from up the hill. Apparently my borough was the second highest ‘Remain’ after Gibraltr.

During this time, post EU referendum, this confused, broken time. This time where harm is laughed at through Farage-gaped mouths. This time in which little-boys-now-men sit complacently pulling the wings off us like we are insects. This time which hurts me in a way I hadn’t realised it would, as we watch harm building up behind a dam which the boy-men pick away for the pleasure of seeing what will happen.

In this time, I think back to a show I made 3 years ago. It was called Songs for Breaking Britain. In making it, me and a band (Sean: guitar, Keir: drums) went out into the streets of cities and asked people what it meant to them to live in Britain. Not that question exactly (who can answer it?) but broken down into smaller parts; where would you say you’re from? What does that mean to you? What makes you happy? Sad? What would you change if you could? We made punk songs out of their answers.

I met people, the kind talked about in numbers. I met people each of whom I know I could have loved, I listened while they talked.

I think a lot about those conversations. About that show I could never tour,  because it involved a 4 day process in each venue, far too expensive. (If you’re interested I wrote about the process at the time).

I wrote a bit of those conversations up, two years ago, as part of a speech I gave about the Scottish independence referendum. And at this time, I wanted to share it again.

It contains words I don’t always agree with from people I met 3 years ago, before this mess. It ends with hope from a hopeful man. But it’s Nicky and Naz that I think of most at the moment.

Naz had a light blue headscarf, pencil drawn black eyeliner, and when I meet her in the cold of Febuary is wearing a chunky black coat that almost buries her. I ask her some of the questions on my piece of paper. “Where would you say you’re from”? “Stockton, here” “What does that mean to you?” “It’s hard to say, it’s hard to say isn’t it? Stockton is… it’s multicultural, I’m proud to be from here, well, it’s difficult isn’t it, proud is a complicated word – this is my home, I don’t know anywhere else.” She weighs her words again and again, it’s her home, but sometimes she doesn’t feel welcome “around the time of the 7/7 bombings, it was difficult. My children suffered, things people said. People would see you in the street and only see one thing.”

Naz is in the song we wrote but not this bit of writing. You can read a paste of the lyrics I wrote for the Stockton song here. And you can read on to hear some people I spoke to talk about Britishness. All quotes are transcribed directly from recordings.

“At the beginning of this year I made a new piece of theatre
which involved talking to people in the street about what Britishness meant to them.
I spoke to people in London, Bradford, and Stockton on Tees.
I hope to tour this piece talking to more and more people as we go.
But as for these three cities.
London, Bradford, and Stockton on Tees.

In London two people stood out
Anastasios
quite short
wavy brown hair
dark eyes
He was 35 and he spoke to me about leaving his home behind
Selling everything, his house, his car
He left his dog
and his family
“there are no jobs, no jobs in Greece now”
A cameraman who had worked in television
he explained that he was lonely
but with a pip of optimism still in him
he said finds comfort in small things,
like he’d smiled at a little boy on the bus earlier
and someone had let him pet their dog.

Then there was the woman
whose name I never did quite catch
she talked laboriously
heavy with some kind of respiratory problem
about how she had left Sierra Leone as a refugee.
Pursued into a neighbouring country.
She sang me a song which meant
“thank god for health and happiness”
and told me that her favourite person in the world was Tony Blair.
“He was the only one who ever cared about us”
“the only one. He said ‘come over here””
Tony Blair was her hero, because our country had offered her asylum.

In Stockton it was colder.
Somehow in a country I think of as small
compared to all of the others
I never really believe 3 hours on a train
will produce much of a temperature difference
I buy me and my 2 collaborators bobble hats from a charity shop on the high street.
Then we shiver standing, trying to catch people’s attention.

One of the first people who stop and speak to me
Is a young lad called Nicky.
Nicky tells me he’s just out of the army,
unemployed.
There’s a long thin scar on the right side of his face.
He’s from a local estate and when I ask about Stockton he tells me “everyone in this town is on the brown, all bagheads mate”.
I ask him what the biggest injustice in Britain is to him,
and he says it’s the NHS failing,
Nicky’s mate, largely silent next to him, suddenly speaks.
“it’s the immigrants, isn’t it? That’s why we vote UKIP”,
They explain how Stockton didn’t used to be like this, there used to open shops, jobs,
“but then they came, and now everything is worse.”
I ask Nicky about his regiment, he was 2 Yorks,
most of his family are in the armed services.
He says “the army changed my perspective,
they teach you all sorts of things,
like how lucky we are,
I can understand why people would want to come here, they have it a lot tougher.”
Nicky’s mate, as yet unnamed, speaks up again
He wants to study, earn enough points. Emigrate to Australia.
Nicky wants to be a business man
“not for the money though, money’s not the thing,
I want to find something I enjoy, something rewarding”

It occurs to me that if I were to paint a character of this person
without having met him
I might leave out details like his understanding.

In Bradford I steel myself
It is the third week of talking to strangers
and I am in a city I know mostly for race riots
Good food, post-industrial decline,
and George Galloway.
But several conversations into the day
and somehow everyone here is more positive.
There are still difficult stories:
a Pakistani boy-nearly-man
just out of prison
who speaks out of the side of his mouth
about the way the police “pick on pakis”
And a quiet spoken boy with facial pairings
fine dark black skin and university ambitions
always off to Leeds for gigs
laughs off his white mates never being stopped by the cops
when there isn’t a month goes by he’s not searched by them.

But I also meet a Bengali-Irish woman
who says
‘we’re all the same, all Bradford’
while her Pakistani-British husband smiles and nods.
A guy from Karachi who says ‘Bradford’s nice and bijoux’
And Fahard Ali.
Let me tell you…
Fahard Ali was a big man; round like a barrel of treacle.
He wore a mustard coloured flat cap,
aviator framed glasses,
reflective in the sunset.
I ask him what Britishness is to him.
When I get in, later, from talking to him I transcribe his words directly:
“I am british – it’s the language that I speak – […] being british is about the natural dominion of the island and the coast and the sea, the topography, the people, the struggles we’ve gone through, the literature, the architecture – Charles Barry, Lincoln cathedral – it’s not a singularity it’s a laminated effect of who we are – and let’s not forget it’s been 100 years since the beginning of the 1st world war – we’re also a product of that – we came out poorer, we lost 3 generations of men, had to rebuild ourselves, and empire and the loss of empire, the joining up of people through the commonwealth. You can be british if you’ve lived here four hours or if you’ve been here all your life – it’s about how you relate to it, and how you want to contribute to it. I feel happiest when I’m walking around the mills – those places – where things were happening – where cloth was being made. I’m happiest also when I’m bittersweet – those empty cathedrals of industry – it’s not that we were making something, it’s the hope and ambition it gave us. The people who came from the hay way into the city – it was about finding a better way to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves. There was something there – hope. I find myself happiest around industry. The biggest injustice is the loss of narrative. I say narrative over identity – because there are many identities. How we’ve got rid of narrative – become a homogeneous thing – […] we have no narrative of where we’ve come from, so we can’t tell where we’re going to. My favourite song is William Blake’s Jerusalem. Not as a religious song – the hope Blake puts in, and he identifies the english character of living on an island, and about hoping for something better – the reality is that the feet of god weren’t here, but we look forward to a Jerusalem of the mind.”

The next day
I speak to the director of the theatre I’m working in
and he says
“I think we feel together because we went through the riots”
There was a lot of healing that had to go on.
We saw this gulf in our communities
It hurt us.
it was hard. But the city is better now.”