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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

A Year in Review: 2015

A review of 2015 in pictures

I’ve been feeling exhausted, all told. I’ve been ignoring my own advice, part through necessity, part through illness and injury, part through late capitalism’s construction of freelance work and it’s propensity for self-exploitation (shut up Hannah). Anyway, I was talking to a friend the other day and they said ‘how are you’ and I said ‘exhausted and I’m not proud of that’ because I was barely hanging on with my fingertips, after a year of almost no time off (and rarely a weekend day off too), and I think it’s bad to say that like it’s anything to proud of, and then they said ‘but you are aware you did a lot of super cool stuff, aren’t you’ and I paused all of the worker’s guilt for a second and then said ‘thank you’ and ‘I should probably spend a bit of time in the 12 days I have off just having a bit of a think about that’. So that’s this. My 2015. I’m writing it with a glass of wine, surrounded by my mum, brother, animals, and while Muppets Christmas Carol plays on the TV. That seems ok.

So, in no strict order, here’s some things I did

Winter/Spring:

  • Worked with The Space as a producer, both helping them to asses the applications to their Open Call and WIRED fellowship programs, as well as trying very hard to make the case for games, and other forms of digital art that Big Art are less likely to have come across.
  • I wrote some articles for The Space on the rise of the DIY/contemporary art end of games, and of a list of cool games for art folk who are non-gamers to play. As well as, later in the year, something I’m glad I got to say about DIY music and touring theatre for Fuel.
  • Wrote this poem, which I’m proud of.
  • Made a brand new 90 minutes of theatre called Equations for a Moving Body which ended up being about the people you carry with you who help you do extraordinary things. Solidarity, really. As part of this I collaborated with Third Angel, a filmmaker, 5 theatres, and won the Title Pending award. I also funded this through successful applications to both the Arts Council and the Wellcome Trust
  • Made a brand new piece of community-based sound work called Your Home From Here in collaboration with Daniel J Harvey (music) and Parkin (illustration), and ran free workshops, as part of a Ridges+Furrows commission for my home county! For the town I went to sixth form in: North Hykeham.
  • Spoke on an Almeida panel on computing/networked technology and how it’s re-shaping the way we live
  • Guested as part of Pony Boy Curtis’ new work at the Yard, writing and delivering a short piece of writing
  • Continued to support Third Angel as a board member, and also joined Something Other’s advisors, to support the super cool things Mary Paterson and Maddy Costa are doing around criticism online.
  • Ran a workshop on Storytelling With Science in Stockton-on-Tees for ARC, and did a bit of mentoring.

Summer/Autumn:

  • Trained for and completed a fucking full-length triathlon in 14 hours and 7 minutes
  • Published a zine of my collected writing called ‘Selfie’ – named after one of the poems inside.
  • Rode 210km – a new furthest ever, a month later
  • Performed/Spoke at the V&A and Now Play This on games/politics/poetry.
  • Wrote 5 Game Poems for a Wellcome Late on Play
  • Wrote 3 Game Poems alongside a scientist researching new antibiotics to help promote his ‘swab+send’ project that crowd sources the search for new bacteria to help develop new antibiotics.
  • Chapters on interactive performance for two books, DIY Too, and another forthcoming book edited by Ananda Breed
  • I was the resident speaker at Videobrains for 6 months, introducing (what I am proud to say I think were) high quality writing and performances proposing interesting and different reactions to the way we talk and think about games. This involved going on 6 walks across the country/ROI, and a substantial amount of work to support the process.
  • I started a Patreon and got some amazing support from ace backers, to produce a series on space and place and their effect on game designers
  • Got those picked up as a series of RPS articles! RPS! How cool!
  • Did a skills exchange with a friend of mine to teach them more about writing/presenting.

Winter:

  • Produced a Zine of that, which I’m SUPER excited about and which will be for sale as soon as I can afford to print it (free to Patreon backers).
  • Co-written and delivered a module for Goldsmiths, and 2 community storytelling projects for UEL. UEL students said the words to me “this has literally changed my life, I’m literally going to live my life differently”. Also mentored a game jam at UAL, which was much fun. And produced a small commission for Chichester University.
  • Performed a brand new 20 minute piece called Oh Breeze at Beta Public, as well as earlier in the year, performing an extract of Equations for a Moving Body in the Spring edition of Beta Public
  • Wrote a series of 3 critical responses to the super cool If You Go Away by Invisible Flock
  • Started road racing on my bike!
  • Moved house
  • Had a medium-serious accident on my bike, but got back on and started racing again.
  • Started the first half of a Social Housing Arts Network residency on an estate in Poplar; story collecting, running game design and poetry workshops, and making some kind of game-thing out of what I gather.

So…. That’s probably all quite good isn’t it? I learned lots of things, made headway in games – which was my big aim of the year, I made a lot of brand new things in ways I feel are important, and/or about things I think are important. I supported others doing so where I could, and did some big milestone-type things which were important to me.

Now I look forward. To some exciting things in 2016 (and many other things I haven’t invented yet), such as:

  • A revised Patreon offer – which I’m going to write ASAP, expanding on my games writing work, with some really exciting/cool stuff.
  • A curated game jam between theatre makers and game designers which I’m going to run in January in association with Winchester Theatre Royal. Which involves actually paying the designers and makers involved (line in the sand)
  • Speaking at The Story conference
  • Taking part in an ongoing network around artist activists working in housing/housing activism
  • The culmination of my community game design project, in March 2016
  • A professional development project – hopefully funded, I’m going to try learning to code well enough to use things like Unity well.
  • More game writing – critical and creative, for various outlets!
  • A game design project — in late 2016 I’m going to hopefully start something with my new skills!
  • A UK tour of Equations for a Moving Body, including a week’s run in London, and hopefully and Edinburgh festival outing
  • A book! I may have an exciting announcement in Spring about a book of my very own, from an exciting and notable publisher.
  • More teaching – I’m co-writing another module at the moment, plus also am guest lecturing at UEL, Chichester, and with a possibility of some work at Warwick.
  • More bike racing! Better bike racing! Less falling off!

And also, this year, this is the first year past I’ve earned enough to truly get by in London. Next year, I am going to get a handle on my finances enough to build up some reserves. It sounds boring (it is boring) but it will allow me to do things like take some time off if I’m ill or injured, or just need some time. So it’s a pragmatic way of dealing with the problems of now. Rather than a big-picture late capitalism solve (quiet, Hannah).

I hope I will continue to make kind good inventive and engaging arguments about the place of art/games in society.
I hope I will continue to make socially engaged work that can listen and respond to its contexts
I hope I will continue to teach others with integrity and attention and care about the things I believe are important
I hope I find time to act politically and socially in ways that aren’t about my practice
I hope I continue to progress in my sports!
I hope I can be a kind and good friend, sister, cousin and daughter.
I hope I can be a careful and good person.
I hope I laugh lots.
I hope I learn lots.

To 2015. Towards 2016. Let’s go.