With Gamercamp 2012 now officially almost half over, the Dork Shelf team reports on day one of the Toronto-based video game culture festival. The fourth iteration of the event raised the bar yet again, showcasing emerging local talents and established Canadian game development vets, as well as some high profile international quantities who helped take Gamercamp to the next level.
The University of Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre and old Victoria College building provided welcome respite from the blustery early November weather, warming attendees hearts and minds with a day full of fascinating talks, innovative games, challenging discussions, and the somewhat unexpected addition of yoga to the proceedings.
Humble as I may be, I like to think of myself as a Gamercamp vet. I can still remember Mario-themed cupcakes in a wide open white space mingle room at the Lower Ossington Theatre. A single day event capped off by Sinistar and free pizza. Then, it was a pow-wow of Toronto’s beta-stage of indie game supremacy, an early glance at the first About a Blob: Tales from Space and a rundown of Capy’s standings. Since then, Tales from Space was completed, put on PlayStation, sequelized and leading into Guacamelee, while Capybara Games released Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery which dramatically changing the way many people perceive indie gaming. Also Dyad, Sound Shapes, They Bleed Pixels and a big honking Ubisoft studio were all things that have happened in this city.
Today, Gamercamp retains the cozy affair appeal of like-minded strangers and chums, with the added draw of visitors, ranging from the New Yorkers to the New Zealanders, demo stations, showcasing local achievements like Super TIME Force, Sound Shapes, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime and vanguardian gaming experiments like European Rainbow Training and the sensory-depriving Deep Sea. I played many of them. They are fun. I also spent an abundant about of time talking with DayZ creator Dean “Rocket” Hall, which was also fun. He doesn’t seem to get tired of talking to me. That’s good.
Toronto gamers and game makers have a lot to be proud of – we’ve built a sturdy foundation leading to some magnificent exports. Gamercamp is a way to present to each other, including those who wouldn’t peek in otherwise, with the inner workings of a growing field. – Zack Kotzer
Montreal’s Vander Caballero has been making headlines with his game Papo & Yo. Most importantly it served as a memoir for Caballero’s youth, his abusive and alcoholic father taking the form of Monster, a clumsy and oddly charming beast that nonetheless could wreak havoc in the wrong circumstances.
Caballero’s voice stalled when recounting the reaction he received about Papo & Yo – and it wasn’t from reviewers. He received an email from a single father, who said Quico’s peril-fraught relationship with Monster made him realize how he would make his own son feel when yelling at him.
At Gamercamp, Caballero illustrated his presentation in real time, drawing images and rough sketches with an iPad painting app. A stick figure of a man drinking a beer, next to his cowering child, turned into the horned, pinkish Monster holding a frog instead – representing how his pitch changed from something publishers wouldn’t touch to an easily digestible fantasy scenario.
Jonathan Mak talked less about his latest release Sound Shapes as the progression of his life, with video games as major checkpoints. University life was a prison, he said, surrounded by students who knew little about what they wanted for their future. At some point, though, he met Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard, founders of Metanet Software, who spurred him on to simply create the games he wanted to play.
It was no smooth run after that spark of inspiration, though. He would spend up to a week in his basement making no contact with another human being while working on Everyday Shooter. But as failed projects turned into modest successes, he slowly built a team of 20 partners and friends to build the critical darling Sound Shapes. He’s still soft spoken and a little socially awkward, but Mak’s success speaks and sings for itself – all from a humble do-it-yourself creator who at barely 30 considers himself an old man in the Toronto game scene.
– Jonathan Ore
Well-known developers like Dean Hall and Vander Caballero may have been the most anticipated day one speakers, but the unassuming Jon-Paul Dyson made a splash in his own right. As the Director of the International Centre for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG), he’s in the business of preserving the things that make us happy, and his enthusiasm quickly became infectious during Gamercamp.
If you’ve never heard of the ICHEG, it’s time to rectify that. The ICHEG is an offshoot of the National Museum of Play, a massive complex that works to preserve the artifacts, culture, and history of toys and games. It was formally established in 2009 to focus exclusively on electronic entertainment, and thanks to Dyson’s efforts, the nascent collection already includes nearly 38,000 items.
It has everything. From handheld one-trick sports games all the way up through the current console generation. The team is even working tirelessly to preserve the culture surrounding video games, so they’ve got thousands upon thousands of back issues for various video game magazines, strategy guides, and other publications. (For the moment, internet games journalism is still on the to-do list.)
During his presentation, Dyson enumerated the many challenges facing digital conservationists. Needless to say, the task is far more intricate than it might appear. Everything breaks down given enough time (good luck finding a functioning CRT screen for a busted arcade cabinet) and while it may often seem as if the internet is forever, computer information disappears far more frequently than you might expect. Many early games have already been lost because no one took the time to store the data somewhere safe.
Preservation becomes even more difficult when recreating authentic game experiences. In some cases, it can be nearly impossible. How does one preserve FarmVille, for example, if Facebook no longer exists in the year 2137? The sheer diversity of platforms and operating systems creates a complex web of literacy that rapidly becomes obsolete once the culture has moved on. It may seem crazy now, but future generations may be as clueless with an iPhone as younger gamers currently are with an Atari.
Emulators and screen capture can help communicate the core essence of many older titles. However, the in-the-moment social environments fostered in arcades and massively multiplayer online games will always be somewhat lacking. After all, the production notes for original Shakespeare plays will never allow us to stage truly authentic adaptations of Othello, and the inherently interactive nature of gaming only magnifies the problem.
Fortunately, we still have the first generation of gamers as a living, breathing resource, so Dyson solicits private individuals, publishers, developers, and (occasionally) eBay to develop the ICHEG library. Much of his work is strictly archival, but the ICHEG does make much of the collection available to the public because they recognize that the best way to preserve a video game is to play it.
Should you wish to take Dyson up on that opportunity, the National Museum of Play is situated in Rochester, New York, only a three-hour drive from Toronto, so Dork Shelf will hopefully be making a field trip relatively soon. I recommend that you do the same. Jon-Paul Dyson knows video games, so you can rest assured that the history of the medium is safe in his hands. – Eric Weiss
Capy technical director Kenneth Yeung’s talk was all about building something out of nothing. After a few examples of how self-imposed artistic limitations can lead to new and interesting forms of expression, Yeung delved into his most recent project, Super TIME Force.
Yeung and two Capy artists — Mike and Vic Nguyen — built the core of the side-scrolling, time-bending shooter during the 2011 Toronto Independent Game Jam, an annual event where game developers of all stripes come together to build games by hook or by crook over the course of three days.
Yeung laid out the fundamental constraints imposed by the game jam: few resources, very little time, and a theme you have to stick to. For every constraint, however, Yeung and his team came up with an elegant solution. The 2D, pixel-art style of the Super TIME Force prototype was chosen because it was easy to churn out content quickly – a major advantage during a game jam. The time-travel mechanic that serves as Super TIME Force‘s core came with its fair share of temporal paradoxes — something any science-fiction aficionado understands implicitly — which meant the usual platforming mechanics wouldn’t work. Yeung had to figure out how to modify the fundamentals of the Contra-style action to suit the multiple-timeline nature of the game.
Super TIME Force is arguably such a unique proposition precisely because of the challenges imposed by the game’s origins as a game jam prototype. There’s obviously still room for a more considered, traditional form of game development. But with Capy already hosting internal game jams, it sounds like the unique character of Super TIME Force is something the fledgling Toronto studio hopes to cultivate more of. – Wesley Fok
Photos by Wesley Fok and Will Perkins