Encampment and an i am a gamer Post-Mortem


As we wrote on Thursday, this weekend we (Andrew and Lucas) participated in the first “i am a gamer” game jam here in Vancouver. It was our first game jam ever, and it was completely amazing.

But it was amazing not simply because it was a good jam (though from what we hear, game jams are pretty awesome by default). It was amazing because more than 150 people were crammed into a single room in Vancouver (with many more off-site) making games with strong female protagonists. 150 people came together, many of them (including us) forgoing more than a couple hours of sleep over the entire 3 day (48 hour) event, to show ourselves and others how awesome games can be if they were more inclusive. And many of them -- a surprising number of them, actually -- were also doing their very first game jam. And just like that, before the jam even began it had already succeeded in proving that games culture is more open, more welcoming and more diverse than we thought.

We want to give a quick shout-out to Kimberly Voll, the organizer of the jam -- not only for the concept and how great the jam was, but from a practical standpoint, too. The food provided was always delicious, and there was always enough. The environment wasn’t too cramped and the volunteer staff was very helpful. No one had anything stolen, etc. All good things. But what will be most memorable for us is the collective personality of the group, the vibes, if you will.

And the results were generally very cool. There were several games that were takes on standard mechanics, but with women as the samurai/warrior/gunslinger/hacker. There were several that specifically dealt with issues women face--in one beat-em-up, you are beating up the negative issues/inner demons women deal with on a daily basis (depression, unfair cultural expectations of beauty, etc.). Some games were totally complete, most still rough but workable.

We were really impressed by the number of games that not only featured a female protagonist, but featured a woman of colour. One game featured a disabled women. One specifically featured a woman of colour who also didn’t conform to cultural standards of beauty--but was more like an actual real person. This just doesn’t get done very often.

Some games were almost impossibly polished and complete, like Noel Berry’s Outpost, and team ceMelusine’s Hex (one of our absolute favorites at the jam). We especially loved the interplay between the scientist and the witch character archetypes in Hex. The game starts out with a scientist, who is also a woman of colour, about to be sacrificed for her “witchcraft,” when an actual witch steps from the crowd to save her. They must then escape the cave together, with a displeased and hungry demon in tow. Not only was the game very polished, and fun to play, it also explored something that is often neglected when talking about female characters in media: the story and dialogue was focused on the friendship between the two women. There are arguments and there is a shoulder to lend; they are two women helping each other through the trial. That was cool.

We came to i am a gamer with a plan, with a game in mind that we wanted to create. The inspiration came from Jennifer Hepler -- a Bioware writer who, in a 2006 interview, said that she thought games should have a way to skip through combat so players who just wanted the story could just get the story.

>Q: What is your least favorite thing about working in the industry?

>A: Playing the games. This is probably a terrible thing to admit, but it has definitely been the single most difficult thing for me. I came into the job out of a love of writing, not a love of playing games... I’m really terrible at so many things which most games use incessantly — I have awful hand-eye coordination, I don’t like tactics, I don’t like fighting, I don’t like keeping track of inventory, and I can’t read a game map to save my life.

...If there was a fast-forward feature on games which would let me easily review the writing and stories and skip the features that I find more frustrating than fun, I’d find it much easier to keep abreast of what’s happening in the field.

>Q: If you could tell developers of games to make sure to put one thing in games to appeal to a broader audience which includes women, what would that one thing be?

>A: A fast-forward button. Games almost always include a way to “button through” dialogue without paying attention, because they understand that some players don’t enjoy listening to dialogue and they don’t want to stop their fun. Yet they persist in practically coming into your living room and forcing you to play through the combats even if you’re a player who only enjoys the dialogue. In a game with sufficient story to be interesting without the fighting, there is no reason on earth that you can’t have a little button at the corner of the screen that you can click to skip to the end of the fighting.

When someone on Reddit dragged the quote back up last year, the the internet attacked her. Jennifer had just joined Twitter, and only a few weeks after creating it. she had to delete her account. The cybermob had chased her off, literally silencing her.

So when we were looking for something that was apropos to the topic of the jam, and also might be doable in 48 hours, we remembered the controversy and had an idea. A game with no combat, focusing entirely on the story and the relationships between characters. That’s a game we wanted to play, too.

But before we continue on, we think it’s important for us to note: We did not make this game because we think that women want or need games without difficult combat sequences, something that is sometimes suggested by both mainstream and feminist gamers. This suggestion is very problematic, reinforcing gender-based biases and helping to perpetuate the mysteries and myths of real-geek-girls vs fake-geek-girls.

We made this game because we wanted to play it ourselves. Both of us have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours playing RPGs, and we love both the stories and the combat. Andrew once spent an entire summer leveling his party up to the max level in Xenosaga because he wanted to push the battle system to its limits. Andrew also maintains that the combat in Dragon Age: Origins was easily the least enjoyable part of an otherwise great game.

More than anything, we wanted to see if a game devoid of the traditional and expected RPG mechanics could still be a fun, fulfilling, and enjoyable experience. We believed it could. But we wanted to prove it.

Encampment is what we came up with.

Imagine, for those of you who have played Bioware-like games before, Dragon Age in which the entire game that you experience is solely the scenes that take place in camp.

Your characters talk about how they have to go kill the dragon, and they leave camp -- and the scene fades to black, and when it fades back in, the dragon has been killed and your companions are all talking about it.

Suddenly you have a game in which the actual combat is completely unimportant, but the story and character-based results of that combat is. You have a game that’s about the journey, and about the interactions and relationships with your companions.

That’s what we set out to make. And we succeeded, we think -- or at least, we succeeded at making the first few scenes. But we aren’t done. We have three full acts written. We want to finish this game.

We were going to introduce both a woman of colour and a transgender character as new (romanceable) companions. Ironically, we were so proud of these characters, we wanted to save their reveals for last, and it was only after we ran out of time that we realized what a mistake that was. Including more diverse characters is very important to us and this is another reason why we’re itching to finish.

But until then, you can download the full demo here. (And you can check out the other game jam games here!)

Please, check it out, and tell us what you think. Are we successful? Is it fun? Would you want to see what happens next? Do you have any ideas for how to improve it?

This game is in our bones now.

-Andrew and Lucas