Martin Hollis, the designer of Rare’s formative and genre-inciting console first person shooter GoldenEye, could be accused on going soft in recent years. The man whose work with virtual guns and explosions has defined the combat video game form during in the past decade has traded his virtual Bond armory for gentler tools, from the garden shears of 2009’s Bonsai Barber to cupid’s reticule in Aim For Love, an open air multiplayer game he designed for this year’s GameCity festival, held in Nottingham last month.
“The rational explanation for my shift in interest is that there are plenty of video games about conflict, aggression, guns and militarism and that intense anxiety of success and failure already,” he says. “I’m interested in making games that step away from all that. I’m tired of the six-thousand-odd year history of zero sum games that represent a story about one person’s success and another’s failure. I want to explore the alternatives.” For Hollis, who is now a father, there’s also a more personal reason for his new quest: “I suspect my shift in interest is also because I’m older now, more mature and less easily led by patterns and conventions in the video game industry. I am more able and free to push in a new direction.”
Aim For Love is certainly a new direction, even if it’s a game that is still ultimately played down a weapon’s sights, just like GoldenEye and its cavalcade of impersonators. Played out in Nottingham Market Square, two random passersby are invited to take control of two roaming cameras, whose images are projected on giant screens that face the surrounding shoppers. Together the pair must pick two people out of the crowd that they believe might get along, by aiming the sights on their faces. Once selected, the two willing new recruits make their way to the now vacant controllers, greet one another and the game begins again. It’s a simple idea designed to form connections between strangers, as they collaborate to choose the next players in sequence. But the unique setting and hardware involved – a bustling market square, two giant televisions screens, high-mounted roaming cameras – are unusual, even in more experimental game design.
“The idea came to me in the middle of a restless night,” explains Hollis. “Iain Simons, the director of GameCity called me one day to ask if I’d be interested in making a game for the set-up. That night I couldn’t sleep but, in the morning, I had the idea for Aim For Love fully formed in my mind. Originally I pictured the two people playing in a room, elevated above the crowd. But as we tested we realised it was preferable to bring people together.”
Hollis play tested the concept at one of GameCity’s seasonal on-the-road events, held at the Macarts centre in Birmingham. “Ideally we’d be testing every week for months in Nottingham on the two large screens, but there was no budget to do this. So it was a matter of getting components of the games working with a few people.” Hollis tested the game with “a few handfuls of enthusiastic, game-interested, highly informed and articulate people”, cobbled together with two laptops, webcams and two small screens. “The aesthetic was horrible,” he says. “Everything was held together by Sellotape and string.” Even with an engaged video game literate audience, there was considerable social shyness to overcome. “A large number of people didn’t want to be on cameras at all. There were no obvious extroverts. A lot of shy people and a few who really didn’t want to be involved at all. But even in that environment we were able to draw people in.”
Despite the success of the play-testing Hollis was nervous when it came to the first day of the live event in Nottingham. Working with the public, who may be self-conscious, unclear or afraid of what they were being asked to participate in, he had no idea whether there would be an issue finding willing partakers. “The GameCity volunteers were crucial here,” he explains. “They created a consensus that other people would see it was a positive, friendly vibe.” Hollis also hired a DJ to play music to draw people in. “It’s not like a nightclub in the market square,” he says. “It’s so open and such an eclectic set of people. The music helps people to slow down, stop and entertain their curiosity.”
The drawbacks and challenges of playing a communal game with the public in a market square are obvious. On the first day the game was rained off – “the first time I encountered that bug in any of my games,” he jokes. But there were also advantages. “There was total demographic representation,” says Hollis. “We had late middle aged people playing with teenagers. All manner of pairings. Also, we occasionally had the obvious heteronormative boy and girl of roughly compatible ages.”
The mild illicit thrill of bringing the sexes together has been a feature of parlour games for more than a century. This breaking of social barriers has been partly responsible for the success of social video games such as Johann Sebastian Joust. Indeed, during Aim For Love groups of boys and girls were brought together, some even awkwardly exchanging phone-numbers. But for Hollis, it was important to make the game inclusive to all sexualities.
“I think the mechanics do tend towards being heteronormative because most people think of boy/girl in answer to the question: Aim For Love,” he says. “So we did considerable work around the edges to make it more open and more diverse. The logo on the top of the screen was a rainbow of colours with six hearts, each representing a person which I think this suggests diversity, a spectrum of different kinds of people. The language we used in instructing players was important too. We asked them to choose two people who ‘you think could make good friends’. This subtlety changes the way in which people approach the game. I think it was a success in trying to design a game that was inclusive.”
It may be too much of a stretch to say that, with Aim For Love, Hollis is trying to redress the balance towards conflict-based games that his earlier work helped establish. But he does believe that the idea of eschewing conflict in favour of love for a game’s subject matter offers a rich seam. “I’m totally certain there are many more games that can be made in that space of human connection, creating moments between people, stories that are about collaboration, not aggression,” he says. “But 2013 is still very early in terms of exploring this. It is going to be decades before one can look around and see a thriving community and ecosystem of games that match that description.”