It’s nine in the evening at the BFI Southbank, and while Skyfall’s still packing out screens at the nearby IMAX, there’s a more eclectic selection of films showing here in the venue next to the Thames. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is terrifying an audience in some dark corner of the cavernous building, while a curated selection of contemporary foreign films are on its other screens. We’re not here for the movies, however, we’re sitting in the room where Dave Gibbons, Beneath A Steel Sky artist and co-creator of Watchmen, is drawing a picture of a very angry looking man with a beard. As Gibbons’ sketch begins to form – thick neck, bristly facial hair and beady, fierce eyes – the guesses begin.
“Rome: Total War?”, shouts one audience member. She’s wrong, but there are hints that she’s on track with the war theme.
“Gears Of War?”, suggests another. Technically, we’re supposed to be writing our answers down – but this is a rather casual quiz.
Finally, as a right arm, and the axe in its grip, begins to emerge, someone gets it: “God of War!”, they shout. And if you squint, it does look a bit like Kratos. Next, Gibbons barely has time to draw a wickedly hooked beak before someone correctly identifies an angry bird.
There’s only one occasion we can think of where you’ll see Davetionary – a Pictionary variant in which the co-creator of Watchmen tries to draw images of games he’s never heard of – being played, and that’s a GameCityNight. After kicking off the festival’s first tour in Bradford, director Iain Simons and co-host James Newman have travelled down to the south bank for the second show in their calendar.
The auspicious surroundings haven’t changed a thing, however. This is still a relaxed, cozy evening – a feeling heightened by the contrast with the gloomy November drizzle outside, and which even the price of the drinks at the BFI-run bar can’t spoil. Audience participation is encouraged, and when Simons takes his seat to interview Gibbons he’s happy to take questions from the off.
Gibbons isn’t a typical gamer. In fact, he admits, his experience of gaming is mostly second hand: he used to play with his son, he says. He speaks fondly of his time on Beneath A Steel Sky, however, and shows a deep appreciation for elements of videogame craft that he sees reflected in comics.
“[Charles Cecil] was quite prescient in realising that one of the important things in entertainment is world-building” Gibbons says, after Simons asked what attracted him to work in games in the first place. “And that’s what [Alan Moore and I]‘d done in Watchmen, we kind of built a world. As much as it had an intricate story, and as much as it was about how we told the story, we’d actually created a whole alternate universe, and I think Charles thought that that’s what you’re doing in a game. You’re creating a feasible world.”
The loose theme running through these evenings is how we preserve those worlds, which made the choice of venue an appropriate one. The tour started at the home of the National Videogame Archive (which both Simons and Newman help run), and it’s hard not to see the parallels between the BFI’s cultural and curatorial remit and the work Newman and Simons are doing in games – albeit with considerably less funding and a rather more informal approach. They started the evening off in blackly comic fashion, informing the audience that everything is ephemeral and that we’re all going to die, before asking us to think about how games, and which titles, should be preserved.
Both the theme and the rather relaxed approach reach their peak at the end of the night, when Simons commands everyone to stand up and indulge in a live-action take on the WiiVote channel. We’ve all written down names of loved games – not the best games, Newman stresses, but the mundane games that mean the most to us – and a dividing line has bisected the floor. Two game names are going to be read out and whichever gets the most votes (deciding by walking over to its half of the room) stays on in a process of elimination until only a winner remains. We’ve just begun mulling over the scientific merits of this particular approach to curatorship when Newman cuts off our incipient thoughts: “Don’t point out the flaw in this process”, he says with a grin. “Because we know”.
It’s a fun fifteen minutes all the same. Super Mario Kart puts in a strong, early showing – even defeating the mighty Resident Evil 4, before Portal comes along and throws the SNES racer off its perch. But in a surprising outcome to a battle of comic giants, Monkey Island 2 defeats Valve’s title before becoming locked in a dead heat with its own predecessor. After Simons and Newman rather arbitrarily break the tie (declaring the original Monkey Island the victor) the eliminations continue until a winner is declared.
It’s not the only game we play during the evening. Earlier, Simons and Newman presented attendees with a series of slides that showed mashed-up images of famous game characters – Master Chief with Yoshi’s head, one of Journey’s robed figures sporting Sonic’s sneakers – and asked us to identify the constituent parts. Later on, we had to recognise videogame music tracks played in reverse (Tetris’ theme sounds oddly similar, it turns out). And then, of course, there was Davetionary. There’s a silly air of the parlour game to GameCityNight’s diversions, but it only serves to further distance them from the slicker, more commercial offerings of other game shows, and to remind everyone attending of the hobby they share. Simons and Newman might not have the resources of the British Film Institute, but they filled one of its halls with an equal amount of passion for a night.
– November 21: Dublin Science Gallery, Dublin
– January 24: Antenna, Nottingham
– January 29: Arnolfini, Bristol
– January 31: Junction,Cambridge
– February 5: MAC, Birmingham
– February 22: Animated Exeter Festival
– February 23: GEEK2013, Margate
– February 25: Carriageworks, Leeds
– February 26: FACT, Liverpool