The fifth floor of the Arnolfini arts centre and gallery in Bristol has a cold, ultramodern flair. Concrete floors, white walls, sparsely furnished. It’s the sort of place where you expect to find a bunch of people sipping wine, squinting at obtuse artwork and talking in politely hushed voices. Tonight is a bit different. People are being invited to raise their voices. There’s wine for sale, but you can also get a bottle of Hadouken IPA from Welsh microbrewery Tiny Rebel. Welcome to the Bristol stop on the GameCity Nights tour, a videogame-themed variety show and exhibition.
GameCity director Iain Simons greets the 80 or so people in attendance and does his best to warm up the crowd, taking an informal poll of what retro hardware people have been playing lately. He’s flanked by Professor James Newman who assists in organising Nottingham’s annual GameCity Festival and heads up the UK’s National Videogame Archive. There’s an improvisational feel to tonight’s programme, like it’s being tweaked and formulated on the fly in response to the makeup of the crowd. Newman mentions the story of a previous GameCity Nights event in which an elderly woman looked on in awe at somebody playing Manic Miner, eventually asking in disbelief, “Is he making that stuff happen on the screen?”
Simons has an audience volunteer stand by the switch and cut off the lights before various pre-recorded videos, in order to, in his words, “establish the theatricality of the evening”. The improvisational approach is always gamble and not every aspect of the programme hits home. A video montage of blurry shots captured in the used game aisles at a high street shop plays on the screen while Newman delivers a spoken-word monologue about the rapid devaluation of old games. He has some interesting reflections to share, but his voice is only barely audible, drowned out by a soundtrack of what sounds like laboured breathing. The delivery combined with the slow-motion camera shots and darkness has a soporific effect, like an on-stage magician talking a volunteer into deep hypnosis. Not an ideal way to get a large group of people amped up for a night of indie gaming frivolity.
Despite a handful of false starts up front, there’s an electricity in feeling like you’re watching a live performance in which anything can happen. You’re not being presented with a canned meal, one that’s going to taste the same every time. You’re getting a unique recipe that’s being tweaked as it goes, adapted to you and the people sitting around you. It’s an approach that’s well suited to the videogame medium, which is all about dynamic situations and experimentation. Occasional fail states are just part of the experiment. You just start over and try a different approach. The experience is different every time, and so it is with GameCity Nights.
A number of local indie developers have brought along work to show. And, as if to further underscore the adaptability of the event, one of the teams had just been added to the lineup on the day of the event after Rose Robbins had posted to the GameCity Nights Facebook message a note that said, “Hi! Any chance a couple of late-on-the-update game developers could have a spot showing their new game project tonight? Sorry for the late notice!”
Sure enough, she and her co-designer Pete Shadbolt brought along a demo of their Zelda-inspired game Hardware Island featuring a pair of lovingly hand-drawn comic characters named Horace and Emma, who have washed ashore on an island and set about exploring. “We’ve never done this before,” says Robbins sheepishly from the front. “We just released it a couple of days ago and then heard about this.”
After each of the developers in attendance finish offering a brief introduction to their titles and showing some teaser screenshots, it’s time to play. The crowd excitedly filters over to the other side of the space where the developers have tables set up to show their titles.
At a table on the other side of the room, Nisse Hellberg of Skull Bang Games, the developer of a digital adaptation of card game The Battle for Hill 218, simply has an iPad sitting in front of him on the table. The fact that he has a game to show is enough. That’s why we’re all here. A queue gradually forms as he explains the rules to the first expectant player.
We’ll be following up this report with a closer look at the titles on show at GameCity Nights’ Bristol event. For more information, visit www.nights.gamecity.org. GameCityNights takes place in association with Maxis and Sim City.