Not futile

Small steps towards a better world still create essential momentum.

Not futile

On my desk there’s a pot of jam, mounted importantly on a little block of wood. Looks delicious, but I’ve probably missed my opportunity to eat it. I won it at Global Game Jam in 2014, where I took my laptop to practice making music. As well as participating, I also play jam games, in my search for interesting indies. I love how designers can use limited time, scope and a unifying theme to explore bite-sized concepts that are artistic, mechanical or technical. Jam games do sometimes eventually become full indie titles. Or they demonstrate some useful new idea in its embryonic form. 

The recent Resist Jam hinged on the theme of “resisting oppressive authoritarianism” as well as sub-themes like “this is how it feels” and “migration power.” Also prioritising concepts like hardware accessibility and localisation, the resulting games are varied, intriguing and of impressive quality. Just head to Resist Jam’s site and play directly from there. They’re all free to play.

Games like Tending the Resistance, where you water flowers and watch the butterflies, make their point incredibly simply. Others combine uncomplicated mechanics with deeper story. I particularly enjoyed Facts and Futures, which rewarded signal matching tasks with an enigmatic narrative, delivered by evocative voice acting. 

Illegal Alien saw my little character hopelessly trying to earn money making pizza while people were shooting at them. I have no idea if the game can be beaten, but I did try. In Swamp Alchemy, I combined a skull with a mushroom to make a race of forest imps that society promptly marginalised and segregated. I left feeling like a defeated god. In Love Thy Neighbour, a nicely written text adventure, I explored a person’s memories and past. Somebody is Listening is like a simple Hacknet, where you investigate a crime by noticing who is calling who. 

My friend, John Kane, made Sonder, where statements about friendship are represented through satisfying puzzle scenarios. I also loved Playground Break, a series of competitive schoolyard games you can play against others. It reminded me of Epyx’s California Games, except that the music made it hilarious, somehow. There was also a pixel-art point and click adventure, The Last Hope, which captured my attention for its monochromatic art and bleak setting, but I couldn’t progress from my prison cell. (I believe it is unfinished but it made its point regardless.)

I think my favourite browser game from Resist Jam, however, was Wake Up, by Inverge Studios. You arise on Day 236 of the Regime by selecting a pop-up circle, then on subsequent days, and have to make a series of choices about your life. You could select a circle to kiss your partner or make a coffee, but there is always an oppressive sense that you should be at work immediately. While working, you might get flashes of exhaustion or an opportunity to rebel. In time, the people you meet can shape your life in ways will have consequences. 

Wake Up is definitely reminiscent of Papers Please, with the sense of constant, menial tasks requiring attention. After playing, I wanted to smash the alarm clock that wakes you up each day. What seems noticeably more obvious, immediately, is the protagonist’s desire to rebel. Refusing to conform is rewarded with friendship, new directions and circles that behave evocatively if you’re frightened, angry or heartbroken.

As bleak as it may be, Wake Up is an emotional game. It explores issues like unfairness, control and identity, exemplifying the themes Resist Jam centred on. I’ve provided more information about this one game, but all the games that I’ve mentioned this month are suitable accompaniments to your coffee break and will leave you with some small inspiration or feeling of empowerment. Who said games can’t contribute towards meaningful change and progress? Art will always be political. It’s interesting to appreciate it when it’s deliberately so.

When I’m trying to encourage my composition students to participate in game jams, I get them to go to the Indie Game Jams website, and browse the many jams that are happening on any given day. Quantity is interesting, but quality happens as a result of great planning. Resist Jam even had a series of online lectures from industry professionals to support creators. Resisting oppression is important to many people and Resist Jam allowed designers to create a surprisingly special collection of beautiful, powerful and moving games. 

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