Game jam at the top of the world

Fjords and nausea: aboard the first cruise ship for game-makers.

Outside, the snow is packed in glass sheets, peppered in places with stones that offer a shoe some hope of holding its grip. Here in Tromsø, the most northerly city on planet Earth (so long as you define 'city' as a place with more than 20,000 inhabitants; those people who live farther north than this tend to be loners) every season is a different shade of winter. The ice holds. Inside too - although here in the chicly Norwegian open office complex known as Flow, it has the welcome benefit of being laced with vodka. It's quarter past nine in the evening and around a hundred programmers, artists and designers, attendees of the inaugural Splash game jam, stand around sipping alcoholic slushies and eating pizza.

At midnight we'll board the MS Finnmarken, a 138.5 metre-long cruise ship which weighs 15,690 tonnes and seats a thousand, in order begin a 48-hour, 1200 kilometre cruise to Trondheim, in southern Norway. By the time the journey is complete, we will have passed through perilously narrow fjords, watched vast shoals of fish flicker in the sea, have seen a tiny bespectacled man hack a dried cod into crispy pieces using a hand axe, spent an evening carpeting one of the MS Finnmarken's 283 cabins in vomit, and sat self-consciously (us Brits, anyway) in a hot tub while, through the chlorine mist, the Northern lights billow like ghostly cosmic curtains overhead. Some may even have found the time to make a video game.

"Is anyone good at 3D art?" Tim Garbos, creator of the recent iOS hit Progress and a member of the Copenhagen Game Collective, asks in the almost-dark while a man with lank hair cues up Todd Terje tracks on his laptop behind. A number of hands go up. "How about shaders?" Another swish of arms. "What about shooting games? Is anybody here good at making shooters?" One guy standing close to the impromptu stage raises his hand and, while the rest of the room boos, amicably, begins to circle on the spot, grinning. Garbos is a veteran of game jams, the name given to these increasingly popular gatherings of game-makers, who are encouraged to collaborate with strangers to make a video game, usually to a specific theme. It was Garbos who advised Splash Jam's organisers, Runa Haukland and Henriette Myrlund, that their initial idea for a theme, 'Slippery when wet' might be a little too prescriptive. At his suggestion, Haukland and Myrlund changed it to 'Beginnings' and, before anyone is allowed to split off into groups, Garbos invites people to the stage to announce their "best worst idea" based on the theme.


The MS Finnmarken, ready for boarding

One young man takes the microphone and describes an 'endless birther' wherein the player must guide a baby through a birth canal. Next a girl outlines a game in which you play as God's hand, smiting Adam and Eve every time they move to touch a forbidden apple. A bearded Norwegian man (they are mostly bearded, and often luxuriously so) describes a VR game in which multiple players assume the role of chicks racing to peck their way out of their respective egg-shell, bobbing their heads back and forth as if caught in fellatio. Finally, a tall man in glasses establishes a dark premise involving a man who discovers a cancerous lump on his neck, and who must learn to face the consequences through the course of the game. The exercise is, Garbos explains to me later, to rid the herd mind of clichés. Only after everyone has dispensed of the obvious ideas, so the theory goes, is there room for novelty.

Novelty is the true spirit of the game jam phenomenon. Many of Splash Jam's 101 attendees, who come from no fewer than 21 different countries, from North America to Iran, work for major video game studios. Creative Assembly, EA and Telltale Games are all represented. A 48-hour game jam is an opportunity to work in a low-stakes environment on a project that isn't subject to the usual demands and constraints of major game development. A game jam project needn't be commercial, for example. It doesn't have to be polished. It needn't pretend to be politically neutral. It doesn't even have to be entirely unbroken. Myrlund, for example, works as a project manager for the Norwegian studio Framverk. During her first game jam, in 2009, her team made 'Kim Jong-il's Corridor Adventure', a game in which you play as a factory worker in a North Korean nuclear plant who must flee a metal-jawed donkey that has been let loose in the corridors (every time the donkey catches you Jong-il becomes angrier). "You can be as crazy as you like," she tells me, later. "You can experiment and try new things. It can be a great escape for people who work at larger studios."

Activision is unlikely to pick up Kim Jong-il's Corridor Adventure any time soon, and yet, many useful lessons can be learned through the process of working on this kind of guerrilla, two-nighter of a project. Information is shared, generously. Green programmers get to work alongside veterans. It's the kind of collaborative environment that forges long-term friendships too. Many of the people with whom Myrlund worked have come to Splash Jam. In fact, tickets for the event sold out in just five minutes. In the end, the waiting list reached more than 70 names. In part, that's because of the rising interest in game jams (not everyone who signed-up works in the industry; one woman who holds a doctorate in string theory came along simply to see what all the fuss was about. Ditto: a young neuroscientist.) It's also thanks to the heavily discounted tickets, which have been 80 per cent subsidised by the Norwegian film institute. For less than $100 a ticket, Splash jam attendees have the chance to enjoy a full-board two-day cruise down the spine of Norway - an attractive offer, even disregarding the vodka slushies.

We board the ship just after midnight. This is not the first game jam to take place on a ship - there is, apparently, another sea-based event in Canada - but tonight's excursion signals, as far as anyone knows, the first to take place on a cruise. The MS Finnmarken is a warren of corridors. Somewhere in its dark belly, there's a car park that can accommodate 35 cars. On the eighth floor there's a bar of fading opulence and, outside that, a modest swimming pool bordered symmetrically by a pair of sweaty hot tubs. There's a sauna, a viewing deck and, on the fourth floor, adjacent to the conference rooms in which the 'jammers' embed themselves among an instantaneous pop-up shanty town of headphones, laptops and cables, an electric piano next to a sprung wooden dance floor. On the top deck there's a vent the size of a wall, against which one can enjoy a near constant blast of warm air that smells ambiguously of cigarette smoke. The heat greatly extends the amount of time you're able to bear the shattering cold.


Jammers, in conference room one.

Unlike a house at night, a moving ship never settles. There's a constant knocking that, thanks to the deadened acoustics of a ship, sounds like someone carelessly moving heavy furniture somewhere way down in the basement. It makes sleep hard to come by. Not that the jammers have much need for sleep, anyway. At 3am on the first night, a couple of hours after we depart Tromsø, 20 or so game-makers are still busy at work in the conference room, trying out and discarding ideas, making sound effects, drawing sketches and, in one case, recording some voice over.

Despite the late night, the next morning the expansive breakfast buffet, which serves, among its smorgasbord of options, reindeer burgers, is full of jammers. Haukland explains that, for some of the impoverished 20-somethings in attendance who are trying to earn a full-time living from indie games, this is a rare chance to eat and eat and eat until they are full. This may be the poverty of the privileged dreamer (some of the attendees are told off by staff for turning up to breakfast on the first morning in socks, but no shoes). The hunger is, nevertheless, real.

We're segregated from the few dozen non-jamming passengers in a special area to the rear of the dining room. (At dinner on the final night, two retired couples are seated on a table contiguous to our cordoned-off dining area. As they strain to hear an announcement on the ship's tannoy over the sound of jammer chatter, one of the men of the group holds a furious finger to his lips and issues a 'shhh'. The jammers soon have the opportunity to return the gesture when, during an impassioned speech from one of the older attendees thanking Haukland and Myrlund for organising everything, the retirees raise their volume in revenge. Our table's waiter, a Norwegian man with a fierce undercut and, inexplicably, nine identical white pens tucked and lined up in his breast pocket, takes no sides, instead fussing unresolvedly over which one of us has the dairy intolerance, and which one the gluten allergy.)

"Did you hear about the game someone's making that's controlled using gyroscopes in a smartphone," says Anders Uglund, the designer of Krillbite studios' Among the Sleep, as we sit down to breakfast on the first morning. "It's to be played specifically boats using the rocking of the ship." Uglund salts his egg, and his blonde dreadlocks bob a bit. "I think, for a lot of people game jams are a chance to blow off steam, to make something silly that can fail, something where they can try anything."

For Ugland, this kind of absurdist work, while fun, fits the stereotypical idea of being an indie developer, a breed expected to make silly, often counter-cultural things without much commercial imperative. "I've been there," he says. "But these days I'm more interested in using jams as an opportunity to find a great and unique idea that has relevance outside of the game jam scenario. A game that's controlled by waves is an interesting idea, but it's hyper specific. It's a niche within a niche within a niche. I want to make things that are good ideas in the real world, not only within the microcosm of the game jam." Uglund is in the minority, in this context, at least. "In America, game jams tend to be a bit more commercial-minded," says Myrlund. "In Europe, people seem to be much more about exploration."


Wherever there are video games, there are trolls.

Later that morning one of the developers leads everyone in a series of Japanese salaryman-style morning stretches and exercises. We lunge, helicoptering arms and so forth. Throughout the rest of the day, people work, taking occasional breaks to visit the top deck and admire the scrolling scenery, those endless, identikit mountain ranges pocked, occasionally, by a chewing moose or water-skittering cormorant. In game design terms Splash Jam is troubled by ludo-narrative dissonance. People have come to sit and make games but, outside of that room, there is the irresistible allure of the scenery. The complaint I hear the most is, simply, that when it comes to making games, Splash Jam is a little too damned distracting.

At first, that distraction derives from the outstanding natural beauty. Then, when we struck out into the ocean proper, it becomes the distraction of nausea. The Norwegian sea has a hyper-reality that seems otherworldly to an Englishman. During one of the ship's regular stops at one of the many minor coastal ports, I disembarked (a blonde giantess on the door scans your boarding card with a beep and the bored but courteous smile of checkout girl). I stood on a nearby pontoon, centre-frame of yet another postcard vista, and looked down at a bounty of fish, with their slow-mo glides, rhythmic turns and silvery lunges. The water conjures nothing but clichés: crystal clear, deep blue, glassy and still. Until of course, it's none of those things. For the attendees of Splash Jam, that happened on the second night when the water, blackened by night, was transformed into a black, perilous and unpredictable substance.

A ship in a storm warps gravity. One moment you're weightless. The next buckles your knees with unfamiliar burden. You're surfing a sine wave and, for many of Splash Jam's participants, it was time to retreat from the laptops. A late evening 'mingle' session was cancelled due to lack of attendance. Some of us took to the top deck and watched the water in the outdoor pool swill over the sides (it had to be drained later, after one of its uplighters smashed, and its wires stretched like jellyfish tendrils into the water). Go overboard here and it'd be minutes before your froze and days before they found you. Later, after things had died down a bit, Celine Dion's 'My Heart Will Go On' came on the bar stereo, a song that, considering its cinematic associations, is a somewhat insensitive inclusion on the ship's playlist. Not that many of the jammers, bed-bound with sickness, noticed.

The next morning, those who'd been laid low by physics and then re-animated by the toothsome buffet breakfast, filed back into the conference room. Why jam on a boat, with its myriad distractions? The idea originated in America, when Haukland met Adriel Wallick, organiser of Train Jam, where 120 or so game developers take a train across from Chicago to California, en route to the Game Developer's Conference, where 30,000 game industry professionals meet for a week in San Francisco. "I wanted to bring Train Jam to Norway," explains Haukland, "but the longest train journey here lasts just eight hours. That isn't long enough for a jam. Still, I liked the idea of travelling while making games. We thought about submarines, airplanes but you need a certain amount of time to allow people the chance to actually get working. This is a famous boat in Norway. The entire trip is eleven days which is way too much. But we were able to pick a distance that worked."

The trend, if it can be called that, of creating games while on actual journeys is a way, perhaps, to contain the unpredictability of the creative process within inflexible constraints. Everybody starts and ends at the same point. When you're forced to get off the boat at 10am on a Monday morning, else risk ending up in some remote Norwegian town, there's no time for your game to be delayed. Technology's advance during the past two decades has, year by year, removed the constraints that once bound game makers. A 48-hour game jam reintroduces some useful limitations, ones that have nothing to do with financial budget. Then, of course, there's the social aspect. "I'm a solitary guy," a 3D modeller from Denmark tells me. "But I like the burst of being with a large group of people for a limited amount of time. It's a way to challenge myself to be more social."


Don't go swimming in a storm.

The MS Finnmarken docks in Trondheim in the early hours of Monday. One team of Swedish students, whose members have spent most of the weekend sightseeing and playing Magic the Gathering, starts on an entirely new game idea at 3am, just five hours before everyone is due to check out. It's never too late on a game jam, apparently, to change direction. We disembark, bedraggled and wake-weary and begin a twenty-minute trudge through the handsome city to our final destination, Work Work, another shared working space, filled with video game paraphernalia - oil paintings of Tetris, LAN-linked PS4's playing Rocket League. Once settled, it's time for everyone to show the fruits of their labour. Each team hooks their laptop up to the ten-foot projector screen and, to encouraging whoops and applause, plays through what they've made.

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There is tremendous variety in the offerings. In Blindfield, for example, two players hold a single Xbox One controller behind their back, each person clasping one of its sticks. Unable to see the screen, they must guide their respective avatars around a field towards an exit point using nothing but haptic feedback. One half of controller vibrates when their avatars are far away from the exit, the other when they are close. Another game riffs on Gears of War's active reload mechanic, requiring the player to time their button strikes in order to bring about the Big Bang. Ardo, drawn in the painterly style of Square-Enix's Secret of Mana series, is a proof-of-concept demo about the anxiety one feels when ordering food in a city where you don't speak the language. Not everyone made games. One attendee created a template that game-makers could use to apply for funding. They even went so far as to throw in a Gantt chart for managing the project.

As goodbyes are said and new friendships verified and consummated with social media hook-ups, it's clear that, even in the short space of a weekend, something special has taken place. Game-making is so often a solitary pursuit or, if you're working in a team, a complicated marriage of sorts, complete with tiffs and make-ups. In the hyper-concentrated context of a game jam, there's an opportunity for creative people from different disciplines to come together for the briefest of moments, and to mix their ingredients in a unique and potentially un-replicable recipe. As one attendee told me, "sometimes you come up with something amazing projects; sometimes you can't even remember the game you made six months later because it's just crap."

For Haukland, the games are important, but they not the enduring point of the endeavour. "I hope that people come away refreshed and inspired," she says. "But mostly I hope that they remember this their entire lives. Then when they're eighty years old they can tell their grandkids about that one time they went on a boat in the freezing cold, and made a video game."

Transport and accommodation to the event was provided by the event's organisers.

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