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What Would Molydeux?

Eurogamer drops in on Brighton MolyJam 2012.

For the past day and a half, Kerry Turner has been thinking about swans. She's been making a game using Flixel - this is an open-source Actionscript library put together by Canabalt creator Adam 'Atomic' Saltsman - that's loosely based, she tells me, on the fairy tale about the swans and the princes. I have never heard of this fairy tale, but, as she's worked on the game for many hours without taking much of a break, Kerry has the look of a person who isn't to be argued with.

"One of the swans has a crown," she explains. "I got quite emotional drawing it." She narrows her eyes and leans forward, staring at the screen. "Actually, the crown looks a bit too jaunty."

While Kerry busts out some de-jauntifying code - I'm sure Epic makes a plug-in - right next to her, Iestyn Lloyd is hacking away at a game about a door that kills people. It's called Murdoor, obviously, and he's building it in Unity. During the week, both Iestyn and Kerry work together at Littleloud, a developer based right here in Brighton. This weekend's game jam has nothing to do with work, though - even if Littleloud, along with good old Relentless, is providing the sponsorship. Instead, it has everything to do with Peter Molydeux.

Peter Molydeux is one of the most talked-about game designers of the last few years, and that's weird since he doesn't really exist. He's a twitter account set up anonymously to spoof the grandiose schemes of the legendary Bullfrog and Lionhead boss Peter Molyneux, and he's a bit of an internet favourite.

You are a Pigeon who must go around the city trying to persuade business men not to jump off buildings by retrieving items from their home.

I probably don't have to explain this aspect of the story very much but, alongside being involved in the creation of Populous, Syndicate, and the Fable series, Molyneux's well known for dreaming big, as ad men might put it. He describes his design ideas with an astonishing emotional vividness, making claims for his games that sometimes - just sometimes - don't turn out to stand up to much scrutiny, and if you ever see him talking, you can see his green eyes twitch very occasionally, and you can sense his rational mind, barricaded deep within his head, held hostage by his showboating imagination.

One of his most famous pronouncements came during the development of the original Fable, where he suddenly decided that players would be able to plant an acorn and see it grow into a tree. That doesn't actually sound like very much fun, really, but it didn't make it into the finished game, anyway, and Lionhead eventually spoofed the whole thing in the form of a Fable 2 quest. Cycle forward a few years and Peter Molydeux pretty much owns the entire Molyneux spoofing industry.

According to the Android Twitter app, @petermolydeux joined the social networking site on June 11th, 2009. Since then he has been broadcasting a series of luminously deranged game ideas that almost sound like they could have sprung from the mouth of the real Molyneux.

"You play a ghost in a doctor's waiting room who only children can see. You must inspire them to make the best Lego/duplex constructions?" "What if you rode a horse that knew the solution to every puzzle? Could you still ride the horse knowing that you can't communicate with it?"

The best Molydeux tweets always end with that sweet little question mark, inviting you in to a strange, optimistic mirror world where anything is possible, and everything is permissible. Welcome to Molyland! For a while, Molydeux was a fake Twitter account like all the other fake Twitter accounts, albeit it one that was a little wittier than most, but then something happened. Someone turned one of Molydeux's game ideas into a real game. After that, lots of other people decided to get in on the act, too.

All of which brings us back to Brighton on an unseasonably hot Sunday in late March. This is the weekend of What Would Molydeux?, an international game jam "celebrating the works of @PeterMolydeux." All around the world - in New York, Boston, Sydney, Munich, Vegas and scores of other cities - coders and designers are coming together, forming small teams or going it alone, and working on games inspired by one or more Molydeux tweet.

By the end of the weekend, there will be over 300 finished, playable titles, in fact. There's the likes of Tether, by Alex Ni over in Austin, exploring "What if you lived in a world where all guns are required to be plugged into wall sockets?" while Ben Pitt - 'location: internet' - wrestles with, "Have you ever played a racing game and wanted to play as the road rather than the cars?" only to emerge clutching You Are The Road.

Romantic parkour game in which you and the love of your life must hold hands and jump around a city evading death and injury.

Down here in Brighton, Kerry's swan game Six originated with two tweets - "You know in cut scenes when it says "3 months later..."? What if the game ACTUALLY locked your save file for 3 months?" and "What if games rewarded you for believing rather than winning?" Meanwhile Murdoor, which feels a little like Robotron crossed with Pinball, has, "just imagine for a moment that you could actually take CONTROL of a door," to thank for its casual violence. Molydeux's clearly never played Gunpoint.

The Brighton jam's being held in a work share space in the North Laine - just down the road from my dazzlingly handsome Greek dentist, as it happens. Coders are spread across two or three rooms, surrounded by pizza boxes, cans of Carlsberg, and a large mural of Heinz Wolff - two of these three details border on gamedev cliché - while a Spotify playlist cycles from Daydream Believer to Oh Carolina and then, thankfully, back again.

The event's been organised by Edd Parris, who, most of the time, works for a social business consultancy firm that sounds sufficiently cutting edge to make it into the next William Gibson novel. Over the last few days, though, he's been making his own game, Attached to Verticals, which is a bit like Canabalt, but set in a world in which, as Molydeux puts it, "horizontal is impossible". He's also ensured that everything else runs smoothly.

"Anna Kipnis in the States tweeted asking whether there'd ever been a game jam based on Molydeux's ideas before," Parris tells me, when I ask how he ended up handling the show down on the south coast. "That was about two weeks ago, and people seemed to like the idea so it started coming together. I was watching all this on Twitter, so when someone set up a Google doc to gauge interest, I added my name to it. I was the only person from Brighton who added my name, but I figured since we had such a lot of developers here, we should try and do something so I wouldn't just be sitting in my bedroom."

For a while, there were rumours that the real Molyneux would be turning up to bless the Brighton event, but sadly he was a no show. He did appear at the London jam on the Friday, however, where he gave what Parris characterises as a "very inspiring speech". (The Brighton MolyJammers, typically, spent all of Friday night in the pub.)

You are a bear but for some reason your oxygen comes from hugging people. Problem is that hugging people breaks their bones.

When I ask Parris what he thinks it is about Molyneux that inspires such cheeky creativity, he suggests it all comes down to "his big ideas that quite often fall flat... He promises so much that he can't deliver, but when you see him talk about stuff, he's so passionate. He really wants you to have these emotional connections. You feel his pain but it's kind of a little bit funny at the same time. That sounds a bit mean, doesn't it? He'll never give up, though. He'll never give up and that's amazing."

Happily, Molyneux's trademark strain of blunt positivity seems to have spread for the weekend. Everywhere I look there are people working quietly together, and when I go over to chat, I discover that they've actually come here from as far away as Chelmsford and Leamington, and almost all of them had never met each other before Friday. Crucially, they're all building games that are in part made possible by the surge in cheap, efficient middleware: Unity, Flixel, Impact, XNA. This is the indie movement's handicraft revolution in the flesh. It's like being wrapped up within the warm folds of an Etsy Pop'n TwinBee pashmina.

Six o'clock on Sunday sees the Brighton coders downing tools and gathering around for awards. There's been a real range of games made, from an arcade offering about a robot who hugs killers to calm their nerves to a strategy title in which you soothe babies who are travelling alone on a rather strange airplane, as well as a verbose text adventure starring a pigeon. The pigeon game is currently still a work in progress, but it already features a range of stats that change depending on your actions. How Molyneux is that?

When it comes to the winners, Murdoor walks away with "Most Visionary", while a truly brilliant game about a kite with a dark secret gets "Most Emotionally Engaging", and "Most Excellent" goes to something called Super Forest Defense. The trophies are copies of Dungeon Keeper, Magic Carpet, and Gene Wars respectively. (You can check all of the Brighton MolyJam games out for yourself, by the way, where you should be able to see all of the other titles that stuttered to life around the globe this weekend.)

It's been a mad 48 hours, by the looks of it, but everybody's leaving with a real sense of achievement. Parris, weary, and with dozens of tables and chairs to stack away, admits that, like many of the attendees, he'd probably never have finished a game if it wasn't for Molydeux's roundabout prompting. "I've been messing about with experiments for ages, but it had never come to anything really," he says. "Actually having spent a weekend at it, I've now got a proper game out of it, end-to-end. I'm amazed at what I've done. Now, if I can think of a grander idea, maybe I can do that too."

He laughs at his rather Molyneux-esque turn of phrase. "Grander ideas. That's what it's all about, right?"

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