Thom’s Top Ten Play Experiences of 2013

by Thom Kiraly

A year ago, Douglas Wilson, designer of Johann Sebastian Joust, published his look back at 2012. This is close to how I look at games and so I give you: my top ten play experiences of 2013. Now, I call them “play experiences” instead of games for two reasons. First, some of them are not really games, or even single instances of play, but they’re still playful. Second, I call the journal I keep on this blog my “Play Journal” and I think that this recap should mirror that. Speaking of the journal; I’m going to steal a bunch of stuff I’ve already written in there for this list. You are going to be OK with this.

Before I go on to the actual meat of the list, I want to thank everyone who has played with me this past year. A clear pattern in the experiences listed below is that none of it was achieved by staring at a screen all by my lonesome. Some things (like The Stanley Parable and Gone Home) came pretty close, but ultimately had to give way for more intense, heart-warming, social, spiritual, communal or silly stuff. These sorts of things demand other people willing to open up and be playful in an inviting way, at times challenging and pushing you to do better, at other times making an effort and realizing the gravity of the play at hand. Thank you, everyone.

Hvid Død (September 6)
Short larp for twelve(ish) people. No talking allowed. Played in minimalist setting. Everyone wears black. Loud music plays. Everyone dies. It’s beautiful.

Hvid Død - eat _ Peter Munthe Kaas

Photo: Peter Munthe Kaas

2013 was the year I started larping for real. It’s amazing to me that this did not happen sooner since I’ve been playing RPGs, hung out with larpers and been invited, and pretty close to actually going, to countless games. Other larps will be mentioned below, but Hvid Død was something above and beyond anything I can hope to experience any time soon.

As has been the case with many of my best roleplaying experiences, this game allowed for a collective and temporary falling in love on a group level. A love marked by a feeling of absolute acceptance between the players. Hvid Død is a very physically active game and as I often do with these things (dance, play, moshpits) I went all in. It paid off, big time. There really is no way to have a good experience with this sort of scenario without allowing yourself to be swept away, as well as making sure to do some of that sweeping yourself. I was later asked how much of this scenario is just group hallucination á la The Emperor’s New Clothes, and I guess there’s some of that going on, but if that’s the question you ask during play, this game will suck real bad. This may sound like an attitude more fitting for a christian telling people to pray their problems away, but I think that this scenario absolutely requires an open and honest play attitude to work. First of all, it’s all about body play so there’s no hiding behind words in the way other larps can end up only being about hypothetical and intellectual relationships between fictional characters. This emphasis on body forces the character interactions to also be very personal and physical player interactions. If you, as a player, give and accept what is given at that point, your play is going to be all the better for it.

Hvid Død has provided me with the basics for approaching all larps from a different angle going forward. I’m happy I got to play in it and I hope you take the chance to play it if the opportunity presents itself. This goes for all larpers, even if you’re initially made uncomfortable by the idea of a larp involving physical contact (god knows I would have been had I read a bit more about it beforehand). And hey, make sure to trust the other players and give them reasons to trust you. We’re only in it for the play.

Hvid Død - pray _ Peter Munthe Kaas

Photo: Peter Munthe Kaas

NGC afterparty (May 23)
A party I organized at Moriskan in Malmö. Kick-ass music. Lotsa dancing and playing. Cool projections on stage. Amazing people.

NGC

Photo: Tommy Rousse

I had the great fortune/misfortune to be responsible for organizing (the cool) part of the Nordic Game Conference afterparty and even though I had irregular heartbeats for two days after the event, I’m very glad I did it.

This party was all I had hoped Spelkultur i Skånes Spelrum:Digital night club/game nights would have been. There were retro games, Jousting, kick-ass music, local multiplayer games and a ton of wild dancing.

I jousted with a  whole pack of chatty Brits trying to throw me off by talking — a lot. It worked.
I screamed into a microphone as way of introducing performers.
I struggled to get games running properly on the backdrop screen.

All in all, I had a pretty amazing time. Two moments stand out as top moments of the night:

1. Playing/dancing Go Nuts during the Nordloef/Salkinitzor/Linde gig.
Apart from the game itself, which is actually a pretty simple and solid concept, Go Nuts! also has some seriously trippy graphics. Just check out this screenshot of a three-player game:

The amazingly strange look of this game added a lot to the insane chiptunes performance on stage. After playing it competitively for a while, me and my play partner started using our colorful cubes to make improvised video art. It worked surprisingly well; we used the dash function to accentuate the beats and worked ourselves into the game’s swarm mode (which looks pretty much like in the picture above) to take up a lot of space on screen. This was one of the play highlights of the whole event, for me. It was like we were jamming along with the musicians and the rest of the audience. I think that’s usually called dancing, isn’t it?

2. Going nuts at the Chipzel gig.
I’m a huge fan of Super Hexagon. This is no secret. In welcoming Chipzel on stage, I even said that it was, by far, the GOTY of 2012. An unsurprising part of Chipzel’s performance was her playing the soundtrack of Super Hexagon. Here, I just could not help myself; I had to play. So, there I was, dancing like a madman (one of the skills I’ve put a lot of build points into) while playing the hardest level of Super Hexagon and listening to Chipzel perform the soundtrack live. For me, it was not far from this image, and I’m aware that that might make me look like a complete nerd. Fine. I’m a complete nerd. Also, despite jumping around, I still made it 12 seconds into the level. Neeeeerd.

Till the State Do You Part (March 22)
Short larp about speed-dating in a dystopian future Sweden. A Sweden where your worth as a citizen is arrived at in curious ways.

Till the State Do You Part - Getting Married

I’ve written at some length about this larp in a previous Play Journal entry, so I’ll keep it shorter here. I think that some of the reason I have for putting this game on my list for 2013 is how surprised I was at how well some of the stuff worked. I was part of genuinely touching and heartfelt moments and some of the people I played with really made an honest effort. In a larp, you’ve come a long way if you only have that.

w00t CPH (May 25)
Copenhagen public play festival. Ran for two days, right after Nordic Game Conference. I was there the first day only.

Inte nudda mark

Ever since I went to my first Hide & Seek Weekender, I’ve wanted to attend other events like it. w00t was Copenhagen’s first public play festival and it turned out great. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend one of the days, but that turned out to be plenty. I wrote three different posts about all the stuff I played there, so I’ll point out the two games that still stand out for me:

1. The Ground Is Lava
Remember this game from when you were a kid? You’re not allowed to touch the ground because it’s super toxic or lava or just plain dangerous for whatever reason (as if you need one). When we played this as kids, we did it indoors and used furniture to move around. At w00t, we played it outdoors and used waste from some sort of construction site to step or climb on: pieces of metal, planks (complete with rusty nails and all), pallets etc.

This game had us in a continual and concentrated state of play for a good hour or so and it just felt really silly and really good.

2. Weeping Angels
Street game, in the dark, with flashlights, lotsa runnin and screaming and hiding and sneaking, teamwork – what’s not to like? Great play area, great players. Read more in the third post from w00t.

Limbo (April 16)
Abstract and elegant larp about the space between life and death. Played it on a genuine vintage tram riding through a foggy Oslo. 

20130420-205110.jpg

Limbo is a very elegant and hackable game. It can be, and has in fact been, adapted to many different contexts and venues. The larp was originally written as a chamber larp, but it has also been played as a larp/dance mashup and in the week leading up to this year’s Knutepunkt it was played as a tram larp.

There’s a lot to say about this game, but for the sake of brevity I’ll summarize what I’ve already written.

The pre-game is great because it gives you the opportunity to choose how close to yourself you want to play. It also demands that you examine our own views on death and reflect on where they come from. The setup, through the use of unfulfilled wishes, provided me and my character with something to play towards. It also used colored pipe-cleaners to signal common experiences between the characters. Not much else was needed to get people talking and having a clear drive behind their play.

This scenario is very much about that unknown nowhere between life and death and riding in an old tram through a strange city covered in fog helped to drive this home. At times, it all felt very, very surreal and these were the moment when the game really worked for me.

What is really clever about Limbo is how players are encouraged and allowed to play towards completely different goals without necessarily breaking the game or the experience of for each other. I played my character for tragedy, but there was no problem with people having characters embrace the situation and, in some cases, finding it amusing or soothing. Limbo was simply a place where all of these attitudes were to be expected.

In the end, this game didn’t leave me with an emotional puzzle to be struggled with for days or weeks. Rather, it was really easy to enjoy while playing and I appreciate how well it navigated its own meta-levels of play.

Hemligheten (June 6 – 7)
Interactive theater play about the persecution of immigrants in Sweden. Most scenes were set on the streets of Malmö. It ran over two days.

Me, wearing a mask

This is one, I haven’t written about at all in the Play Journal. I was planning on making it a separate post and, as is so often the case with those particular plans, that didn’t happen.

This play (I don’t know what else to call it) took place on the streets of Malmö and had groups of players (once again, that’s the best way to describe the audience of this play) run around town trying to locate and help two children who were in Sweden “illegally”, i.e. without papers. In Sweden, immigration is a hot topic and has been for some time. The theme of this play followed years of scandals and abuse coming from and perpetrated by the state as well as citizens of Sweden. We (V and me) managed to get into the run that started on Sweden’s national day and ended on our oldest kid’s second birthday. These two dates became significant in their own ways as the story progressed. National day in Sweden is not a widely celebrated event and Swedish nationalism takes on nasty forms when allowed to go unchecked. Partaking in a story with this theme while seeing people waving Swedish flags added to the disgust we felt at the mistreatment of the children in it. The play ended with a surreal birthday party for the absent boy and this coincided with our own kid’s birthday, twisting the knife of feels a couple of extra times.

Hemligheten was well-executed, well-measured in terms of interaction and felt relevant. Also, I got to use my roleplaying and gamer skills in making sure our group kept moving forward (while trying not to dominate it, as that was the story’s job). Using these same things, I tried to help the cast by acting on their cues (like actually running down the street, urging everyone else to follow, when we were supposedly being chased by one of the main villains).

Big up to Teater Insite for putting this thing together.

Playing with Lil’ M
Not that complicated, really.

Photo 2013-03-21 18 28 43

OK, so this one’s cheating a bit, but playing with my kid is a whole fairybag of fun. Hide and seek, peekabo, playing with words and songs, playing with toys and just generally being silly is great, great stuff and it makes for wonderful play. Being a big part of someone else’s play development is priceless.

Improvised ritual at Knutepunkt (April 16)
Improvised movement and sounds performed in groups inside an old mausoleum in Oslo proved more powerful and draining than expected.

The  Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum

The Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum, in only a small part of its glory.

Apparently rituals are a big thing in Norway (at least in the larp community) and this, of course, means that we had to have one before Knutepunkt. A real one. An actual, serious ritual in an actual, serious place. The whole thing was built around improvised sound and movement with the sound being a sort of chant jam and the movement being an easy version of contact impro dance. The details are boring, but the result was kinda cool.

The mausoleum turned out to be one of the strangest places I have ever visited. A lot of that feeling is, of course, related to the context of the visit, but I can imagine that the scary, strangely erotic, somewhat depressing mausoleum is all of those things regardless of the reason for your visit.

All in all, the ritual turned out to be quite a draining experience, both physically and mentally. After the initial rocky start, the four small groups we found ourselves in started interacting and playing off of each other. The end result was an experience, which for me bordered on the sacrilegious and divine at the same time.

Leaving the mausoleum, walking through the cold rain, I felt both strengthened and very fragile. I think that the exhaustion of work  both before and during the Larp Exchange Academy, of which I had been part, and play had caught up to me. Add to this a pinch of old memories from my time as a christian and you’ve got yourself a cocktail filled to the brim with staring-into-thin-air-not-knowing-what-to-make-of-things. I really made a conscious effort to get carried away, but I didn’t quite expect it to work as well as it did. I guess I need to stop being so surprised these things actually work.

Malmö Play Club Deluxe Summer Sessions
Public play sessions in Malmö’s finest park. The first serious steps towards building a stable play community in Malmö. Featured everything from kids’ games and reality games to jousting and New Gamesy games.

A team in Rock, Paper, Scissors tag deciding what sign to throw.

A team in Rock, Paper, Scissors tag deciding what sign to throw.

I’ve written a lot in the Play Journal about Malmö Play Club and that has not been without good reason. In the Play Club, we have created a tool and opportunity for building a local play community. I hope we are able to continue and develop this in 2014.

The Deluxe sessions were especially great because they saw our numbers bump up from our usual maximum of 10-15 people to around 40. The variety of games that we were able to try out because of this was really inspiring and, finally, the play talks that were given in connection to some of the sessions were really interesting and thought-provoking.

Tiny Games
Simple and brilliant play tool from the superpowered Hide&Seek people. Best game app of the year. Almost none of the play is screen-centered.

Tiny Games - Cucumber Race

Me, trying to get a slice of cucumber from my forehead to my mouth as fast as possible. Because an app told me to… and because it sounded like a good idea.

Tiny Games was the best thing to come out for iOS in 2013. I’ve played with it at home, at events, at the office, during walks. The one I would point to as my best Tiny Game happened with my colleague Chris while we were waiting to be interviewed on live radio about Malmö Playdays. We were in the empty staff cafeteria and we played a color finding game, ran our asses off and laughed more than you’re probably allowed to at a radio station.

There’s really something to having an app that lets you fire up a game instantly, no pretensions, no hassle, no problems. All you need is a playful attitude and a mind set on fun and you’re ready to go.

That last part goes for most kinds of play, BTW.

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