Thom’s Top Ten Play Experiences of 2014
by Thom Kiraly
It’s been a hell of a year. That’s not just the hook of my favorite end-of-the-year song, it’s also true for my 2014, in several senses. Part of me is just glad I made it through at all. Looking back, my first impression was that 2014 didn’t offer as many cool play opportunities as 2013, but in assembling my short list (28 items!), I realized other stuff often got in the way of my enjoyment of them. This often interfered with my post-event appreciation rather than my actual in-play enjoyment, and I hope that in writing this list I’ll be able to look more soberly at what I’ve been up to.
Like last year, some of the stuff in here will be recycled from previous Play Journal entries. Like last year, you will be OK with this. Lastly, like last year, these experiences are presented in no particular order, so it’s not a countdown or count… up.
Very little of what made my year in play great would not have happened or been as exciting, enjoyable, and beautiful without all of my fellow players. Thus, I want to thank everyone who played with me in 2014. It means a lot to me that I get to keep exploring this thing (whatever it is) alongside some of the most amazing people I’ve met. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
w00t 2014 (May 30 – June 1)
The Copenhagen play festival returned for its second year and this time I participated not only as a player but also as a designer. More about the designer part later.
This festival was just as good as I had hoped. Unlike last year, I was also able to attend all days this time around, which meant I didn’t miss as many cool things. The whole affair was a bit more polished and well-oiled than last year’s event (doesn’t say much, as that was held in what was basically a huge sandpit, but still).
Like I mentioned, bringing and playing something I designed was a big thing. That deserves its own entry on the list, however, so look further below to find that.
These are cool things I played at w00t 2015:
City Dash – This was great fun, even though our team spent a quarter of the game outside the actual play area. I’ve missed playing a larger street game where you simply get to run your ass off and collect points. I think there’s a view that many street games are only that, but it really isn’t as common as one might get the impression of.
The Avatar Controller – The more avatar play I can get AFK, the better.
Political Volleyball – Brilliant and simple concept. Just like volleyball, but spectators can vote for rules changes through Twitter. The twist is that they’re only voting for the names of the changes, so they don’t actually know what’s going to change.
Push Me, Pull You – The visuals drew me in, and this ended up inspiring a design I was involved in during my fall semester at the ITU in Copenhagen.
Sync – Another clever Local Multiplayer nugget. It’s basically this in the form of a videogame.
Triolectical Football – This is a must-try for… anyone interested in… sports, soccer, politics, art, play, games, architecture, warfare. Yeah.
Finally, I hade the great pleasure and honor to play some games with Bernie DeKoven, who was the festival’s guest of honor.Some people look at cool indie people making strange stuff and wish they were more like them. Me? I want to be Bernie.
Adding to the experience was the fact that I got to play with and see a dear friend of mine play all of these simple and coliberating games, building a shared understanding of what I’ve been getting into these past years.
Rain Game at Knutpunkt (April 3)
With 20 people, this is a cool game; with 350 people, it deserves a place on this list.
Sometimes, I have to argue that things I do are actually games. This is one of the most tiresome debates concerning games one can get into, so I try to avoid it. As long as the play is good, I probably don’t give a shit whether or not you think it’s a game. Rain is one of those games. It’s as much a ritual as a game, and that’s sorta the point. It brings a group together by sound and imagination, and it’s a beautiful thing.
In a car on my way from Halmstad to the Knutpunkt venue, one of the organizers asked if I had some game I could play as part of the opening ceremony. Of course I had a game!
For those who are unaware, Rain, asks players to close their eyes and imagine the last of a summer’s rains. The person leading the game starts rubbing their hands together and other people copy that sound, creating an impression of a growing wind. The sounds then move through snapping fingers, clapping hands, and slapping thighs, all the way to stomping on or slapping the floor. The person in the lead then slowly brings it all back down again by repeating the sounds in reverse order. My favorite moment is the transition from snapping fingers to rubbing the palms together. It really evokes that feeling of a heavy rain that’s just moved on.
As always, a lot of this is autosuggestion, and I did notice some people totally not getting into it, but I was blown away by both the game itself and the response I got from people afterwards. All through Knutpunkt people came up to me telling me that it was not only “fun”, “cool”, or “interesting”, but actually “beautiful”. Very little of those things were thanks to me, but I’m happy I was part of it.
A Drift: Gothenburg/Malmö/Copenhagen/Kraków (playtests, CPH, Malmö, Kraków)
The one game design I’m really proud of this year, A Drift was also my first opportunity in years to work with a close friend of mine.
I’ll try to not make this a postmortem. Some discussion about the process of designing A Drift is required make some sense, though. For the first time in years, I teamed up with my friend Mikael Vesavuori to make something. Joining us was also Niklas Persson, a welcome and balancing addition to the dynamic duo me and Mikael make up for better and for worse.
The idea was to make a street game to be submitted to w00t and Otherplace and for it to be minimal and not site-specific. What we came up with is pretty close to being a more structured and meditative version of Follow the Leader. I used to be uncomfortable with that comparison, but it does fit well and I’m proud we dared to keep it simple. Players team up, put on headphones playing an ambient soundtrack, and take turns leading each other in an exploration of the city.
In total, I did six proper runs of the game in 2014, and I can remember surprisingly much about them. Since every action builds on, or at least springs from, the last one, a sort of associative map is drawn through the city. When I recall the playthroughs, I follow these maps and go on a trip of silly and beautiful memories.
Riding a tram in Kraków without a ticket, saluting a building, walking backwards across a busy square, hugging an apartment complex, staring at a mall, staring at hot dogs turning round and round on a grill, drawing on pavement with a piece of chalk, venturing into the tunnels underneath Copenhagen, hiding from a heavy summer rain only to emerge and witness the most intense rainbow I’ve ever seen, mimicking other people, kneeling before a couple getting their wedding photos taken, using a street sign ask monkey bars, resting on warm asphalt while looking at nothing but sky…
When you give people the tools to play, they do. That’s a good thing about people.
Service at Knutpunkt (April 7)
The one game I attended at Knutpunkt ended up being totally worth it. A mix of ethical dilemma, tense play, and an incredibly satisfying ending secured it a spot on this list.
With some games, you can see the emotional train wreck well before you’re sucked into it. In other games, you think you see a train, but actually it’s a flying saucer, and a Ninja stabs you, from behind, right in the feels. Service did that to me and that’s why it belongs on this list.
I didn’t really know what to expect, more than a larp about the call to military service, made by my buddy Shoshana. Service turned out to be a moral dilemma game, rather than some sort of military simulation. However, contrary to many other wicked problems, the person who was to be singled out among the new recruits was going to be spared (at least for now).
Working through the moral dilemma made up the bulk of the game, and I found it satisfying and was feeling surprisingly emotional by the end. One of the best parts was engaging with a player who was playing an introverted character, steering him into the game to keep him from just standing in a corner waiting it all out. It was obvious he was working through some dark thoughts in his mind and I wanted to see what they were. He let me, and they weren’t pretty, which was… beautiful. He gave me a chilling monologue about how he longed to feel his face sink into the cold mud as he died. Good stuff.
There are two things I think deserve a special mention: the character sheet and the end of the game.
The character sheet was nice because it worked both as an in-game prop (a draft notice) and a way to flesh out who you were playing. It was also part of starting the game. Everyone lined up and then, in turn, read their names out loud to proceed to the briefing room (where the rest of the game took place).
The end, then, also involved a slip of paper. Every player was handed one, lined up and, in turn, read their name and what the slip of paper said. They then exited the room and thus also the game. My slip of paper is the one you see below. This is what happened to my character in the the war. Medal of honor. Congrats.
I found myself in a strange state right after the game. Both the game itself and my character’s particular ending had gotten to me and I wasn’t really done dealing with it when I stepped out of the room. Other players, however, were super excited and immediately started shouting and laughing once they were out of the game. For some reason, this threw me off big time. There was a sort of dissonance where I was still internally processing what I had been through while others did the same, but with each other. This was unexpected but not entirely unwelcome. Though my overall reaction to the game still puzzles me. I wasn’t expecting as much as I did receive.
Malmö Play Club Club (March 22)
Malmö Play Club in general had a given spot on last year’s list. This year, we stepped up our… game by throwing a Play Club Club, and it was incredible.
Malmö Play Club decided to throw a nightclub but replace the alcohol with play and guess what… it worked beautifully! Four straight hours of play mixed with Danceoke (a first for many, including me) proved to be a great combo. This was the first time that Malmö Play Club charged money for an event and our fears that we would scare people off by doing so were swept away by the gusts of love and play that participants brought. I hope we will dare to bring the Play Club Club back in 2015.
Camel Cup (July 19)
Tons of laughs and just as many friends to have them with puts this board game on the 2014 list.
This may seem like a strange thing to put on my top ten list. Most of the other stuff is part of something larger; some transformative social experiment or interesting play shenanigans. Camel Cup? Not so much. BUT! I don’t think I had as much fun or laughed as hard while playing a game as when I played Camel Cup.
The context played a part, of course. I played it at one of my favorite gaming conventions, Container. Container is a special kind of beast. It stretches over 10 days, which means most people who want to make it there can actually sync it with some vacation time and go. The venue is an old place out on the countryside outside Jönköping. We all sleep in a big barn and the whole deal costs around 200-250 SEK, but you fix and cook your own food. Many of my closest friends attend and I’ve been going for the last seven years. Down the hill from the barn, there’s a small lake, and swimming is the perfect way to wind down after a game — even if the game happens to end at 5 in the morning. It’s basically a nerdy summer camp for (mostly) grown-ups.
Bringing a game like Camel Cup to a group of people like that means things will happen. Good things, like shouting and laughing.
De Usete (November 21)
Animal masks, fake drugs, live music, international conspiracy. What’s not to like?
I wrote a pretty extensive analysis of my experience playing De Usete, so if you want to know more about the details, you should click here. In retrospect, the mood I brought to it ended up being perfect for the sort of game it turned out to be. This mood was, however, brought on by personal events I’d rather skip discussing like this (though I, of course, trust you to keep secrets).
In summary: anytime you give me the opportunity to wear a mask as part of a game, you’ve already got my attention. If you already throw in some amazing co-players, it’s a done deal.
TWD S02E03 (May or June)
What. The. Actual. Fuck? A digital, single-player game? On the top ten list?
Many people have lauded the third episode of The Walking Dead’s second season, and with good reason. The drama is tight, the writing is good, the missions are interesting and varied, and the finale is quite the thing. I think that there’s no question that it’s the strongest episode of the entire season.
What I liked most about it was how the in-game space works in parallel with the narrative choices in that they’re both very constraining. Oftentimes, adventure games need to spend some time explaining why more options aren’t available or viable. Putting the main character in a sort of prison takes care of that problem, and actually focuses it on the one goal of the episode: escaping.
This is also an episode where Telltale pulls very few punches, literally. The scene where Carver pushes Carlos to hit his daughter is absolutely painful. You may also be asking yourself: did Thom stay and watch Kenny kill Carver? Yes, he did. And he wants you to know that he appreciates how quickly Telltale made him regret that decision.
The ending is a chaotic and wonderful mess, and once again the particularities of my own playthrough puts its own color on it. Having watched Kenny completely bash Carver’s head in, I joined the others in the attempted escape. When presented with the episode’s final decision — whether or not to chop off Sarita’s hand right after she’s been bit — I opted to go ruthless and hardcore and start hacking away. Once the hand was off and Sarita’s scream carried over into the end credits, I turned my head slightly only to see someone standing right. fucking. behind me. Turned out, V, who had already played through the episode, had walked up behind me not considering the fact that I was wearing headphones and playing the most intense scene of the episode. Then and there, I deducted a couple of years from how long I had previously thought I could expect to live. It was a good scare, though.
Mutant: år noll (June-December)
Yes, the game has flaws. Yes, these flaws are to be found in both system and setting. Still, the Mutant sessions delivered some really good and brave play.
I constantly feel like apologizing for this game, but I won’t. I’ve already written in the journal about how the system doesn’t really hold together, nor push the sort of play the designers seem to be looking for. I’ve also told you (even if you didn’t listen) about how the setting is a mess and encourages character psychopathy. These are problems, sure, but what we managed to squeeze out of this game turned out tasty and refreshing.
Having realized that simply playing according to the system would kill our fun, us players decided to set, and push hard for, our own agendas. Where this turned interesting was when we managed to work ourselves into conflict with each other. The sincere and vulnerable moments that resulted were some of the better roleplaying experiences I had in 2014. In the end, my character and the character he was most attached to went separate ways in a heartwarming and heartbreaking manner. In the zone, this meant that my character gave the other guy the one true gift you can give someone in the zone: a bottle of antidepressants. Godspeed, Mubba. May there always be something beautiful in your life, making you painfully conflicted about whether or not to crush it and watch it squirm.
BONUS: playing with my kids
Still not that complicated, really.
This will probably be a recurring item on my top ten lists, so I’ll treat it as a bonus from now on. Getting to follow the development of not only one, but two, kids’ play is often breathtaking. The fact that they’re, in fact, my kids probably adds something to the equation, but never mind. Now that I’ve got two of these creatures, just watching them play together is utterly fascinating. I’m happy I get to do it.