A homeless seven-year-old in Russia named Pjotr is addicted to cigarettes. He must navigate the streets of St. Petersburg, doing whatever he can for a smoke -- steal liquor to give to his prostitute mother for a few bucks and trade Mercedes hood ornaments to black market dealers for a spare stoge. If he goes for a minute without nicotine, he falls to the ground shivering and then dies.
The storyline becomes a little less messed up when you realize that it forms the narrative backbone for a video game called Ultitsa Dimitrova, designed by Lea Schönfelder. The sad part is that it was inspired by a real anecdote she heard from her brother, a social worker in St. Petersburg, Florida. But in real life, it is oddly cute -- maybe because of the plot's absurdity, but also because there's an airy flute playing in the background and all the characters are drawn with blue pen ink. Ultitsa is one of dozens of new, offbeat games featured at the 2012 Game Art Festival, which took place this past Wednesday and Thursday nights, at the Hammer Museum and UCLA's Broad Art Center respectively.
The festival crossbreeds party, concert and gaming conference, bringing together people who love games with the people who design them. Curated by UCLA Game Lab director and professor Eddo Stern, the festival features games designed by students from across the U.S., but also by designers from abroad.
Early in the evening on Wednesday night, UCLA musicology Ph.D. candidate Mike D'Errico, also known as the Attic Bat, DJ'd some chiptune music, which is basically music created by video game bleeps and bloops. A video installation by William Kaminski depicted two different gamers sitting on a couch playing a game while hallucinatory color-shifts, Cool Ranch Doritos, hot dogs and Slim Jims were spinning around them. Another showed a near-naked man lying on the ground in a metal skeleton.
But the real highlights, of course, were the games themselves, some of which were presented on the center stage before they rotated through the arcade cabinets circling the courtyard (full list of games here). Nevermind is a psychological horror game designed by USC student Erin Reynolds that relies on biofeedback (the player wears a heart rate monitor and is attached to the game) to challenge players to stay calm in stressful situations. The more uncomfortable a player gets, the noisier the graphics become and the harder it is to see the screen. Once a player begins to relax, the screen returns to normal.
As a presenter walked the audience through the virtual mind of a trauma patient (manifested as a huge, creepy house), the sounds of incessant screaming came from the other end of a courtyard. That was from another game called Talk Therapy, which was designed by UCLA's Chris Reilly as an "electromechanical dogfight game" where two players compete to see who can yell the loudest.
The master of ceremonies, David Leonard stuck out on stage in a bright red blazer, filling the moments in between presentations with slick quips. He wasn't above intellectualizing his humor a little for this crowd, either. "Philosophy of science in a video game? "It's like Derri-dah," he exclaimed at one point. "M.C. Escher in the HOU-USE!" he says later. "It's like a meta-game performance. A non-game game. An ambient happening," he commented dryly after a game demonstration crashed for the third time.
One Youtube-based game called The Immoral Ms. Conduct put players in the role of the "woman in jail," encouraging voyeurism as they led their game persona through a series of at times crude choose-your-own-adventure decisions that have "realistic consequences."
Clutching a beer and pumping her fists in the air, the game's young designer Hannah Epstein took the stage to demonstrate. B-movie footage of hysterical "caged women" in reality TV-style situations were spliced into the game itself. "You" are violently arrested and tossed into a shitty jail cell. Situations included "You meet this bitch you have to bunk with" and "You are feeling horny. Good thing you have an Internet allowance." The game prompted the player to make decisions like: "Let a fellow inmate join your gang" or "give her tampons," and "Shank a skank" or "Make her eat dirt." At these points, Epstein let the audience decide "democratically," as she says.
Which means that, at times, the crowd was yelling in unison, "Kick in the face fiesta!" and "Pull out her weave!" and "Slap a bitch!" Self-conscious laughter peppered the raucous whooping.
When the demonstration was over, Leonard took the microphone. "Thank you, Hannah for that...wonderful....experience of...women's prison!"
"It's weird, usually gamer people are gross and smell like Doritos and Hot Pockets. Everyone here is so polished," an attendee remarked. At least the last bit is true: the crowd seemed generally trendy, as crowds at the Hammer Museum tend to be. Most seemed to be students -- textbooks and backpacks clutter the tables. One visitor wearing a T-Rex hat sat at his laptop programming something, the screen glowing faint orange, his fingers stuttering out lines and lines of code. A couple of families with smaller children weaved through the crowd.
"I have no idea what's going on back there," said Peter Lu, a UCLA student and Game Lab research assistant. He was wearing a mobile mini-arcade game like a backpack, and people were standing behind him playing it. Tiny decorative lights flashed and changed colors around the top. Every time the person playing the game got comfortable, he started walking again.
It's hard not to think of other "mobile" games played on smartphones, such as Angry Birds, and it felt like a snarky comment on the move away from the more traditional forms of gaming. "The main idea was to be able to covertly sneak student games into big game festivals...without having to register it or anything," said UCLA alumnus Steven Amrhein, who built the backpack game. He said Lu had to continue to walk and socialize as he would normally, absent to whoever is playing the game at the moment. For the most part, when he set off again, players would follow him in rapt, zombie-like attention.
There was another obvious favorite at the festival. Caine's Arcade, a DIY cardboard arcade designed and built by nine-year-old East L.A.-native Caine Monroy, who became famous after inspiring this viral video about the project, maintained a steady bubble of spectators that ebbed but never died down. A few smiling staff members, including Caine's father, helped him run the arcade. There seemed to be more onlookers than actual players; several snapped cell phone pictures, ooh-ing or aww-ing or clutching a theatrical hand to the chest. Some chose both distance and silence, softly admiring ingenuity of the whole set-up. There's skeeball, finger soccer and a claw machine that uses a curved bit of wire and string to let visitors scoop different prizes.
And Caine? The star at the center of it all?
He was wearing a turquoise shirt with "staff" printed in black letters while manning the claw machine. Every time a new player stepped up and flashed a "fun pass" (which theoretically gives you 500 free plays), Caine hit a digital timer. Next to it was a tiny plastic hourglass. I pointed to it and asked him if he'd upgraded. He nodded and slumpped back into his chair, his face momentarily distorted by a sincere yawn. He stared as the player fumbled with the claw. After a while: "Time's up," Caine said firmly. The player, engrossed, didn't hear him. "Time's up!" he repeated, this time slapping his arms on the top of the game. The player looked sheepish, smiled and squeaked out a thanks before sidling over to his friends. Caine settled back into his metal chair and hit "start" again as the next player took her turn, and the next.
Caine's father, George, was standing over by the merchandise. After a while, Caine came over to stand by him. A young woman walked up to him and said, in a voice oozing saccharine, "I saww your video! it was reeeaaa-lly coooool." He smiled, but clearly this kind of thing -- the fawning, the attention -- had worn him down. He walked back over to man his games. But the girl followed him. "Can I have a hug?" she asked, throwing her arms open, and without waiting for an answer, she grabbed him. His body remained stiff, not wanting to be rude, but definitely not wanting to hug this obnoxious, random stranger.
George looked on with a twisted, ambivalent smile on his face. "It's been wild," he said. "Every day, so many phone calls and interview requests, from all over. He's been getting international attention."
Caine yawned again as he got back to work. It's a little after 9, and the festival goes until 10. "He's not usually up this late. We're usually in bed by 8 every night," George said.
In an atmosphere of total stimulation and excitement, Caine's corner got a little sleepier as the night went on. The colorful prizes were won, t-shirts purchased in cash, people waited their turns. And Caine -- the clever kid who won people's hearts both here and across the world -- he just wanted to go to bed.