WordPlay in Toronto

So last week  Jim Munroe, the comics writer of Therefore Repent!, novelist, and the co-producer of the controversial Pipe Trouble game, invited me to the first-ever Toronto WordPlay Festival of Writerly Games on November the 16th. The WordPlay Festival is an event that the video game arts Hand Eye Society, of which Jim Munroe is also the executive director, in cooperation with the Toronto Public Library and with support from the Toronto Arts Council, celebrates and examines “the use of words and writing in contemporary games.”

This is not the first time that the Toronto Public Library has cooperated with either Hand Eye or the Torontonian video game scene. Not only did Jim Munroe create an interactive alternate reality game in the Library back in March of this year (in which you are part of the Literary Resistance attempting to prevent the book-burning culture from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 from ever happening) but last year the North York Central Library hosted both a Gaming Journalism Workshop for Gamercamp and a Writing for Videogames Workshop by Kan Gao: the creator of the beautiful independent Adventure RPG game To the Moon.

In fact the introduction to the Festival in the Atrium was made by Ab Velasco, a Communications Officer for the Toronto Public Library who, among things, helps facilitate special events at the Library including the Toronto Comics Arts Festival, and workshops such as Kan Gao’s and Gamercamp’s (where I first saw him). In fact, he mentioned that there is even an initiative in the Toronto Public Library system to make game-making technology free and available to library patrons as well providing eventual access to a 3D printer. This is pretty amazing news and you can tell that Ab Veslasco is having a major hand in these developments.

The Festival took place at the Toronto Reference Library and it was divided into two segments. There was a panel and a discussion that took place in the Atrium, while the WordPlay Showcase opened up its terminals with over-twenty text and story-based games to the public in Learning Centre I.

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The panel was called “Where Prose Meets Play.” It was moderated by Jim Munroe, and its other panelists were composed of freelancing conceptual artist and illustrator Rachel Kahn, game designer and animator Matt Hammill, Canadian writer, computer programmer and creator of Dinosaur Comics Ryan North, and Canadian science-fiction writer Peter Watts. Essentially, the entire first Panel looked at a wide-range of topics including the differences between storytelling for prose, comics, and writing for video games. It was some really interesting stuff: from Peter Watts stating that he had to write some very obvious descriptive passages for games that wouldn’t have worked in prose, to Rachel Kahn talking about how architecture and environment can tell a story. What I really found interesting was the discussion that examined the line between allowing a player too much freedom or giving the player too much structure and how it would be utterly fascinating to make a game, be it electronic or in book form, that allowed a player to choose the ending to their story.

WordPlay Panel

After a half-an-hour intermission there was a discussion with the Chicago-based group Cardboard Computer who created the magical realist point-and-click game Kentucky Route Zero. It was basically an interview facilitated by Miguel Sternberg, the founder of Spooky Squid Games and the creator of They Bleed Pixels, with Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt.

WordPlay Discussion

Unfortunately, I was not able to fully get into the discussion due to two factors. First of all, I had never heard of, nor played the game though there were some interesting thoughts that the creators were spinning around such as making a game about a character whose choices are limited by debt (a fact of life that many of us are all too familiar with nowadays), and a game level that takes place in a museum or archive filled with old video games. Unfortunately, it is entirely possible that I am combining two different ideas mentioned in this discussion into one.

The other reason I had difficulty getting into the Kentucky Route Zero Discussion is due to the fact that the acoustics in the Atrium, even with microphones, were not that effective and announcements from the Library would drown out the speakers at key points. This also affected my following of the panel before it, and it is my only complaint about the Festival’s arrangement.

But since then I have done a little bit of research on Kentucky Route Zero. It is a game in five acts that, according to the WordPlay Festival bookmark, has literary influences from a writer named Flannery O’Connor. Once I looked up who this writer actually was, I saw that she utilized what is called the Southern Gothic Style: writing that relies a lot on heavy regional influences and grotesque characters. The game itself is apparently about a mysterious highway underneath the caves of Kentucky and the strange people that travel it.

I want to make a point of mentioning that not only did WordPlay occur one day after the release of the PlayStation 4, but it also featured a premier of its own. Off to the side of the audience were two desks with half-empty glasses and brick sandwiches (yes, you read and saw that right, they were actually brick sandwiches) and two Oculus Rift headsets lent to the event by the Toronto independent game designer and community work space Bento Miso.

WordPlay Brick Sandwich

Now, I’d heard of this next stage in virtual reality gaming but I didn’t really think much of it. I mean, I’d heard that these systems can cause dizziness and nausea, and I still have memories of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy and so many other virtual reality promises and hopes throughout the years that eventually rendered me to the point of apathy.  But I knew that since I was covering this event, I felt compelled to try it out. I didn’t actually get to checking out the Oculus Rift until much later. In fact, I only came to them as the Festival ended and the Reference Library was closing for the night. I thought I was too late.

However, a very helpful volunteer or Cardboard Computer staff member got me an Oculus Rift and I got to play, for a while, a Kentucky Route Zero intermission level or chapter entitled “The Entertainment.” It was strange because by the time I got to it the table and items on it, including the brick sandwich, were being packed up and I had nothing to touch, but I was … impressed. Unlike the rest of Kentucky Route Zero with its pixilated 2D graphics and third-person perspective, this was first-person and it was pretty cool. Cardboard Computer made  a three-dimensional room which, like its original game looked like it was made from angles of paper or “cardboard,” but it also attempted to play with light and shadow and the distance of sound when you move your head. But I think what I found the most intriguing is the fact that there are dialogue boxes containing narration that give you physical cues as to when you should look up and listen in on a conversation. It is like being able to explore but there is also a story that subtly acts like a script when “your part” comes up. That line between free choice and structure is a theme that comes up again as it gets explored and played on in this game. I just want to add that playing an Oculus Rift for the first time with a Wii remote was an interesting experience for me as well.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I got to check out the WordPlay Showcase with that whole collection of story-based games featured on each terminal in Learning Centre I. During the Discussion with Cardboard Computer I ran into Ian Daffern again, a fellow writer and creator whom I actually collaborated with in  the 2013 Toronto Global Game Jam–my first–and he told me that he created a Twine game called TRUNKED.

Now, I have really wanted to talk about Twine on G33kPr0n for a very long time and I always take time to mention them elsewhere. Twine is software that allows writers that may not necessarily have much programming knowledge, to make interactive text-based games or stories. So I only managed to play his excellent game twice (where I died once and then actually realized that my gut instinct about a certain item could help me) before the next and final part of the Festival began.

I am referring to Christine Love’s Hands-on Workshop: Make Interactive Fiction Workshop.

For me, this was the highlight of the WordPlay Festival. In addition to the fact that Christine Love is the creator of many intensely story-based games such as Digital: A Love Story, Analogue: A Hate Story, and Hate Plus that I truly respect and adore, I was also getting the excuse to use Twine for myself and make something. After Christine Love took about fifteen minutes to run through the basics with us, she then gave us five minutes to come up with an idea, and gave us the rest of the hour before closing time to implement it. I managed to make a template to follow for what will hopefully be a series of future Twine stories to come.

WordPlay Workshop

You can even see me in this photo if you look closely. I’m asking someone for help.

But just as there is a fine line between freedom of choice and plot for a player to navigate there, this article has also been a fine line between coverage of an important event and my own personal experience.

Anna Anthropy in her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters talks about the importance of developing game-creation software and technology that is available and easy public use. She has often advocated and created many games using Twine software. It is an idea that can go beyond, or change video game industry culture and allow people who ordinarily don’t have voices in video games to express themselves and let people interact from their perspectives. It is something can change games as a medium and also the very nature of what they are. For me personally, I always felt sad because I always felt limited in what I could with games due to a lack of visual artistic ability and programming knowledge.

But what Twine allows me to do is use my own skill with words to make the games I always wanted. And having an interactive teacher, as opposed to some tutorial videos, gave me some of the basic keys to the kingdom of making interactive worlds and that, for me, is golden.

Finally I just want to also ask you, the readers of G33kPr0n, to  please check out all the hyperlinks provided above, look at the rest of Hand Eye’s Fest Pics and Showcase Links and even consider making some Twine stories of your own. If I can do it, so can you. I learned a lot from this event and I can best summarize that feeling in the title of my own very short Twine game.

Level Up

Photo Credits: Stephen Reese

This Game Has No Warp Zone: A Review of Pipe Trouble

Pipe Trouble

“I like games with consequences.”

This is what a friend of mine told me not too long ago with regards to online games, but it is a sentiment that can easily be applied to video games in general. I know that I–and many other more eloquent and informed people on the matter–have stated that the medium of the video game can be used for more than just entertainment value. The medium of a video game is as its very core an interactive experience that, like any other art form, can get us to relate to the world around us in a different way.

However, with regards to Pipe Trouble, there is also the matter of responsibility to consider as well.

Pipe Trouble is a game created by Pop Sandbox Productions, produced by Alex Jansen, and co-designed by Jim Munroe. It was apparently made as a companion piece to the TVO-commissioned documentary Trouble in the Peace: a film directed by Julian T. Pinder and produced by Six Island Productions about gas leaks affecting Northern British Columbia farmers in the Peace River region and in particular one man and father, who has decided to do something about it.

Before I decided to write this article, I did not know that Pipe Trouble was a digital complement to this documentary. In fact, the entire subject matter that both the film and the game seem to encompass–Canadian farms encountering potentially lethal gas leaks from pipelines of gas companies in their regions–is not usually something I tend to focus on with more than passing attention. After a while, and as cynical as it gets, news of “corrupt corporations, victims and innocent bystanders, and eco-terrorist reprisals” tends to become oversimplified by the media.

It is one thing, however, to hear and watch something about a matter that seemingly doesn’t concern you as an individual. It is a whole other thing to find yourself in a situation–even if it is a simulation with a satirical veneer–where you are in a position of great responsibility.

What Pop Sandbox is attempting to do to this regard is not something new, but rather it is a very familiar idea they have worked with expressed into a different medium. While I did write an article or two on Kenk: A Graphic Portrait a fair while ago, what I might have neglected to mention is that one major theme in the graphic novel–also made by Pop Sandbox–is that everyone has a part to play in a particular social action. In the case of Igor Kenk and his stolen bicycles, it is made clear that everyone–to the people who bought bicycles from him, to even the people who purchased their stolen bikes back, to law enforcement and Toronto City Hall–knew about what he was doing and, just as they condemned it, they also tolerated and even to some extent accepted it a part of their social system. With regards to Kenk, Pop Sandbox illustrated–quite literally–how Igor Kenk was just part of a social dynamic–of a collaboration–in which the rest of the city was also a part.

But Pop Sandbox goes even further with Pipe Trouble. While Kenk simply observes a social structure and interaction, Pipe Trouble makes the player-audience interact immediately and directly with the issue as clearly, and as simply put, as possible.

In other words, you–the player–are placed as the manager of a gas company apparently situated in the Canadian Province of Alberta and you must please your superiors and make them money, keep the people who need your corporation’s services in mind, do as little damage to farmland, animals, humans, and the environment as possible, and try not to piss anyone off.

It is very clever. It is very easy to vilify a company or a corporation as a soulless entity that only caters to the very rich, squashes agriculture and “the lower classes,” and pollutes the environment without any understanding of what it might be doing or–worse–even care. It is just as easy to lionize a pipe bomber as a freedom fighter against a tyrannical force even as it is to denigrate them as a terrorist that likes to destroy human lives and a Western way of life: whatever that is.

However, natural gas is one of those resources necessary for a modern society to function and a corporation is made by people. As such, someone has to be in charge of providing that corporation’s service, making a living from it, avoiding bad press and blame while attempting to integrate their industrial system into the environment and those existing within it with as little damage as possible. It is no tall order and not an enviable position: especially when you are forced to do it in a game.

It is no coincidence that this game is modelled after the 1989 puzzle game alternatively called Pipe Mania or Pipe Dream. And even though the title itself brings to mind some bad bodily jokes, even that connotation has its point when looking at the game. In Pipe Dream, you have to build pipes to direct the flow of filth inside of a sewer. Pipe Trouble takes a similar mechanic and makes the oncoming substance also toxic, but also worth money. One person’s poison is another one’s livelihood.

You have two men on either of your screen. I would be tempted to call them “the angel” and “the devil” on either of your shoulders, save that both of them aren’t necessarily “good” or “evil.” The man on your left is a farmer that is watching your progress in placing down pipes with oncoming gas with great interest and caution. If you destroy the land too much, there will be protesters that will block your pipe route. How long they stay in front of your progress will all depend on just how much damage they perceived you to have done. This farmer will keep watching you and will warn you only once not to mess with his land.

Then you have the man on your right: your boss. He is the one informing you of when the gas will start flowing (right when you place a pipe down to get from Point A to Point B) and he will keep track of the money you are making … and losing with delays. That’s right. If you do not place your pipes fast enough, not only will you risk a gas leak poisoning a lake, killing animals, and other horrors but you will lose your company money and your boss will sure as hell hold you responsible and, if we are going for realism, probably put it all on your head when the bad press comes out.

I swear: when I first played this game and that gas started to flow and sometimes I didn’t move fast enough, or have the right pipe piece to place down or even put it in the proper place, that sense of panic sets in. Then you add the pixilated animals that prance and eat in the woods and you are thinking real hard about how to not disturb them: never mind potentially kill them. And that is not even including the fear of getting more protesters in your way that will get more organized and then sometimes even use some nice industrial sabotage against your pipeline: causing more death, destruction, money loss, and bad press. And guess who would probably be held responsible for all of that?

You’re looking at yourself.

It’s like playing Tetris … only with people’s lives. And remember how I didn’t make any bodily function jokes? Well, the ideal is to treat the entire process like the human body. The release of energy, the disposal of waste, and the structure of what you are trying to build is supposed to create a balance with the ecosystem, agriculture, and animal and human health. But as you play and it gets harder, you will become aware of the fact that this game is an idealist’s nightmare. You will have to make some very difficult decisions as you realize that you might not have time to build around that forest to your pipeline’s destination or you might have to be innovative and make some alternate routes in a very set time frame, but in the end you will have to make some very hard choices.

Do not let the game’s cheerful 8-bit pixilated graphics and basic soft-edged square shaped sprite characters fool you. Jim Munroe was also co-designer behind this game. He is an independent Canadian science fiction and comics writer, among other things, that likes to take grandiose topics like haunted TTC Stations, North America becoming destitute in a futuristic era, and a post-apocalyptic world after the Christian Rapture and completely twist them upside down and make it about human characters and life going on. More than coincidentally, Munroe is also the Hand Eye Society’s Project Coordinator for the development of the Torontrons: essentially retrofitted arcade cabinets that play newly made video games. He may have been involved with the pretty nifty creation of the Pipe Trouble game cabinet as well: which, as the link explains, will be placed in areas of high traffic such as universities, city centres, and tourist attractions.

I don’t know what else to add here. Inter-dispersed between levels are radio segments from news anchored events dealing with natural gas industry controversies which I didn’t originally hear until I played the game again at home on the free trial demo. Also, not too long ago I found out that the game itself has created a whole lot of controversy. Apparently TVO–one of the game’s sponsors–has been accused, among other things, of potentially giving eco-terrorists “ideas” by supporting the creation of the game. TVO has apparently removed links to Pipe Trouble from their website with pending investigations into the matter on their end to see if they were in “the wrong.” There seem to be some definite misunderstandings over various issues, but if one goal of this game is to encourage people to think, then controversy–though unfortunate–is one way of getting there. Either way, it definitely hit a nerve in that intersection where art and politics clash.

I think my concluding thought about this entire game is that the title “Pipe Trouble,” again, can mean a lot of things. And it wasn’t until I read the above article that I began to think about it a little more. I don’t generally look at these kinds of games, never mind write about them–especially with how close it comes to politics–but there is something really fascinating about the dynamics that Pop Sandbox attempts to create, identify, satirize, educate and help people relate to. And politics itself is an exchange of power and watching how and through what medium that power is ultimately exchanged through.

You see, I’m looking at pipes as symbolic of devices that link us together and support a communication of ideas. They can create a very interactive and comprehensive system of healthy self-regulation but when there are so many elements in play, things can go wrong, words can break down, and people and the world around them can suffer for it. But whatever else this game accomplishes, it definitely makes you think about these issues and how they are not entirely separate after all: neither from each other, nor from you.