12/15/2010

“Who would have thought that the exercising of arbitrary power could be so pleasurable?”: FLATLANDS Wrap-Up Part 1

by Matthew Hawkins

I know I say the same thing over and over again, but it’s been a wacky past couple of days and weeks, hence the lack of updates. Trust me, there’s plenty to talk about, which I’ll get to in a bit. But right now, it’s time to dive head first into?

The Flatlands show at Babycastles was a fairly significant happening on a number of levels. First and foremost, and for the folks out there who haven’t been keeping track, it was my fourth collaboration with the indie gaming outfit in just under a year. Actually a few days or a week short of me first meeting Kunal and Syed, the two dudes who founded the little arcade that could, in the basement of some DIY music space in Queens.

Sorry for the lack of modesty, but I’d like to believe that the shindigs I’ve thrown since have helped to not only thrust Babycastles under the spotlight, but also prove that New Yorkers do indeed care about games. Anyone whose familiar with my M.O. is well aware of how I’ve long lamented about the lack of game culture in the Big Apple, despite the fact that virtually every other industry and art form is well represented here. I’d also like to think that I’ve managed to cover all the bases though the sheer variety of my events, which has progressively gotten bigger and bolder. The first was a modest little zine release party that also featured various titles I’ve been involved in, both the good and not so much, the second was a showcase of games that I simply dug a lot, most of which have are fairly obscure even among diehard gamers, with some game related peeps of mine thrown into the mix for good measure, while the third was a full blast celebration of game culture under the Attract Mode banner, aided by my good pal Adam naturally, whose spearheaded similar gatherings in LA, and was again joined by some truly awesome (and crazy talented) pals.

So how does one top all that? Easy: do something completely different. Another thing about my most recent Babycastles event that I’m particularly proud of is how it marked my long awaited chance to work with Eric Zimmerman, easily one of the most noteworthy figures of the local game development scene, as well as the modern indie game scene period. The man helped to make Diner Dash after-all. The last opportunity I had (actually, not really) is when his former company gameLab had talks with mine now long defunct mobile entrainment production company, Pixel Jump, when they were interested in getting involved in the cell phone space.

As of late he’s been doing physical games, with architect Nathalie Pozzi, so when I got the email from him about doing something together for the yet to debut Babycastles Manhattan space, I immediately envisioned something along the lines of their previous collaborations (most notably Sixteen Tons, which I had played already at NYU and which was making waves across the game design spectrum). Something similar in the sense that I was also interested in a non-digital game, one that was very much pristine, almost regal. Basically the opposite of anything Babycastles and myself have presented. Funny enough, I’d also discover after all and said and done that the end result was something that Eric had wanted to do for many years as well, since it tapped into his love for board games?

Pre-Show

Much like for ATTRACT MODE X BABYCASTLES, set-up time was virtually nonexistent. The real issue in this particular case, and why I had even less time to properly promote than that one, was how Thanksgiving weekend immediately preceded set-up, which created several complications related to available resources, or the lack thereof to be specific. I personally could not be on-hand to oversea and lend a hand as much as I had wanted or hoped due to a situation at my daytime gig at that time, which was frustrating to say the least. In the end, it was just Eric and Nathalie, prepping the space almost single-handed, along with help from Rachel Morris, the game’s graphic designer, plus a small assortment of students from Eric’s NYU class.

I’ll be completely honest; as excited as I was about the idea of a gigantic board game involving boards from other board games, I was still worried about how it would ultimately be received. Once again, it’s like nothing Babycastles had ever presented, so it therefore impossible to predict how the Babycastles/Showpaper regulars, never-mind the general public, would react to something so foreign. The venue itself was a cause for concern; much like a traditional arcade, it can get very noisy, but when you also factor in all the live shows that also take place at the space? one can somewhat play a video game amongst such distractions, just pick up a controller and hit all the buttons to hope for the best. But a board game, which requires far more concentration, along with the need to communicate with each other? The fact that one can mess around with a game for a few seconds here and there, whereas a board game needs serious commitment.

Another cause for concern was the game itself. For the most part, I was unaware of the game’s mechanics due to the fact that it was constantly changing and evolving. Early pics of the game, via Eric’s Twitter feed, made me feel rather nervous and anxious; what I saw just seemed so complicated and almost unplayable, at least for the environment I just described. Funny thing was, my hunch were somewhat correct; Eric revealed in the end that the game went through about 30-40 different iterations! Hence the importance of playtesting; over time Eric realized that initial plans were indeed too cumbersome and decided to strip things down to its rawest essential. Eventually it was discovered that a game that’s simply about esthetics and interactions with the board, as well as other players, were the best coarse of action. And as noted in a previous entry, I’m rather proud to have been in one of the playtesters (along with Frank Lantz) when it hit that crucial corner!

Anyhow, here’s some pics from the final 48 hours till showtime; the first thing you’ll immediately notice are a bunch of black boxes, which comprises most of the game’s space. Each one was designed by Nathalie and assembled by hand…

Each was designed to accommodate a game board. How many were there btw? I actually forget the exact number? I believe a couple hundred at the very least. Half the fun was checking out the wild variety of board games that was on-hand, all of which are from Eric’s personal collection…

You had all the staples like Monopoly and Life, along with far more obscure ones, mostly based upon old television shows, cartoons, political dogma, even video games!

Eric and Nathalie, crunching numbers…

? Without getting into too many messy details, original plans as they pertained to the layout of the game, which pretty much took up the entirety of Babycastles’ allotted space, had to be changed almost last minute. And that was jarring to say the least! But in the end, it helped to bring about a change that worked in the game’s favor, so all was well in the end.

Here we have the wall elements being prepped…

Despite things getting kinda hairy near the end, Eric always had a chipper attitude!

Eventually, it was December 2nd, 7pm aka showtime. Flatlands was finally live?

The Opening

In the back were a selection of classic gameLab games in the patented Babycastles custom arcade cabinets?

? Blix was easily my fave of the bunch, with Junkbot coming in at a very close second. Unfortunately, the one I was hoping to have playable the most, Loop, which I wasted God knows how many hours playing while at Ubi Soft (much to the chagrin of my superiors) is simply so out of date that it was impossible to get up and running under Windows 7 according to the Babycastles tech team. Major bummer.

That’s it for part 1! Get ready for part 2.

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