INTRO

I love making stuff, especially stuff that bends the rules of what we think of as archaeology, design or games. Recently a really awesome mini-jam caught my eye: “FlatGameAnnual”. The jam gave creators 30 minutes to make a 2D game using only directional interaction to tell a story or moment in time. This is quite different to how I usually make or think about games and design. Subsequently I was hooked on this idea instantly. How could creating a game about archaeology, with only directions, get me (and the people that play the game) to think about arcaheology in different ways? WHAT KIND OF AN ARGUMENT CAN YOU EVEN MAKE THROUGH DIRECTION ALONE?

I decided that I would create a game based on things ripped from my various field-journals and books, given that I have this habit of making small sketches and writing poetry as I wander around site (or more likely, over a beer or two after work is done for the day).

In particular whilst I was on fieldwork in Catalhoyuk last year I became fascinated by the difference between arcaheologists examining and exploring the past through the remains, and the past itself. The way in which we can’t physically go back, but craft forward through discussions of the evidence. I wrote a little semi-rhyming thingy at 4am one morning in a sleep-deprived daze to try express this. I had settled on my art-style (if you can call my scribblings a style) and an argument (embedded in poetry: that archaeologists shape the past through interpretations, rather than going back to the past as it was).


PLAY IT FOR YOURSELF

You can play the game here: https://gamingarchaeo.itch.io/the-past-is-a-kali

[You can play the game in the browswer from the gamepage, OR download it as a .exe (windows) – I will work to get a iOS version up soon, but be warned, I don’t own any apple products so I won’t be able to test / troubleshoot it].
And see the jam here: https://itch.io/jam/flatgame-annual-2016

Feel free to add comments and critique 🙂

Also here are some images of the stuff:

kaliedopast2 kaliedopast3


THE GAME MAKING

So with images and sleep-deprived poetry in hand I opened up Unity3D and GIMP, started my 30 minute timer and dramatically cracked my knuckles in preparation for work.

I decided that the core mechanic (if you could call it that) would be that you could only move right, up and down… Never backwards – in the same way that when we deal with the past we can dig down and find things, but due to the ever persistent march of time we cannot go *actually* back to the past, only re-imagine, re-construct or re-tell it. Quickly I configured my player / camera to only move right, up and down. Like Zoolander, we wern’t going to be able to turn left.

The next thing was going to be to break the poem up and move it around so that it could be read in-line with finds that make some-kind-of-half-sense. Timer showing 27 minutes remaining. I had originally wanted to be able to read it up and down and explore through the poem as you went, but after 10 minutes of trying to figure out how to make the narrative work it became horrifically evident that 30 mins was not going to cut it. Time restraints can be a wonderful thing for keeping you realistic and on track. Though, as a side note, this is something I hope to return to in the future to make. Timer now showing 17 minutes remaining.

Next, I wanted to draw on the kaleidoscope theme and have parallax squares overlaying each other behind the finds as a way of representing the way we combine and interpolate data. This was reasonably easy to implement with a small script and slightly cheating by using a 3D camera, rather than an orthographic one. Again, I had hoped to have these moving and spinning like a kalie, no kalydo euguuuuughhh word I cant spell, as the player moved up, down and right, but, by the time I had finished implementing the squares and parralax alone I had 11 minutes left and art and music left to do. Time to rip this beast into double-time mode.

Luckily for me I was able to whip the art out of my field-book in a dramatic “heres one I prepared earlier” cooking-show-style. I started rapidly taking pictures in the dim light of my current closet-sized living arrangements. At this point the internet dropped (reasonably common occurrence here) and I hit pause on the timer. No internet meant no downloading photos of the field-sketches. Finally at 12.47am the internet kicked back in and I pushed back into frantic-panic mode for the last 10 minutes of this crazy endeavor. I smashed 6 photos into GIMP, pushed contrast up to max, ripped those suckers out, exported them, pushed them to unity assets and took a sip of ice-cold satisfaction in the form of a diet coke can. 5 minutes to go, and only music, exporting and upload to go.

Finally it was time to tackle my nemesis. Music. Somewhat surprisingly this is not my strong point. My mother is an opera singer and wonderfully musical individual, but for the most-part it appears that I inherited my fathers mild case of musical incompetence. Making things sound the way I want to is something I struggle with. I mean, I can imagine what I want it to sound like, I have ideas and ideas and ideas for sound composition, but I don’t have the fist clue how to turn that into actual sounds. What to use. How to layer it. Technically speaking I don’t know how to music. I tried to use a new tool – a visual music composer – to create something that builds up to an unsettling end. Not in the like *oh my god I am on edge way* but in a *ohhhh something is different*, some kind of music that would get the player to disjoint the traditional idea that we “know” the past, and rather that we collate and interpret it from an archaeological perspective. I had one shot to record something if I was going to have this exported and uploaded on time. Mom’s Spaghetti time.

 

I tried hard to follow the raptastic teachings of our leader EMINEM, however as the two minute loop drew to a close it became apparent that I had missed my chance to blow. But, given I only had one shot it would basically have to do. The whole music thing was a dramatic and unprecedented failure in my eyes (although ironically one of the people who played it as part of the competition said they “loved” the music in a probably totally non-sarcastic way).
Looking at the timer I realise that with 2 minutes remaining I had not downloaded the HTML5 exporter and that because my internet hates me it would probably set fire to everything if I tried. Now, because of the cupboard-like construction of my room I have one small window precariously positioned with limited windowsill over a reasonable drop onto concrete. This is the only place I get good phone reception. So I dived sideways across my bed (which takes up the whole room) and using a complex array of aircraft tape that I keep handy (seriously, it solves everything) I jimmied my phone to the window, set it to be a tether device, downloaded the module, added it to Unity and hit the build button with a whole minute and one seconds remaining. Luckily the project only comprises of 5 images, 12 lines and a handful of pretty squares so it exported faster than a formula 1 car, leaving me exactly 42 seconds to upload it to the jam page.

Being a person who is great at planning and thinking things through (hint: I’m really not)I had not filled out the form earlier, leaving me only time enough to smack in 10 words and repeatedly mash the submit to jam key. Tick tock I look at the clock to see (to my infinite suprise) that I was only 32 seconds over my 30 minute timer. Job almost well done and almost delivered on time.


DEBRIEF ON THE GAME

All in all I am really happy with this little experiment for the following reasons:

  • It showed to me that it is possible to design and create something in 30 minutes, that whilst small, can still pack a punch.
  • It reminded me that making games does not necessarily have to be a horrific undertaking. With only 8 lines of code and 30 minutes I was able to make something interesting. I feel like I could teach someone who had no experience with Unity how to make similar things in about 45 minutes. Point here is that game creation can be accessible for archaeologists and this is something I will research / take further in my thesis.
  • It also highlighted how far I have come in being able to think and create through games. Two years ago I would have panicked and fallen back on the crutch of academic archaeology (ie: making a game that was exploring stratigraphy, which whilst there is nothing wrong with that, it is not so much thinking through game design, as it is just replicating what I do in RL – there is benefit there, sure, but there is also benefit in design thinking).
  • It showed me that experimenting between literature, poetry, imagery and interaction has some really interesting applications for thinking about arcaheology – the poem on a page alone is nice, but with the interaction (ie: active progression and the mechanic of not being able to return) the argument can be supported and made in ways that words alone would struggle to do.

This jam was a great deal of fun – the constraints on time and form helped me think in new ways and adapt quickly to work-around issues I faced (both in the real-world and in the game-creation world). In the end I left feeling quite satisfied with myself and enthused to start searching for ways to apply this creative practice to archaeology more broadly, as I think there might be a great deal of benefit for these 30 min creative sessions for archaeologists. So rarely do we get the time to just make things to explore our thoughts – it has to be for a paper, a report or a large project. Taking 30 minutes to make something different was valuable to me and also shows that games are not (always) some horrific behemoth that require specialist skills, years of training and a deep understanding of the engine.

Whilst I have been stumbling around in Unity for three years now this game – simple as it is – taught me a lot about how I can use this tool to support my creative practice, to make and think and do archaeology in innovative ways, and that it doesn’t need to take weeks of learning and days – if not months – of making to hobble something together.

Making arguments about the past through games is (in my biased opinion) a valuable, and as this game jam shows, not necessarily massive undertaking. I mean, youre not going to make Skyrim in 30 minutes, but you can be afforded a window into game-thinking and creating, experiment and leave richer for the experience.


 

WHAT OTHERS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT IT
The lovely Jupiter Hadley covered it in her let’s play of the jam games (you can find it at about 7.20 in): https://youtu.be/oLBqqPXr5zA?t=7m23s

She said “I love how artsy this looks” and “we actually can’t go backwards, huh, thats pretty cool”.

Other people that I harrased into playing it have said:

“What did that say? I want to read it again. Why can’t I move backwar——ohhhhhhhh I get it. Clever.”

and

“I love the music”


 

WHAT NOW?

If you have played the game and have some comments about it feel free to reply here and ill pop them up above. Also if you want to have a conversation about archaeology and games and design we totally should. Message me. Here or on twitter or via email.

I am thinking that I might start writing these little games up more formally for publication at some point as well. Advice on where / how is greatly appreciated.