March 05, 2004

Blogging the BAFTAs

Time to try and filter my hazy recollection of the inaugural BAFTA Interactive Festival (Feb 17-19) through a developer perspective. I’ve even emulated the hard living gamer types I know in the interest of authenticity. It’s done my lungs and liver no good at all.Are the results in on that recent survey on the quality of life in the games industry? Hah!

Despite not attracting nearly enough developers, the BAFTA Festival was successful in bringing together a mix of 'interactive' people that normally exist in parallel universes. BAFTA is fairly uniquely placed to nurture a creative community spanning linear and non-linear entertainment. At a time when spreadsheets are merging, the cross-pollination of interactive entertainers has barely begun.

Only a few years ago I seem to vaguely remember the film and game industries announcing "There will be no convergence."? Well times have changed and the Festival dedicated a whole day to the subject. Certainly amongst the weird non-gamer types I tend to hang out with, this seemed to be somewhat of a draw card even if, for many of them, interactive entertainment consists of reading recycled jokes in the email. The irony is that this is the year that BAFTA, in response to industry feedback, has split the traditional Interactive Awards into separate Games Awards and Interactive Awards. It had to happen but here’s hoping that both ‘sides’ stay in touch even if only to avoid re-inventing the flat tyre.

Forget the market-speak and sales-talk, I was looking to talk to game developers. It wasn’t easy. The only developers in evidence were either ‘the names’ up on the panels or the alumni of various famous titles. Where were the rest of you? Down the pub heaping scorn on the establishment? Cooped up in a code farm? Waiting for the webcast? Who knows but you were missed.

Sound folk were unusually visible with a welcome number of audio sessions. From an ‘interactive audio in games’ discussion hosted by John Broomhall to ear-splitting 3D spatial surround performances hosted by the Illustrious Company, the message was loud and clear - ignore the ‘poor relation’ of creative arts at your peril. Yet the irony was also clear that game sound people aren’t coming close to pushing the audio capabilities of current devices like the XBOX, hamstrung by cross-platform development constraints. How about letting us publish a couple of audio-only titles, Bill? We all know kids using the box more as a jukebox then anything.

As expected, the best sound bites were invariably low-tech. The installation artist Charlie Morrow, in between blowing on his conch shell, forecast that the future of sound (as per the name of the session) would involve the loss of hearing. He urged the crowd to "go to nature to get in tune with the system that built us". Meanwhile Peter Molyneux reminded ‘The Movies’ sneak-preview audience that anyone attempting to really make a film is mad.

Going back to nature was a theme I picked up again in the session I chaired (‘What’s the Story?’) on interactive story-telling. A debate between film-makers and game designers had a diverse audience from all walks of life. The discussion exposed many home truths. No one really knows how to deliver interactive fiction. Games miss out on the equivalent of film vocabulary to inform you of what is about to happen. Film-makers relish the fluidity of real-life shooting. MODs make for interesting times. And lastly low tech, albeit money-spinning, interactive entertainment like the Sing-a-long Sound of Music is totally under the industry radar. Keep it simple stupid? Yeah right…

For those who made the effort, it was the diversity of perspectives on offer which provided the pay-off. The school and university exhibits were a real highlight. Teenagers tracking video motion, primary school kids filming stop-motion animation… Let’s face it, we’re still laying down the turf. Can we PLEASE have some real fun while we’re doing it?

At the heart of the convergence debate there seems to be a worrying assertion that the game industry has to simply to learn the ropes from the film industry. Is it really appropriate to use Hollywood as a template? Let’s not ape an industry grappling with its own spiralling costs, technological upheaval and entrenched forms of social and gender inequality. Under the hype, the power struggles says precious little about where art is coming from. So go figure why it’s ‘technically impossible’ to make a game on your own these days. Who’s zooming who? How about some game equivalents of the Blair Witch Project next year? Developer awards? Feminine game designs that go beyond global search and replacing lad brand with girlie brand?

Maybe it boils down to this. Art produced in a vacuum ain’t art. Sorry. Not in a networked world and perhaps never. The interesting stuff is coming from the cross-pollination of several industries, all keeping each other on their toes. Maybe the truth of the matter, clearer after throwing different kinds of practitioners in a venue for a few days, is that the zeitgeist comes from those who try. Trying in this game means a certain willingness to share.

Posted by .M. at March 5, 2004 08:28 PM | TrackBack
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