You’re almost four days into Glasgow Film Festival and have a free afternoon begging to be filled – do you a) spend it desperately trying to remember which coat pocket you left your other tickets in, b) roam the city centre with eyes peeled, still hoping that rumours of a visiting Bill Murray turn out to be true, or c) attend 48 Hour Games – a choose-your-own-adventure documentary in which the audience gets to decide who to follow and what to see. Yours truly selects the latter (with a small amount of the other two options too, if I’m honest), and turns to the CCA to find out more.
48 Hour Games presents the world of game jams: gatherings at which ad hoc teams of programmers and designers are tasked with producing new and innovative games in an impossibly short space of time. Filmed at the 2011 edition of the Nordic Game Jam in Copenhagen, Danish director Suvi Andrea Helminen trains her camera on a selection of the convention’s enthusiastic participants, all powering through 48 hours of coding and testing in the hope that, when the klaxon sounds, they’ll have something functional and perhaps even fun to show for it. The teams drink a lot of Red Bull and even more coffee; by the end of the second day, the building presumably smells as ripe as old camembert.
But it isn’t the ‘what’ that makes 48 Hour Games intriguing but the how. Rather than cut her material down to a linear documentary, Helminen structures it as a series of forking paths, asking the audience to choose at each stage what they want to do next. Go for a beer with Team A, or eavesdrop on Team B’s brainstorm? Hang out in the lobby for a while, or hunker down in the confessional booth to hear the babblings of the caffeine-addled? We’re even offered parenthetical digressions – for instance, breaking off from a lecture to see what a particular individual packed in their suitcase that morning (look, we didn’t say they were always interesting digressions…). And to top off the participatory feel, our decisions occasionally unlock ‘rewards’, ranging from a snippet of chip-tune music to handy tips on how to salvage a coffee-covered keyboard (suck it up, apparently). It all adds up to a very distinct form of documentary: not fly-on-the-wall, but rather fly-on-the-wing, with the audience permitted to buzz between rooms in search of fresh points of interest.
Assisting us on today’s journey is Scottish Games Network founder Brian Baglow, who balances noob-friendly expositional asides with occasionally niche humour (for instance, we’re warned that the interface was done in Flash pre-HTML5, and therefore may well run into technical difficulties – a joke for the programmers in the audience and Esperanto to the rest of us). A consummate host, Brian encourages us not to hold back on making our preferences known, but is initially met with a rather reticent room – raising, for a brief moment, the possibility of an interactive film with which no one wants to interact. Perhaps we’re not ready for such responsibility, I wonder. Perhaps we’re better off having others make the editorial choices. In one of the film’s earliest clips, an interviewee states the importance of 'getting into a really good group' at such events, otherwise 'you just have a really horrible experience.' It’s a statement that creates a certain amount of pressure. What if we join the wrong group? I don’t want a horrible experience, I don’t! Luckily, the audience gets over its shyness once things are properly underway, locating its collective voice box and vociferously calling out demands.
After a while, our choices expose us a rather conservative bunch. After latching on to Team Brain – a motley quartet led by a banker called Troels, whose big idea involves hooking players up to a brain scanner and having them control their avatar through sheer concentration alone – we find ourselves curiously loyal, opting to stay close to their side at almost every juncture. For whatever reason, we rebuff encouragement to venture elsewhere and choose instead to watch riveting footage of hardware failing to install properly. Furthermore, our allegiance means that most of the shouts emanating from the audience wind up being variations on either ‘TROOOOELS’ or ‘BRAAAAAAAIN’, as if we’re auditioning as extras in some zombie Middle Earth mash-up. But while our largely single-thread journey may not take full advantage of the format’s explorative potential, it does foster a certain amount of investment in Team Brain’s fortunes come the final jury adjudications and prize giving. The game they deliver is, to my eyes, a Sisyphean nightmare in which you simply stare mutely at a screen, willing a caveman to push a boulder up a never-ending hill, but you can’t help but admire the passion and commitment that went into making it. And besides, in a world where Flappy Bird is downloaded tens of millions of times despite apparently being hated by everyone who’s ever played it, perhaps ‘Neanderthunk’ is closer to genius than my untrained sensibilities can recognise.
As Brian reminds us at the end, today’s screening of 48 Hour Games has shown us but a fraction of the full story, with scores more clips – and therefore thousands more permutations – available at the project’s website (48hourgames.com). Whether this novel synthesis of documentary and point-and-click role-playing game will be as much fun to navigate at home is questionable, but those with piqued interest should definitely consider giving it a try. Just remember to readjust to the more standard, non-interactive type of film before your next screening; outside of today, shouting ‘BEER!’ and ‘THREESOME!’ at a cinema screen is generally a shortcut to an early exit.
[written for the GFF]