Now Play This is an annual event held at Somerset House in London, from 7th-9th April this year (so it'll probably be over by the time you read this. Unless you're reading this RIGHT NOW, and you're in London, in which case: go go go!). It's a gaming festival run by Holly Gramazio, George Buckenham, Sophie Sampson and Jo Summers, which aims to highlight "experimental game design" and show its visitors "some of the most interesting games and playful work being made around the UK and the world".
— Laura E. Hall (@lauraehall) April 7, 2017
So what kind of things is it showing off this year? Everything from the typical games you might expect, like folksy folktale story-game Burly Men At Sea and David OReilly's new existence-exploration game Everything, all the way to hardware games such as Bot Party, created by Physical Computing Lecturer and founder of Code Liberation, Phoenix Perry.
— phoenix perry (@phoenixperry) April 8, 2017
Now Play This is a space that encourages playfulness, to pick things up and try them out without knowing exactly what they are every time. But many of these games have serious messages behind their pastel colours and chunky aesthetics, like Jenny Jiao Hsia's Morning Makeup Madness. Hsia's games are largely done in pinks and oranges, with cartoonish faces taking up most of the screen, pulling silly faces and making the players giggle.
"[Morning Makeup Madness] draws from my personal experiences of waking up late in the morning and having very little time to get ready," says Hsia on the game's itch.io page. I asked her about her chosen aesthetic, which is very "cute", in her own words, after she did a talk on Cuteness in Games at this year's Game Developers Conference.
"At best, people find cuteness to be inviting and non-threatening. Genuine and warm. Relatable," she says. "However, cuteness can also subvert our expectations by masking darker and more serious motives. You can be cute, but also tough." Morning Makeup Madness might not be one of Hsia's darkest games—she has one that explores her history with eating disorders, and another about long-distance relationships—but it invites players to ask themselves the function and purpose of makeup. If you get 100% on the game, do you still look beautiful? Does it matter?
It's not the only event or game with a serious message, either. Brexit, a piece by Yara El-Sherbini, asks people to engage with political issues through play; 10,000 Years is an exploration of the difficulties of communicating about the existence of nuclear waste when civilization has collapsed entirely; Laura Hall's The Silence in Room 1258 explores the sinister side of 1930s Hollywood through historical ephemera; Elizabeth Sampat's Deadbolt is—well, Emily Short describes it best in this written experience of it. There are also talks throughout the weekend, ranging from the technical problems involved in game development to the difficulty and intimacy of making autobiographical games.
As with Phoenix Perry's Bot Party, there are a bunch of hardware games at Now Play This that explore the new(ish) frontier of physical games, played with wood and metal as well as screens. Hardware game creator Robin Baumgarten, the man behind one-dimensional dungeon crawler Line Wobbler, has a new game called Rubber Arms, played with a rubber band, and alternative controller experimentalists Alex Johansson and Katy Marshall showed off Vaccination, a game played with a big plastic syringe and an Operation-style wooden body. It's an opportunity to see the interesting things people are creating with soldering irons and their imagination.
There are tens of other games that I don't have time to mention here, but rest assured that if you can't make it to Now Play This, it's not the only festival or event of this kind. There are things like this popping up all over the world: Screenshake in Antwerp, Belgium; Fantastic Arcade in Texas; Wild Rumpus—involving many of the same organisers as Now Play This—in London; Zoo Machines near Lille, France; A MAZE in Berlin and Johannesburg. There's a new scene in gaming, and it's one that shows us how they can surprise us, that invites us to play around and discover things as if we were children again.