Splash Jam 2016

Over the weekend, me and 100 other game developers took a cruise ship through the Norwegian fjords to make a bunch of games during a wild thing called Splash Jam.

A panoramic view of the Norwegian fjords off the side of a boat

It wasn’t until I landed in Tromsø and started working out where to go next that I realized how far north we were. Well above the Arctic Circle and deep in the frozen north.

A screenshot of Google Maps showing Tromsø in the far north of Norway
A map of Norway - look how far north Tromsø is!

The event started with structured “mingling” in a very dark room, and the theme announcement: beginnings. Groups formed up and started brainstorming ideas. My team: Will McMain, Aaron Oostdijk, Malena Klaus, Valdemar Andreasen, and myself (later to be dubbed Silent Panda); decided to try and make a game about the awkward interactions you have when you meet someone for the first time.

Our first idea was about a sort of dancing game, where the players had to share controls in some way to execute the dance. Then we had the idea of simulating an awkward conversation using two phones with multiple choice conversation prompts. We then moved towards a game where players had to use the vibration motors in a game controller to communicate with each other. This last idea stuck and we started playing around with ways to use that. By the end of the night, we had decided to make a four player game, where two players hold one controller behind their back and face away from the screen, while the other two guide them around. The two with the controller would be able to use the vibration motors to communicate with each other (Xbox controllers have separate motors in each handle which spin at different frequencies). We also played with the idea of having both pairs hold controllers and use vibration to communicate between the groups.

Then we got on the boat.

By the morning, we had changed from two “teams” to two players with an audience. The players would still share a controller with their backs to the screen, and the audience’s job would be to guide the players through a series of puzzles that only they could see. Vibration would be used to provide feedback to the players about their actions being out of sync.

Aaron started building a procedural music composer based on

[In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r__Dk4oWGJQ) (Norwegian, and the theme music for [Alton Towers](https://www.altontowers.com/) - appropriate for the rollercoaster ride the ship would put us through both evenings...). Valdemar started designing some puzzles around ideas we'd discussed, and the rest of us started building them.

Around dinner time, the boat left the fjords, and so began the terrible sickness that killed all hope of game development for most of the teams…

A panoramic view of semi-distant fjords off the back of a boat
More fjords!

A bit before dinner on the second day, we tested what we’d built so far (much too late…), and discovered that it wasn’t working. The interaction was much too one sided, and the players just felt like bad voice recognition controllers for the audience. We had built a lot of different mechanics by that point, but all of them would have the same problem; the players didn’t know anything the audience didn’t already know better. We needed to make some drastic changes.

We still liked the asymmetry of the players and the audience, and of the hidden information. We wanted to continue to use the vibration motors as feedback mechanisms for the players, and to keep them in the dark about each other’s movements.

So, what if the players are actually blind people, and rather than trying to solve arbitrary puzzles, they’re looking for treasure. Each of them has a metal detector which vibrates their side of the controller. But they’re not walking along an empty beach, they’re in a minefield. And so, Blindfield was born.

We had about an hour before dinner, and after that we had another stretch of open sea to cross, but we battled through the nausea, and constructed a game.

A room full of people looking at a projection of the game, Blindfield, with two people standing in front of it, looking out at the audience, holding a controller behind their backs
Blindfield in play

In Blindfield, two players hold a controller behind their backs, and stand so they can’t see the screen. An audience watches from somewhere they can see the screen, but not what the players are doing with the controls.

Each player controls a coloured circle on the screen. They both have metal detectors that work in different ways. One of them has a long range detector that vibrates when they are moving in the direction of the treasure, but gets weaker as it gets closer. The other has a short range detector that gets stronger, the closer it gets to the treasure. When both players are standing on the treasure, they win.

The audience’s job is to guide the two players, to help them find each other without stepping on any mines.

You can download it here, but you’ll need at least 3 people (preferably more).

In retrospect, we should have started testing the game much earlier. What we ended up with has promise, but it’s pretty rough, and it needs something to keep both players entertained throughout. Currently, one player looks around for the treasure, while the other just sits there waiting. Then the audience guides the second player to the general area the first thinks the treasure is in, and they search around for a strong signal, and the first player gets guided to them, and (hopefully), they win. While one player is active, the other is passively waiting for instructions, which is fine when they’re both experienced players, but with novices, it can take some time for them to work out where they should go.

Fjords with a small boat passing in front of them
Even more fjords!

Game jam aside, the fjords were things of beauty. The rooms we were working in had a direct view out over the water, which provided plenty of distractions, and some people saw the northern lights, which sounded amazing (I missed them…). On top of that, the food on the boat was delicious, and we were “treated” to traditional freeze dried fish and cod liver oil on the deck at some point on the first day.

Above all, the people I met on the trip were all really lovely. I didn’t manage to talk to everyone (101 people is a lot), but I hope I’ve made some lasting connections (or even friends!).

10/10, would jam again!

A view out of an airplane window, fjords visible past the wing through breaks in the clouds
Fjords from the air