Now Play This is an exhibition of experimental game design and a regular feature of the annual London games festival. For this year’s Now Play This, at Somerset House earlier this month, exhibition director Holly Gramazio and digital curator George Buckenham spread a wide range of games – digital, physical, edible, musical – across the site’s indoor and outdoor spaces. Here are some of our favourites.
Lost Wage Rampage (Jane Friedhoff, Marlowe Dobbe, and Andy Wallace)
Given the current focus on the gender pay gap in the UK, Lost Wage Rampage is timely. Two retail workers find out they are being paid less than the men in their department and go on a rampage. But developer Jane Friedhoff – who describes herself as a creator of “riot grrrl games” – says she didn’t want to use stats to make the game educational; those who care about the pay gap already know the numbers, and the gap is wider for trans women and women of colour. Instead, the experience of driving around a mall crashing into expensive items to steal back the difference is designed to evoke a kind of cathartic release.
Untitled Goose Game (House House)
Friedhoff joked that she flew to the UK to play Untitled Goose Game, which took social media by storm when its first trailer came out last year. In this strangely traditional-feeling game, you are a goose trying to carry out a list of tasks designed specifically to annoy a farmer. It’s a stealth game, but instead of creeping around a base assassinating guards you’re waddling around a garden digging up carrots and stealing hats.
The Loss Levels (Dan Hett)
One reliably popular room at Now Play This was labelled “nonfiction”. Joining Lost Wage Rampage were more sombre experiences such as The Loss Levels, a collection of mini games created for the festival that represent some of Bafta-winning developer Dan Hett’s experiences when his brother Martyn was killed in the Manchester Arena bombing: scrolling through social media, answering the door to journalists, scattering ashes. The contrast of playing through such a tragic story in a colourful arcade cabinet setting only emphasised its emotional impact.
Wikipedia: The Text Adventure (Kevan David)
A nonfiction game that uses data from Wikipedia to create a text adventure of sorts. You start at a location that is given a description and pixelated image from its Wikipedia page, and can then type commands to change locations (“go east”) or “take” whatever objects are listed in the description. You can’t use these objects, but can set your own goals, such as collecting animals such as the “tiger” from the statue outside Tobacco Dock in London. And whenever a person of note is referenced, you can “talk to” them to get a quote.
Another geographical game, GeoGuessr places the player on a random piece of road in Google’s Street View and asks them to guess where they are, awarding points for proximity. Players can take turns to compete. While you may be able to pinpoint a location from signs, cars or local trees. But a consequence of failing to identify correctly is learning just how similar civilisation can look in different parts of the world.
The custom-built console Dobotone provides a more energetic multiplayer experience. Up to four players use simple colour-coded controllers – one in each hand, each with only one button – to compete in a variety of mini games, while a fifth player can play with dials and switches on the console to change the rules. The game was particularly popular with families.
Multibowl (Bennett Foddy and AP Thomson)
Multibowl is a collection of competitive multiplayer moments from more than 300 games from the 1980s and 90s. Without context, players need to figure out what to do when a new scenario pops up, so despite the competition there’s often some cooperation. The collection can’t be released because it uses emulated versions of existing games, so this experience can only be enjoyed at events.
Master Taster (Jenn Sandercock)
A scheduled game that easily attracted players with a table covered in pots of American candy was Master Taster, from Jenn Sandercock. In this multiplayer edible contest, participants played the roles of tasters for Marie Antoinette and Julius Caesar. Each round involved learning a flavour that either figure disliked, tasting a new food with eyes closed, and then using thumbs up and down to approve (or not) the food for consumption, with players who guessed wrong eliminated in each round until only one master taster remained. Sandercock spoke about her desire to make games that can only be made with food, and the cumulative effects of different flavours on the taste buds make this a unique experience.
Another game that easily attracted passersby was projected on to a wall and played with a big two-button controller made by designer Louis Roots. In The Best Thing, from Melbourne studio PlayReactive, two words appear on the screen and players vote for which is best. In each round, the winners from the previous bout are randomly paired for more comparisons, so that while the first round asks you to choose between things such as cats and dogs, or “video games” and “videogames”, subsequent rounds present more conceptually difficult choices, such as fingers v emotions, or dating v dinosaurs. This game is particularly fun to play as a group, especially when you discover your democratically elected final “best thing”.