The UCLA Game Art Festival at the Hammer Museum – November 2015

UCLA Game Art Festival is a Whirligig of Ideas

UCLAGameArtFestival In Westwood Village, blocks from the University of California Los Angeles Campus, a wild rumpus of ludology unfolds for the fourth straight year – a cavalcade comprising 40 playable video and board games, interactive installations and video game-inspired chicanery.

Produced by the UCLA Game Lab in collaboration with Hammer Student Association (H.S.A.), the UCLA Game Art Festival sprawled out across the outdoor courtyard of the famous Hammer Museum, the cool night air housed some 3-400 guests involved in everything from playing an arcade game strapped to the back of a guy who had no intention of staying still, to manipulating live cacti in PvP or using chopsticks to draw ingredients from a moving plush robot that then resulted in a sushi roll (Ddook Dddak Kimbap! from Tyler Stefanich, Camella Da Eun Kim and Alex Rcikett).

Play with Your Food

In fact there, was an entire section devoted to games based around edible food. Sandswitch, from Sophia Staab-Gulbenkian, Lilyan Kris and Hsin-Yu Lin was a hilarious dive in food Armageddon as players aggregated various ingredients while making their way around a 3D-printed plastic board into the sandwiches before them. At the end of the game, everyone ate what they have managed to assemble. This is where I witnessed a grown man eating raw broccoli and cauliflower with mayonnaise stuffed between two pieces of Wonder Bread, or worse – a panini with SPAM, grape jelly and garlicky hummus.

Sandswitch - an edible board game at UCLA Games Festival

This is where ideas come to run amok, and the results are filled with fiendish fun.

Wrench in the Ointment?

You know you are near the place where games are made when Messhof seems like a mainstream offering. In this case, the latest offering from the makers of Nidhogg is Flywrench – a fast-paced, single player arcade action game wherein you can bounce, float, rappel, ricochet off the sides of a spaceship, moving through walls where colors match and getting toasted when they don’t. It was great to have it in tabletop form.

Flywrench by Messhoff

Also in the arcade category were Gardenarium (Paloma Dawkins and Kyler Kelly, with help from KoLab), a gorgeous monochromatic hand-drawn adventure about landscape cleansing, and Space “Invader” (Kristen Sadakane), which swaps bullets for dialogue in exploring the colonialist narrative of many classic video games wherein one is tasked with eliminating natives of an existing world.

Performance Art as Game, or Vice Versa?

Nearby Mirror Mirror, an installation from Jesse Fleming featuring two seats in the shape of illuminated half-pipes, explored flow and communication between two people. Two people face one another wearing headphones as the colors in their half-pipe shift, visible only to their partner. They eventually attune to one another by listing colors or numbers, creating an observable connection.

From this vantage point on the second floor, we could see the main stage and a performance of Cos-Mo Cap Astrodome America from Isla Hansen – a live multiplayer event (for lack of a better word) supported by a real school marching band – or at least a small portion of one. Though there was a lot of build-up and literal fanfare, the game proper seemed ultimately disconnected from the action of the volunteer actors on state. I dunno, maybe i didn’t get the whole picture, as some of the audience seemed impressed, at least at first…I think the payoff got a little lost in the rhetoric, in this case.

In the same performance category came Puff from Lauren Mahon, which explores the different kinds of smokers as they trade tools necessary to feed their nicotine habits. Several people stood up on stage and discussed how they had traded vaping for rolling their own Drum tobacco, all the while chain-smoking and reflecting on the results.

Puff - a smoking game from Lauren Mahon
Puff – a smoking game from Lauren Mahon

Of course such experiments are never a pass or fail – they are simply that: experiments and approaches to new uncharted waters. The more unstable they are, the more likely to catalyze legitimate eureka moments.

In the virtual reality department, we saw Classroom Aquatic, Richard LeMarchand’s The Meadow (representing for USC) and Shape Space VR from Academy Award-winning VFX pioneer Kevin Mack.

Board but Not Boring

The board games department was also a standout. Locals Only! from Christian Gimber used a sort of modular diorama to build a surfer’s perfect wave-riding experience. Junk from Sofia Staab-Gulbenkian takes inspiration from William Burroughs’ eponymous essay and looks at the intersection of drug addiction and capitalism. Perhaps my favorite in terms of the biggest chuckle of the night came from Checköut by Danielle Hollander, which centers around the trials and tribulations of shopping at IKEA and trying to get out without breaking up your relationship.

Locals Only! by Christian Gimber
Locals Only! by Christian Gimber

The net effect of this curated series of imaginative and thought-provoking titles was to reinforce why independent game developers are so vital to exploring who we are right now, those corners that may be left unaddressed by traditional cinema or television formats, and that encourage and provoke engagement, participation, collaboration or competition with others in unique and provocative ways.

Check out all the games at 2015’s UCLA Games Fest at the official site

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