If you are in Fed square this Wednesday and find yourself surrounded by shifty seeming characters working in teams to steal secrets and undermine each other, you don’t need to be either alert or alarmed – chances are that you are just in the middle of Spies by Night, a part of the Freeplay independent games festival program.
Freeplay has been running since 2004, and has gained a progressively larger following each year. To find out more about what to expect and the thinking behind it all, we spoke to Ben McKenzie, host of Dungeon Crawl, Can’t Stop the Serenity Melbourne 2012, and the production manager for this year’s festival.
“The main aim of the festival is to provide an outlet for the discussion of art and culture that you don’t get at conferences because that’s not their focus”. McKenzie explains. Freeplay was “born out of a desire to tell other stories about videogames in Australia. There was always a very heavy focus on the industry and business and how much money you can make; the commercial aspect of games. We think there’s more to it than that.”
The festival program is structured into four parts: the Playful Program, Developer Program, Conference Program and the Arcade and Expo. While the man conference program and particularly the developer program are more geared towards game makers there are different events to suit different levels of engagement with games. McKenzie continues “even in the conference program there is a lot of stuff in there for people who are just interested in talking about and thinking about games on a bit deeper level than ‘is it any good’.”
This year’s program has over 90 participants, including international Keynote speaker Mare Sheppard, one of the designers of N+, and Tetsuya Mizuguchi who will be discussing his work on rhythm games, Rez ,and Space Channel 5 as well as playing some of them on the big screen.
McKenzie talks through some of the events on offer. The program is highly varied, from the interactive Spies by Night, the new “two day developer conference which focuses a bit more on the practical side of things”, to panels where participants will be “discussing everything from how games interact with other forms of art, to the ethics of design, to alternative sort of ideas about what it means when you put certain things in games.”
Other events include ‘Games by the Fire’ which “is going to be great because we’ve got a really diverse range of people talking about video games. Everybody has a different reason for loving them, and different perspectives. We’ve got George Ivanoff, a young adult author who has written some books which are set inside a video game and who will be talking about his obsession with Space Invaders. We’ve also got Lisa-Skye who is a comedian and who is going to talk about her love of Omega 500 games. Then we’ve got Andrew McClellend and Richard McKenzie who are going to do a little sketch about DayZ which is this amazing indie mod zombie survival game where the zombies aren’t much of a threat, it’s more about ‘are the other survivors, who are other players, going to get me?’. “
There is also going to be the Arcade and Expo, a free exhibition of local and international independent video games. It includes a digital art exhibition curated by Fee Plumley which features an installation called Lose/Lose, a game where you are a spaceship shooting aliens, designed to question the fact that when you kill things in games, there are no repercussions. McKenzie explains “the aliens in the game are generated at random by the files that exist on your hard drive – and when you kill an alien in the game, it deletes that file off your hard drive – a real world consequence for your actions.”
The final event of the festival is the Freeplay Awards hosted by comedian Lawrence Leung. The awards ceremony promises to be bigger than in the past, being held in a new venue, and with entries quadrupling in number since last year.
McKenzie’s enthusiasm for the project is clear throughout the interview – by the end of it, I was keen to attend pretty much everything he mentioned despite the fact that the most progress I’ve ever made in a game being getting to the green vine level in Icy Tower.
“For me it’s a little tricky to capture what it is that Freeplay does. I think it’s more important that Freeplay is doing what nobody else is doing. It’s a space where conversations about games can happen that probably won’t happen in other places. “