Workers on a factory line. Seeds in dirt unfurling into plant stalks. An astronaut on a space walk. Wabi-sabi pottery mending. Video of all these examples and more were used to introduce the theme of 2020's Global Game Jam, Repair, on January 31. Participants in over 100 countries around the world had 48 hours to come up with an idea based on the theme and turn it into reality.
Now, as the participants have finally had another weekend to catch up on sleep, it's a great time to look at some of the most entertaining, thought-provoking, and fun entries from this year's jam. The list that follows by no means captures all of the best ideas from the Jam, and it is not wholly representative. Over 48,000 people took part in the jam, with ideas spanning all variety of genres and formats (including many entries that aren't easily categorized as video game or tabletop).
Most of the games mentioned here can easily be downloaded and played on PC via the provided links, and a few of them won accolades from the judges at the New York University Game Center's hub, where I got to try out some of the games and meet local jammers in person. You can find hundreds and hundreds of other entries at the Global Game Jam's official website, where hopefully you'll find a few personal favorites that aren't on this list.
Dad Broke the Moon
By Lindsey Kitsis, Joshua Robinson, and George Mesinger
To me, Dad Broke the Moon feels a bit like its makers put Ecco the Dolphin and Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy in the teleporter from The Fly. It's a 2D platformer with beautiful pixel art and some brutal design.
Dear old Dad, who did in fact break the Moon, can collect its pieces to put it back together, but one hit from a floating fish or a shooting star will kill him. He also has a long way to climb up, meaning getting knocked about by an obstacle or simply misjudging a jump can love you a ton of progress in an instant.
"As a programmer, I was fairly comfortable with the mechanics of platformers, but I still had a chance to try some new things," Meisinger tells me over email. "I personally had a lot of fun with the design of the level and the placement of shooting stars. Too much fun maybe, as our game seemed a bit too hard. We decided to allow the player to respawn anywhere, which seemed to balance things out." Watching a streamer attempt a perfect, no respawns playthrough of this would be quite something.
By Calvin So, Aleksei Waddington, and Audrey Vidamo
The less that's spoiled about c. MD, winner of the NYU judges' best overall award, the better. It's a game about repairing robots, but figuring out exactly what you're trying to fix and how to go about it is the point.
"We felt that presenting the player with a robot and various levers, dials, and sliders would enable the player to experiment and understand the context/goals of the game pretty quickly," programmer Calvin So says. "We were mostly interested in exploring the relationship between the cold, mechanical aspects of a robot's settings with the robot's more emotional and sincere reactions."
A lot of games and other sci-fi media touch on a similar idea to the one c. MD does, but few put you in the role of the diagnostician and really make you consider the gulf between our human understandings of consciousness and expression, and what those would mean for an entity whose every attribute can be modified with a switch or lever. You can download the game jam build of c. MD now, but So says the team hopes to revisit it for a more polished release on itch.io in the future.
Trying to Fly
By Bisma Zia, Anam Sajid, and Ali Hamza
Made at the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) jam site in Pakistan, Trying to Fly is a simple, short, semi-autobiographical experience. Two of its makers, Bisma Zia and Anam Sajid, were awarded IGDA scholarships for the sake of traveling to GDC 2020 in March. When they applied for travel visas, the US denied both of them.
Trying to Fly is about that application experience. Give an answer that the US immigration official doesn't like and you'll be rejected immediately. Race, age, employment status—all can be used for or against you.
I reached out to Bisma to ask some questions about Trying to Fly, and was then contacted by the IGDA's executive director Nika Nour, who provided this statement about Bisma and Anam's visa rejections:
"At the International Game Developers Association Foundation, we work tirelessly to ensure that the game development community is representative of, and welcome and inclusive to, every person who wants to make games. Our scholarship programs are meant to open doors and build careers to support the retention of game developers from under-represented communities.
We are currently looking into the recent events surrounding the visa rejections for further clarification and working to provide resources to our young scholars so they may succeed in their career goals. We will continue to support IGDA Pakistan's platform to unifying students and developers and make programming more accessible to our global community beyond GDC."
Grossly Unqualified Art Repair
By Sam Levine, Sten Ulfsson, Leo Melendez,Richard Kopelow, and Will McNeese
Remember in 2012, when a well-meaning woman tried to restore Borja, Spain's Ecce Homo fresco of Jesus and the result came out looking… well, less-than-restored? Grossly Unqualified Art Repair, which took home the NYU Game Center's honor for best use of the jam's theme, lets you take your turn at painting restoration in VR with such conservationist-approved tools as a paintball gun, cheez whiz, and loose macaroni.
"One of our original Ideas was to let the player throw tomatoes at the easel but we had to cut it," the team says over email. Still, Grossly Unqualified Art Repair is the only entry I've seen from the jam where jam is a usable item, so really, who needs tomatoes?
By Vu Ha, Rose Peng, and Johan Soriao
Repair Programming is a puzzle title where you play as a robot that's repairing itself, one piece at a time. Each piece makes the robot perform a specific action about once every second, like moving or turning in a direction, and the pieces can be linked together in sequence to execute a series of moves. Essentially, you're managing a programming system in real time to navigate through a series of obstacles.
Vu, Rose, and Johan, who make games together as Cosmic Adventure Squad, are seasoned game jammers. The team has released over a dozen titles, many of them for past Global Game Jams and Ludum Dare jam events, and even took home a top jam prize last year for their game Coin-Op Kid. It may come as no surprise, then, that Repair Programming is amongst the most polished and thoroughly enjoyable projects to come out of this year's jam.
Still, with only 48 hours to work, Repair Programming was scaled back to make the jam deadline. "We originally had a pretty involved narrative idea about a robot repairing itself (and eventually, other robots!), but as time began to run out during the jam, we decided to scope down and get the base ideas into the playable version that we submitted," the Cosmic Adventure Squad team explains. "We were able to fit a hint of it at the end, but we had a bit of a grander vision of how to present it."
Retris, as you might guess from the name, is a take on Tetris that's been counter-intuitively reworked with the theme of repair in mind. Regular old Tetris is mostly about building up stacks and clearing (or effectively destroying) them. Sure, you might "repair" an off-kilter board by getting it back to a state ready for a tetris or T-spin, but making and unmaking are basically all you're doing.
Retris, which you'll likely find to be harder than it looks on the surface, is Tetris plus Pipe Dream: you're trying to repair a circuit by drawing a continuous line along pieces from the bottom of the board to a point near the top. The same type of tetromino can have different circuit paths drawn on it and regular line-clearing still applies, so you've got to abandon orderly stacking to even get past Retris' first stage. If Tetris is a game about construction and disposal, then Retris is a game about how repairing things can often be a meandering, patchwork process with major setbacks—like nearly every cursed S, Z, and O tetromino—along the way.
By Brain and Nerd
Set on a gleaming, half-flooded submarine, K-Class Calamity immediately calls to mind BioShock's Rapture, but in practice it's more grounded (and, arguably, realistically stressful) than Andrew Ryan's undersea city. Your early 20th century sub, a notoriously unreliable British K-Class, is sinking; to survive, you've got to rapidly switch between patching holes in pipes, tapping out an SOS, stoking the furnace, and manning the torpedoes.
K-Class Calamity is notable amongst the field of jam entries for adopting four diversifiers: voluntary constraints that exist to help motivate experienced developers and push jam entries in more inclusive or underexplored directions. "The Roaring 20s" is the diversifier that led to its art-deco look, and it adopts three accessibility-minded goals: the team used the hashtag #GGJaccess to solicit feedback from disabled gamers, it supports large or scalable text for better readability, and it aims to be understandable regardless of the language spoken by the player (it helps to know the SOS morse code, though).
Developers Brain and Nerd, an indie studio in Northern Ireland, say they'll bring K-Class Calamity to GDC and Gamescom alongside its other in-development titles and prototypes, with hopes of finding publisher support. Director Tina Lauro Pollack says that if they do take the concept further, the team wants to plumb "the myriad of failures that befell the K-Class fleet"—and, if you do a bit of reading on the subject, you'll see there's a number of other catastrophic failures they could work into the game's mechanics.
By Varun Saxena, Toby Do, and Danny Hawk
Prior to the jam's start, the team behind New Trees knew they wanted to do a game about a group of people walking set in India, but the rest of its short, contemplative experience came together around 2020's theme. It follows two childhood friends, Ayaan and Samar, out for a walk in their hometown. Both have gone off to school; one to Mumbai, and the other to a place much farther away, it seems.
The result is a walking simulator of a sort, and it won the NYU jam site's award for best visuals. As Ayaan and Samar walk down a dirt road at sunset, they're flanked by stalks of wheat swaying gently in the breeze. It's a melancholic setting for a game the team says "is about all of the small ways you rebuild bridges with old friends who you don't often see anymore."
All three designers got to stretch their skills a bit with New Trees: Danny approached Toby out of a desire to make a more cinematic experience, Toby asked Varun to lend his writing and more realistic 3D experience, and Varun used it as an opportunity to explore Unity's terrain editing and post-processing features.
Of the few dozen entries I played, watched footage of, or read about, New Trees has stuck with me most. It's not the only entry to focus on what it means to mend or maintain a relationship, granted. Still, in talking about what "home" means as one grows older and more distant from it, it hit very close to what I call home now.