It’s almost midnight and I’m talking to someone who I have just tortured for hours. I cut off his oxygen supply, clamped his skin, struck his abdomen with a range of instruments and even forced various things into his mouth. He was blindfolded the whole time so every instance of pain had the added threat of coming as a complete surprise. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one inflicting the torture.
Dozens of others joined in to boost his levels of pain, discomfort and in some cases, uncontrollable elation. This happened over a period of hours and no matter what, the person in question let it all happen. For the sake of play. Just like the contest taking place on everyone’s phone, the band of creatures playing their own brand of joyful music and the game of moon golf coming to its singular, inevitable end.
Once midnight comes, it will all be gone forever. The time when tomorrow arrives and these games die. The only people who will be witness to the events, creativity and catharsis of tonight are the ones present. For anyone else, it will just be a story.
Well, four stories to be exact. A story of joy transforming into tragedy. The strange darkness of human nature. The manic competition of the English language. A cleansing of self-doubt. On the surface, video games were designed, created and played. But underneath the beer, coffee and burritos, thirteen hours on the 12th of November will be remembered for several different reasons. Most of which is the fact that the games no longer exist. Destroyed by their creators on the same day they were made. All four of them gone forever. They only existed for a day. But as I discovered, that didn’t stop anyone from pouring everything they had into them.
Bar SK in Melbourne’s Collingwood doesn’t look like a bar. It’s more like a mixture of somebody’s lounge room and garage. The furniture is mismatched, the rugs are second-hand and the walls unpainted. But somehow, it immediately feels inviting and comfortable. Opening in August this year, it already has regular customers and the general feeling of a place that you want to visit again and again. It’s a rare quality that no amount of money or planning can capture. You could spend millions on a perfect location with teams of interior designers agonising over every detail but Bar SK just simply works. In a way that seems effortless.
With that in mind, it was probably the best place to host DELETE – a day-long event to not only create video games within a short amount of time but to celebrate the fact that they won’t last the night.
With modern-day video games, everything is instantly and forever available. Buy the downloadable game and it will (theoretically) be in your library forever. Even if you delete it for a while. The cloud can hold on to it and you can come back to it whenever you want. Even years from now. No problem. You might not even play it at all but at least it’s there for you, right?
But what if it wasn’t? Before platforms like Steam, Good Old Games or even Xbox Live backwards compatibility, if you wanted to play an obscure, hard-to-find game you had to track down the physical thing itself and something to play it on. Not a simple task depending on the game. For years, old PC adventure games were only playable on their native mid-nineties machines. Multiple discs struggling to install and run on your obsolete computer but in some cases, totally worth it. Rarer still were the ones you just couldn’t play. Due to overseas boundaries or scarcity of the game itself, some adventures entered myth. Only second or third-hand information from a friend of a friend about how amazing and unique and cool that game was. Too bad you will never play it. Average games could even skyrocket in quality depending on how many years they occupied the stuff of legend. Even so, the power of rose-coloured glasses sometimes reflected reality, not just our wishes.
DELETE creator and Bar SK founder Louis Roots has similar thoughts. After I arrive at the bar at eleven o’clock in the morning, we have a coffee and he tells me about the idea to create something and immediately destroy it. “When I was travelling last year,” he tells me, “I had some toothbrushes on a flight along with a bag of stuff I had to make controllers. I went back home and made a little clay skull and embedded some metal washers in its teeth. I ran wires through it and ran another wire through the toothbrush so it was sticking through the bristles. So when the ground cable (which was the toothbrush) touched the teeth, it made a keyboard.”
“So I carried it with me to Edinburgh to a show called Games Are For Everyone (a one-off event held at Edinburgh’s Mash House in May 2015). It had a slight expo tinge, you know, you talk to the developers and hand out business cards. The show literally had a gap to fill and they said to me ‘Do you want to show something?’. By this time, I had grown tired of carrying the skull around with me so I went back to my hotel, copy and pasted some code into Unity and made a digital skull so as you brushed the physical teeth [on the clay skull] the screen lit up and gave you a score. So I set it up at the show and people played it. But as they were brushing the teeth, it was degrading the clay and the wire in the toothbrush kept getting pushed in. So people had to brush harder which would degrade it further. Teeth started falling out and people started saying “Oh no, I’m breaking it!” and I said it was okay because I was getting rid of it at the end of the night. It was fun because it got harder and harder to play.”
“When I told people that I was getting rid of the skull at the end and also planning on deleting the game itself, they held on to the idea that it was a thing you could easily copy or keep. Therefore you don’t need to delete it. Someone even said ‘Just put it on a USB and you can delete it but always have it anyway’ and I was like ‘What’s the point of that?’. After the night was over, I went outside into the parking lot and stepped on the skull. Then I went home and deleted the game without a second thought. A lot of people have that fear of deleting stuff. Which is weird because you get so much crap on your computer and there’s a real illusion of permanency with digital stuff. [This event] today also removes that layer of ‘What if people don’t like it?’ because you’re coming out of this with nothing.”
Around midday and a second coffee, the ideas for the games begin to take shape. There’s a total of four being made with the full knowledge they won’t last into tomorrow. For Harrison Smith, this is the perfect opportunity for what he wants to create. In 2014, Captain Games released Desert Golfing for mobile devices and everyone fell in love with its endless, banal simplicity. It struck a chord with Harrison, albeit an unfinished one. “Everything I try to make is to do with feeling something,” says Harrison “and Desert Golfing was the game I always wanted to make. About a year ago I mentioned to some friends that ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to make Desert Golfing but on the moon?’ I never got around to it and I’ll admit to you that I’m doing it today. It’s been in my mind so long and I’d like to try and do something with certain emotions at certain points. But then I thought if I make this, what am I going to do with it? So today I guess I can make it now, it works or not then that’s it. I get the ego boost from showing it to some people and never show it again. The other feeling I want to have is on the final hole, the ball goes in and the screen just goes black. I just kill the game somehow and all the files are gone.”
A deceptively simple idea but one that seems extremely necessary to serve some internal judgement. Today is the perfect place to tap into the emotion of letting go, which is exactly what Harrison wants to serve. To create something you’re not entire sure about but that’s perfectly okay because it won’t see the sunrise and the critical gaze of the outside world. But either way, it must be executed once and for all.
That urgency that runs through every hour of today can create something from nothing. The second of four games is being made from scratch by two people who only met this morning. Andy Smith and Matt Horton like the idea of deletion so what they’re creating is based all around it. It also is steeped in multiplayer. With Andy working on the server side and Matt doing the game interface, they’re playing with words. Since so many of us play games on our phones, using that as the controller makes sense here. Words fall from the sky and fill an area and multiple players type in the words to see who can delete them the fastest. But that barely scratches the exciting part. With every deletion, the words react with a volatile shudder. The more players, the more chance of things going haywire.
Go to a URL, enter your name then get to work typing in the words faster than your competitors. What you type on your phone erupts on the screen. Bigger fonts causes more explosive results. Secret identities can result in ridiculously sized words. The English language is crushed under its own weight while everyone is in a mad rush to destroy it for a high score. Heads are turned upside down to read obscured words for that winning result. Or a game crash when too many letters fall outside their boundaries and into an animated fire at the bottom of the screen.
Every moment of it created by two people who didn’t even know each other before today. Discussed over two laptops. Ideas back and forth. With an impending deadline.
There is a deadline, by the way. All these developers are aiming to have their games in a playable state by 7PM tonight. As complete and satisfactory as they can. From that point on, the people who have been visiting Bar SK throughout the day (and the other developers themselves) can play the games until midnight. Give them a test run before the time of their destruction arrives. There is a fun, relaxed vibe in the bar but everyone is aware of the time constraints. As the day continues, a sense of dread emerges. A dread that increases ten-fold when I see the next game.
Collaboration in this environment can create something truly magical. Added to that, creating physical sculptures as the heart of a game instantly makes a unique experience and something that can never be completely replicated. Marigold Bartlett and her team of Dom Willmott and Barnaby RW is already aware of this aspect because she has made the grave mistake of giving this game a personality. More specifically, five personalities.
The game in question is all about a small group of creatures forming a band. The proximity of human hands will act as the catalyst for the music (composed by Dom), fed through electronics and LED lights (set up by Barnaby) and come through loud and clear via five sculptures (moulded and painted by Marigold). “We got a coffee this morning,” she tells me as we stand over the clay sculptures drying in a corner. “then sat down and said to each other ‘What are you good at and what materials have you got?’. And I said I’ll do sculptures because you don’t see them much around in digital transmedia. And they’re cute and fun. As for destroying them at the end, it’s sad and I’m already apologising to them. I made them too cute.”
Marigold is not wrong. These sculptures have so much personality in their design, it hurts. Couchgirl, Tallboy, Arms, Slugg and Siobhan make up the band and even unpainted at this preliminary stage in mid-afternoon, I hate the thought of them being destroyed. The game itself will be incredible but the aftermath will be an outright tragedy.
More coffee. Junk food. Devices being charged on extension cords and beers starting to flow. As the shadows grow long in Bar SK, plenty of people who look like they would normally walk past a small strange bar like this one peer inside to see what exactly is happening in this small corner of Collingwood. The couches and tables start to fill up and fascination sets in.
Harrison’s moon golf is more complicated than previously thought. Adding animations of the US flag and the planet Earth take time and the concept of the game deleting itself automatically once the final ball reaches the final hole has grown from a fun novelty to a crucial aspect of this whole project. Harrison will miss his playable 7PM deadline but it matters no more. His aim now is to for eight holes, a single late-night playthrough and then to let go of Moon Golfing forever. I’m not sure he’ll make it but his dedication is crystal clear.
As the bar slowly fills up with people, the centre of the floor has become an inevitable attraction. The fourth and final game being created today is by Lee Shang Lun. He had no pre-conceived notions before coming in to Bar SK today but the idea he describes is immediately compelling. “Thinking about the body as a controller is what led me here. Because when you play a video game, it’s not just the controller that’s controlling. Your body is also the controller when you play. Then I started thinking about a living creature as the controller that would get destroyed tonight and what it would mean to destroy a body. It will also be a critique and reversal of scenes in games like Grand Theft Auto which bodies are littered on the streets but [the game is telling us] nobody actually gets hurt and there’s no physical interaction.”
Lee’s description of his game cannot begin to do it justice. Bar SK owner Louis helps him construct what is essentially a coffin for his body that can be accessed by random people. Interactions such as mechanical pain, thermal pain, oxygen deprivation and tickle response will all be indicated by Lee on a keyboard inside the coffin which will then increase corresponding sliders on the screen above him. ‘Body Of Play’ he calls it and as it gets close to completion, the game aspect of his creation comes into practice. Five rings at the bottom of the screen (which are highlighted when sliders reach their apex) are the objective. Raise enough sliders to highlight all five rings and the game is complete. But that means inflicting increasing amounts of pain, torture and pleasure on Lee’s body. All with tools like clamps, candle wax and others provided on a small table beside the coffin. Lee will also be wearing a blindfold the entire time with a funnel in his mouth. For hours. The stamina required to overcome this level of discomfort will be a sight to see. But only for today because as with the competitive destruction of words, the band of creatures and moon golf, Body Of Play will not exist tomorrow.
7PM has arrived. Eight hours have passed. Games are being displayed and the bar is being filled with dozens of eager random people wanting to play.
Every game has an audience. Andy and Matt’s words fall from their invisible housing and players gather on the couches and even create standing room to defeat each other’s score. The competitive nature of people automatically takes over.
The band of little creatures bang out their tune as the drums, guitar and vocals come through loud and clear at the front of the bar. Player’s hands becoming an instrument themselves to bring these tiny creatures to life through LED lights and happy music.
Lee’s ‘coffin’ garners a surprising number of players. Human beings more than willing to inflict a slight amount of torture and experimentation on a body. It’s easier for people to act upon these desires when Lee’s face is covered. He briefly ceases being a person for a few hours on this Saturday night. He is only a body.
DELETE is a bright, shining success. I’m in awe. Not just of the staggering creativity of each of the developers but the knowledge that these games will only exist here and now. Never again will these particular games in this particular environment be witnessed and consumed. Random people around the bar fall into this time and place to play these games. To experiment. Poke and prod. See what happens. Maybe some of them don’t even know that they are part of an accidental but exclusive club that exists tonight. By the time the sun rises in the morning, will they even realise?
It’s 11:50pm and Harrison’s Moon Golfing is complete. He just barely made the deadline and says the code to delete the game from his laptop is in place. People gather to each play a hole. I managed to play two. It’s a surprisingly strange feeling to be playing a game that will be deleted forever in a matter of minutes. I can see Harrison is very excited to have finished and nervous to see if his final deletion pays off. The small crowd agree he should play the final hole. Naturally, it’s the most difficult level. Harrison sits down with a grin on his face and plays. The attention of everyone is captivated. Finally, the ball soars towards the hole and drops in. After a moment, the game quits to desktop to reveal the empty folder. He did it. It was gone. Cheers and applause go around the bar.
Midnight is here and everyone deletes any files they had on their computers. Body Of Play’s sliders. Andy & Matt’s words. The code that held the band together.
We all take the physical objects (coffin & creatures) to the back of the bar and they are literally destroyed. Marigold Bartlett has already left the bar instead of seeing the destruction of Couchgirl, Tallboy, Arms, Slugg and Siobhan. It’s understandable since hammers and knives are used on each of them. They are gone. Lee’s coffin is broken down and torn apart. Now just a pile of wood.
Thirteen hours in Bar SK on that Saturday was a very special event that can never be experienced again. Not in the same way, not with the same games. Nothing remains. DELETE was something only for the people in attendance. Those who created it and those who witnessed it. For everyone else, it will just be a story.
And that’s that.