Every year, BarSK in Melbourne holds a special event. It’s a game jam that runs for over half a day, from the morning to just past midnight. And when the clock hits 12.30am, something special happens. Everything that everyone has worked on – images, assets, source code: it all gets deleted, never to return. I wrote about last year’s first ever DELETE which you can read about here.
I’ve spent the past few hours slowly killing someone.
Just beyond my growing horror, there are over a dozen people yelling at each other about how to enter a mysterious place called The eCheese Zone. Next to me, a deceptively cheerful horse sculpture holds within its mouth a growing collection of the most private confessions from anyone who is brave enough to offer themselves to it.
Three-dimensional penises blast away at each other in augmented reality and a virtual recreation of this very room is graffitied with confronting concepts that will continue to have personal ramifications long after the night is over.
The young man who might be legitimately dying is seated in front of me, almost nude and screaming at the top of his lungs. He is rapidly descending into an alcohol-fuelled madness which, on the surface, is the human equivalent of a car crash.
This is DELETE.
Tonight is equal parts compelling and unsettling. In whatever direction I look, there is the unstoppable exploration of human emotion, the denial of personal desire and hidden questions about myself that I never wanted to answer. It is profoundly exciting, highly uncomfortable and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But let’s wind back the clock about thirteen hours before someone dies.
The brainchild of Melbourne bar owner Louis Roots, DELETE only exists for one day. And I mean that quite literally – just one day. In that timeframe, developers and creators of all kinds come together at BarSK to give birth to game ideas in full knowledge that at midnight, they will all be destroyed. Files and folders deleted permanently, physical objects smashed beyond repair. Gone forever.
In the always-online world of 2018 where any game, album, book or movie can be kept in the cloud and re-downloaded endless times, a hard copy of something permanent is becoming increasingly rare. Even more so, a piece of media that can be lost forever is almost impossible these days. We’re not talking about a particular facsimile of something vanishing but rather the only version that exists falling through your fingers. By your own hand.
Longer game jam events invoke a sense of responsibility and long-term creativity. Ideas are formed with carefully planned concepts than can be extrapolated for further benefit of career goals.
Pride sets in, alongside a belief that you’re creating something which pulls from skills and experience you’ve generated over a period of years. With one eye kept squarely on the possibilities of the future and how you will refine your efforts.
DELETE however, doesn’t give a fuck about all that. It is about letting go. Embracing those dangerous or questionable ideas that may have been bubbling under the surface for while but without the safety net of guaranteed results.
This is the rare opportunity to open your mind, your heart or your gut and let everything spill out. For better or worse. Risks are mandatory, which in turn creates a fertile breeding ground for something truly unique.
The developers start arriving around mid-morning. Locals and international. As I have my first coffee, they set up positions throughout the bar and discuss what they are about to make. Some have arrived with a plan and others have come in totally blind. Waiting until the clock starts to come up with an idea.
Pushing the envelope when it comes to DELETE’s time frame might seem foolish but in a strange way, it plays into the self-induced stress of the countdown. The agenda is as follows: begin at 11am, get the game in a playable state by 7pm and then destroy it all at midnight. It is a public space so as the day progresses, regular bar patrons will fill the place up and put their hands on these creations.
If they wish, they can also stay to see it all come to an end. So it’s time to get cracking.
“I’m making a digital obliteration room.” Relaxed at the back of the bar is Jacob Leaney, one of developers who has chosen to work solo today. “I wanted to fill it up with words that describe anxieties or fears or difficult things that people go through.”
“So you can go through this room and find a spot for your thing that you’re sick of. Then we can build it up and have this full house and at the end of the night it all disappears. It’s metaphorical but hopefully it will be visually beautiful to look at.”
“They could be good or bad feelings but you’ll be saying goodbye to whatever you want. Also, knowing it was going to be one hundred percent gone made me do this. If I knew it was going to be kept, I think it would actually be harder. ”
When I say relaxed, I’m using that word very deliberately. Leaney knows exactly what he wants and how he’s going to achieve it. He’s feeling confident in his abilities to create this virtual museum (simply called OBLITERATE) for people to inhabit and display ideas or problems or concepts they wish to jettison from their lives.
With an Xbox 360 controller, visitors traverse a white room and after scrolling through seemingly endless pre-programmed words or phrases, paint the walls with something that leaves an impact. Leaney is calm despite the emotional carnage he is moulding in a 3D environment. Difficult themes to face and perhaps harder to throw away. We shall see.
Luke Harris on the other hand, is talking about dicks. “I had the images tracking a minute ago which had a flying dick on a card. That part works. I got the webcam working but I don’t know what I’ve done to break it.”
Harris is messing around with augmented reality. A green penis and an orange penis sit across the table from each other, ready to do battle in a two-player arena. A4 paper with hand drawn images act as the catalyst to bring these phallic weapons to life on the nearby monitor. He has named it Dicks Of Destruction.
“I wanted to stick to what I know and AR and VR is what I do day-to-day. I could either do a multiplayer game or a space shooter but then I thought, there’s a lot of things in the games industry that people aren’t fond of so this is just a chance for me to make some random garbage and have it be garbage. Have it be like, a little bit edgy and that’s fine and then it’s gone. I loved that idea. At first I thought I’ll delete it and that’s cool but then I thought I kind of like this idea now and don’t want to. So I’ve screwed myself on that. I like the idea that just the people who are going to show up will see it and then it’s all gone forever.”
Loss – that’s what DELETE forces people to face. Not only that, but the creations made in this 12-15 hour period will never be experienced outside of a small bar in Melbourne. None of what is created here will be copied in a notebook or duplicated online. If you’re not here, you will never see it. You’ve missed your chance forever.
It’s the same feeling for the creators. That sense of impending destruction is ever present and factors into the development of the games themselves. It helps when you’re part of a team so others can understand your underlying pain and regret as you add more layers onto a creation.
Putting everything into a project regardless of how many hours it has left to live is not an easy endeavour. The team of five in front of me is starting to feel it.
Marigold Bartlett is an art director (for local development studio Wayward Strand) so it stands to reason the visual component of this next project immediately catches the eye. She and her team (Alex Bennetts, Tegan Webb, Elyce Phillips and Jini Maxwell) are creating something with personality and unique characteristics that will prove to be terrifyingly irresistible as the night goes on.
They have named it Horse, The Hungry And Revered. It awaits your secrets.
“We’re making this idol and he’ll be a little figure with a big mouth,” Bartlett tells me. “He’ll be enticing the audience to submit confessions, secrets, truths, fears – all anonymously. My mum has always told me that this is a really good thing if you have a confession. Write it down and then burn it or send it down a river or whatever. So people will submit their secrets and they all get destroyed at midnight.”
“If it’s a cool thing and it gets deleted, that’s still fulfilling the goal of the project. The twist will hopefully be a bit of a commentary on false idols and dependency. I think the ‘game’ side of things get thrown out the window pretty quickly but interaction is key. Interaction is really what’s at the core of a game anyway.”
At this early stage, it’s hard to see what this confessional horse god will actually be and why on earth I would possibly want to write down my deepest, darkest secrets and insert them in her mouth.
A wire frame skeleton slowly gets decorated and covered as Horse comes to life and her own personal history is put together. A Twitter account is created (@Horse_testimony – which no longer exists, of course) to give Horse her voice as the social media timeline is to be projected on the wall behind the statue.
It’s an exciting idea. An inanimate object slowly gaining personality and wanting your secrets immediately prompts you to think of the deepest doors that you’ve kept closed for a long time. Even without a face at this point, the act of confessing things to Horse that nobody else will ever know flashes through the mind briefly but distinctly.
Alex Bennetts is also excited to see results. “This is my first game jam or game event of any kind so I’m looking forward to making this. We’ve got three artists and two writers and we’ve only been talking over the last couple of days about what we wanted to do and it was leaning towards making something physical and fun to play with. We came up with the idea of a god that you would feed and it’s going to slightly evolve over the night. This god is going to get more hungry and more demanding.”
Bennetts is also aware of the limited time and the end that Horse will inevitably meet. “I think it’s going to be fine if we don’t finish every part of it. It’s supposed to be a little shambolic and whimsical. It’s a statue of a tiny little god that nobody here knows about so if it’s okay if its a bit shit and we accepted that straight off the bat.”
More coffee. Chips and burgers emerge. The sounds of punk music echoes throughout the bar (Pennywise, if you’re interested) as each team or single creator is in full swing. There’s already a definite awareness of the potential that today holds.
These participants are all headed towards an unknown future with their ideas and that feeling somehow already feels crucial. DELETE has given everyone the chance to tap into an opportunity that isn’t normally available to us. Both for the creator and player. I’m interested to see if this feeling increases as the hours tick away.
It was around this time that I learned about an extraordinary place called The eCheese Zone. The majority of games these days are still lumbered with the player having to wait. Whether it’s loading screens, character creation menus or any number of arbitrary obstacles that are necessary to modern interactive media, it’s something that is accepted but very rarely used as a feature. Brothers James and Joe Cox founded the media studio Seemingly Pointless in Los Angeles but today they’re here to see just how far they can push the boundaries of human patience and anticipation.
The outcome will be like nothing I have ever seen.
Taking art inspiration from a packet of Cheezels of all things, James lays out the idea for their project. “We’re making a game that I think players will have to collectively keep track of. When you open the game, it’s gonna take you an hour before you can enter it. And every time you try to access it, you’ll only be able to do one thing before it boots you back out.”
“So if people don’t communicate to each other we could just be wasting everyone’s time and then nobody gets to see it ever. So I’m looking forward to see how people grapple with it.”
Essentially, The eCheese Zone will be a loading screen that lasts a full hour. You can click on falling pieces of cheese on that screen to reduce the timer (1 cheese = 1 second) and if you wait around long enough, you’ll gain access to the Zone itself.
This mysterious location presents a list of mini-games and a very specific set of instructions. However, make one wrong move or select the wrong menu item or wrong button and you’ll be instantly dumped back out to the loading screen. To wait another 60 minutes. Frustration balanced with anticipation.
As this stage of development, The eCheese Zone holds the obvious risk of being completely dismissed by anyone who tries to play it. People interact with games to ‘play’, not the exact opposite. On paper, this sounds like lunacy. Joe is hoping for it to leave an impact for players but whether that will be a good or bad thing remains to be seen.
“Something that we’ve been trying to tackle with is the math of how to make it possible to become a rush to the finish. That’s what this event affords you. You can’t play any of the games outside of DELETE so hopefully it will just become a story or a folktale.”
James agrees. “We wouldn’t have come up with this concept if it wasn’t for this event. But the idea of a game that purposely wastes your time as you can only play it within this timeframe is really interesting. So I wonder if anyone would ever touch this type of game outside of this event.”
It is increasingly clear that there is a theme to the games being created today. Everything will exist tonight primarily because they are set to be destroyed. Taking risks and seeing what happens when you throw concepts up in the air with no security in place is precisely what today is for. They weren’t created yesterday and certainly won’t exist tomorrow. It’s just the here and now that matters.
With that in mind, it’s astonishing to witness the effort and passion from everyone in attendance. Nobody is on stage or being filmed here and the only audience for these ‘games’ will be the few dozen bar patrons who wander in here later tonight.
Human nature dictates not to go above and beyond for such small rewards. But these creators have put their whole heart into making what they believe belongs to today and today only. For an event that only lasts a handful of hours, it’s instantly inspiring to see this level of dedication.
Shadows in the bar are growing long as the sun descends outside and I’m talking to the final developer, Lee Shang Lun. At the young age of 24, he has never touched a drop of alcohol but tonight he plans to get blackout drunk.
For his game, entitled ‘Washing Machine’, Lee will bring to the surface a lot of themes and truths that the majority of Australia still finds uncomfortable to talk about. The purpose of it will be the forcible removal of memory as it relates to this country’s disturbing history.
Lee explains it to me as my fear for his safety starts to manifest. “Because tomorrow is the 26th of January and most people in colonial Australia are celebrating it as Australia Day, I wanted to think about memory.
I’ve been reading a lot about displacement and erasure of history. Right-wing conservative values have aligned themselves very heavily with a particular type of patriotism and ones that our nation were founded on.
So in light of the trauma that occurs tomorrow and Australia drinking the day away in way of celebration, is it drinking to forget a history that has already been forgotten?”
I am already worried. Not for the subject matter because it’s necessary to the forward progression of a country that cannot deal with the horrible nature of its own history but to go from zero to sixty with alcohol is not a thing to be trifled with.
That said, he asks me my opinion and I make a questionable decision. As someone who was born and bred in Central Queensland, the concept of drinking yourself into oblivion is not unfamiliar to me. Being regularly and dangerously intoxicated in social situations is inherent to Australia more than meat pies and football so Lee has come to the best and worst person to ask how to go about this project and what specific alcohol to use.
It has to be Bundaberg Rum, I tell him. If you’re going to do this, and dive into the vast and unstoppable vein which runs through the heart of Australia, you have to do right. Or horribly wrong, depending on how you look at it.
In addition to the booze, Washing Machine will employ a card game structure. One person sits across from Lee (who is essentially the computer, rather than a second player). A simple higher/lower number system will determine if you lose and feed him a shot of rum or paint his torso to mark a victory.
To be clear, if you lose, he gets a drink. While deceptively straightforward in its process, Lee is giving agency to the player in ways that aren’t totally apparent just yet.
There’s that feeling again. It has grown larger from before. DELETE allows humans to explore areas that aren’t normally imagined outside of its time frame. Playing around with dangerous ideas and emotions that may lead to places nobody wants to reach compels these developers, artists and programmers to take a few steps in a new direction.
It’s around 7pm by this time and now we’re getting down to it.
People start to fill the bar and investigate the games as drinks are served. I join them and begin to give myself over to what has been created. I write down my innermost secrets on cards and feed them to Horse.
Each more of a humdinger than the last and to my surprise I begin to feel better about divulging these private thoughts to this amazing character which is now fully decorated complete with a charming face and gaping mouth.
I click on the loading screen of the eCheese Zone and fire off shots from the augmented reality penises. I walk around Jacob’s obliteration room (which is now a virtual recreation of the bar itself) and choose words like THE DEATH PENALTY, PARANOIA, SOCIAL MEDIA, HER and MY ENTIRE CONTACTS LIST to paint the walls.
The more I choose, the further Jacob’s creation crawls under my skin. If things like this were gone, what would my life look like? Do I really want to get rid of such problems in the long run or do some of them make up the person who I am today? I step away realising that more than a few times, these actions have hit a bit too close to home.
Obliterate is a quiet and therapeutic success.
Jacob tells me his final thought process. “You think you’ll just do something that doesn’t matter and it’s so often the thing that you think doesn’t matter and when you lose those restrictions and lose those ideals of what’s good and what’s bad, the great things come out of it. Because you get to create with no consequences. It’s really cool not to have consequences.”
Lee is being fed shots of rum and having his body painted after stripping down to his underwear. People are willing to play into his ‘game’ more quickly than I ever imagined. He’s tipsy but I can’t really gauge his level of inebriation since it’s the first time he’s ever consumed alcohol.
He sees me and jokes. “This was your fault! I am not sure if any of the original intention of this is coming through at all but I appreciate the fact that I’m going to be feeling very bad.” He’s quite woozy but not about to stop.
The front area of the bar is getting busier with patrons surrounding the large screen that displays the eCheese Zone. The timer is about to reach zero and we’re about to see what this strange creation has to offer.
A list of directives is displayed and the person in control of the mouse clicks on a random icon that holds the first mini-game. Unfortunately, an incorrect mouse button is pressed at the wrong time and the loading screen returns.
Some vital directive was overlooked. Bewilderment mixed with laughs come from the crowd but immediately, someone begins clicking the mouse to reduce the timer. 59:58, 59:45, 59:22. The cheese continues to fall.
Players are very much into each creation. It is joyous to witness to see not only the developers happy with random strangers engaging with their work but also to know none of this existed a few hours ago.
The entire place is now almost full of people at 9pm. Here’s where I grab Louis, the bar owner and founder of DELETE, to have a quick chat.
He’s already clearly pleased with the results of today but is careful not to embrace it too much.
“I wanted to maybe do this three times a year but I never want to over saturate it. I really like the fact that it’s so multi-disciplinary. I was not expecting that at all. With the fact that there is an augmented reality thing, a card game and a horse god.”
“Like, Luke came to me before with his cock & balls thing and he was so happy that he could make it. He felt that he couldn’t make that particular game at any other time or event. He was worried what people in a different environment would think whereas in this setting today he’s got that freedom. And to be honest, people expect a bit of cock here at BarSK.”
Three quarters of the Bundaberg Rum bottle is gone and I’m legitimately concerned for Lee’s safety. Fortunately, he’s surrounded by responsible people but I can’t help but feel like I upped the ante of this already dubious project. The rum must have felt like fire in his throat.
But I can’t ask him now since he’s slurring his words and is by far the loudest person here. I notice people a few tables away trying not to look in his direction as they don’t really know what to make of it. I fear he may get alcohol poisoning and start thinking about how to carry him out of here if an ambulance is required.
Then it hits me. His drunken belligerence has reached such a crescendo that I can’t help but recall the kind of rural Queensland guys I grew up with. The kind of larrikin blokes who would drown themselves in alcohol to the point of near-blindness and swear their souls to this country despite the horrific nature on which it was founded.
January 26 will begin in roughly an hour’s time and without me realising, Lee has embodied that quintessential part of Australia in plain view of everyone. Right down to the familiar sight of total strangers not wanting to look him in the eye.
I’m struck by this revelation and sit in quiet awe as Lee disappears to vomit. Witnessing such a display, especially when you’re sober, is unexpectedly confronting.
It’s four minutes to midnight and The eCheese Zone is about to open again. A previous entry resulted in an overwhelmingly tense but successful completion of a skateboard mini-game that shaved 15 minutes off the loading screen timer.
But now, with perfect timing, it’s about to count down to zero for one last time. The frenzy that it has created here tonight is incredible. A palpable feeling of anticipation carried itself throughout the bar and grew stronger every time people started to realise another opportunity to enter was approaching.
Complete strangers banded together to solve the puzzle of this bizarre and frustrating game that had no clear rewards or objective. Nobody has any concrete idea of what The eCheese Zone actually is and yet, people were drawn to it so clearly that you couldn’t help feel wonder at this tiny corner of human achievement.
Joe Cox is ecstatic about the response. “The bootleg democracy was really fun to see on that scale. Just seeing people constantly clicking the cheese on the loading screen. Someone’s almost always at the station and when we get closer, it’s like New Year’s Eve.”
“New Year’s Eve is happening every hour or forty-five minutes. You have very intense moments of action between socialising. It’s so awesome.”
Midnight descends and despite overwhelming regret felt throughout so many people, the games come to an inevitable end. The EXE files holding Dicks Of Destruction, Obliterate and The eCheese Zone are wiped. Gone for good. Horse is physically torn apart and her secrets spill out to be destroyed (I inadvertently saw one card that wasn’t mine and hoo boy, that was a good secret to keep private).
It’s all over and there’s literally nothing left. Nobody outside of this bar tonight played these games and they never will. It’s a shame but it also feels completely right. After almost fifteen hours, DELETE was remarkable in many ways. Placing a time restriction and a destruction deadline on developers forced the creation of extraordinary things that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for those restrictions in the first place.
Knowing your creation would not live to see the morning is a powerful incentive to free yourself from limits you didn’t even know were there. Both from a creative and extremely personal standpoint, I got answers about who I was and my own personality that probably should have been dealt with a long time ago.
I also learned more than a few surprising things about humanity in general and it took a handful of ‘games’ to help me do it. Games that are now all gone. DELETE ended how it started – with absolutely nothing to show for it. It only existed for one day and could only exist in its most essential and personal form because of that.
By the way, Lee got home safe. I interviewed him later and he told me the hangover was absolutely awful but was pleased to hear people’s reactions as he couldn’t remember much about the night.
His memory, just as he planned, was deleted.
This article first appeared on Kotaku Australia on 16th February 2018.