On hosting curated game nights

RamonaI have always loved presenting films to my friends. One of my local pals held a weekly movie night at their apartment for many years, and my favorite such events were those when I brought the disc. Even though my name wasn’t on the work, I still felt connected to it to the point of personal pride, knowing that I was the agency through which my friends got to discover this thing I admired. (Putting aside whether or not they agreed with me.)

I recently launched an event I’d been meaning to do for a long time: something like these movie nights, except for videogames. That is, rather than just inviting friends over to fart around in Smash Bros for a couple of hours or whatnot, we’d gather to play, observe, and discuss a particular game I consider noteworthy apart from its ability to confer a few moments’ diversion.

The notion to do this has been cooking in my head for a while.

Three years ago, I co-hosted a housewarming. Despite the lovely weather and our liberal use of the backyard grill, a dozen or so guests ended up in the living room watching rapt as one of our friends played through Portal on our Xbox. Some of the audience, not being “gamers” who lick this stuff up every day, had no idea that videogames could do that, for the various value of “that” that Portal attains.

Even though the uneven guest-distribution resulted in our peace-bonding our console cabinet for future parties, the phenomenon stayed with me, and as time passed I realized that I wanted to do it again — albeit with a tad more intention.

The GAMBIT Game Lab provides another source of inspiration. During the academic year, it hosts Friday-afternoon talks which each focus on a game or series of games, or examine the development of some aspect of the medium through its history. (A favorite example from the recent past is a set of three talks on the sex, violence and political speech in games, from the Atari VCS through modern web-based games, and the reactions to them; you can see these talks for yourself on GAMBIT’s video page.) The talks invariably involve not just slides and speech but audience volunteers playing the games under examination, with discussion happening around it.

I didn’t consciously have GAMBIT’s talks in mind when setting up my own event (it’s been two months since summer break started and my memory is short), but I can’t deny in retrospect that attending these talks fueled my desire to try doing something like it myself.

And so, a couple of weeks ago, I made the snap decision to apply an impending free Saturday evening to this idea. Expecting a low turnout due to short notice, I chose to take a chance on a title I owned but had barely played: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, an impulse purchase from last year. I had found its single-player mode a somewhat dire button-mashy drag; it clearly wants to be played with a full complement of four players, though, and I’d long wanted to give it its chance. Add in its interesting pedigree of specific NES-era videogames, as well as a comic book which itself quoted those same games, and it struck me as a fine feature for my inaugural event.

And it worked quite well! Exactly three friends showed up, one of whom was a fan of the Scott Pilgrim comics. So as we traversed the game, he was able to recognize and interpret the various faux-lo-fi graphics, character sprites, and events in the game acting as signifiers for plot points from the printed story. (I’d seen the movie, but the game adapts the original comics.) The four of us together figured out what the game wanted of its players — I may detail this further in a future post — and we all had a good time, very nearly completing the whole length of its Story Mode. After around three hours of play, everyone started to feel a little punch-drunk, and we decided to leave the rest for later.

Midway through, we suffered a party wipe in a tough boss fight, and I took the opportunity to roll out some related media. I turned on my AppleTV and we watched Pirate Baby’s Cabana Battle Street Fight 2006, a ludicrously gory videogame-parody animation from a few years ago by Paul Robertson, the Scott Pilgrim game’s lead artist. (Beware clicking that link if you’re at the office, or if you’ve eaten recently.) That helped bring some new perspective to the artwork in the game… and perhaps made the presence of the zombie-invasion sequence less surprising.

When we reconvene to complete the game, I plan to screen a video of River City Ransom, the NES game published by Technos Japan in 1989 to which Scott Pilgrim pays deep homage (in all three media formats). And then we might round out with a partial playthrough of Castle Crashers, another Xbox game that liberally quotes River City Ransom in many of the same ways.

It occurs to me in retrospect that my desire to present games like this to friends comes from the same well as my desire years ago to produce the Gameshelf video series. It turns out that inviting friends to my home for an evening of lightly agenda-driven gameplay and discussion takes rather less effort than producing an edited and watchable video. I had a lot of fun with it, and look forward hosting further events.

Image: Mr. Pilgrim’s paramour Ramona Flowers, by Tom Hodges; CC BY-NC-ND.

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