November 5, 2011 3:00 PM | Eric Caoili
[Gamasutra's Simon Parkin attended Nottingham, UK's GameCity, to find one of the world's most idiosyncratic celebrations of video games pushing the medium's cultural relevance.]
Where else in the world of gaming festivals can one sit down to a communal play-based meal with Another World creator Eric Chahi, listen to luminaries from Tale of Tales and Naughty Dog interview one another, play a soon-to-be-classic XBLA game in its creator's front room and gorge on Zelda-themed cake?
Nottingham's GameCity -- now in its sixth year -- continues to be the most culturally-interesting and left-field coming together of video game creators and players alike, taking over the English city for four days in a vivid celebration of the medium, from the tallest blockbuster to the meekest indie title.
Running from Wednesday 26 October through to an evening event on Saturday 29 October at which the festival's inaugural GameCity Prize was awarded to the game that a panel of artistic luminaries considered to be the most culturally important, the festival once again delivered a rich and diverse schedule.
Speakers included Naughty Dog's Richard Lemarchand, lead designer on Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, Another World and From Dust creator Eric Chahi, Retro City Rampage's Brian Provinciano and thatgamecompany's Robin Hunicke amongst others, drawing together indie developers and blockbuster creatives alike.
Despite the differences in creative output, talks enjoyed a consistency through their celebratory nature and offbeat view on the world of making games and playing them. Each day kicked off with a discussion panel breakfast hosted by Keith Stuart of The Guardian newspaper, picking at topics such as love, rage and horror in video games and inspiring lively debate.
Throughout the week the organizers struck an impressive balance between niche and mainstream game interests, a marquee in the town center housing indie titles such as Andrew Smith's Hard Lines and Mike Bithel's Thomas Was Alone while, outside in a dedicated trailer, players could get hands on time with EA's Battlefield 3 and FIFA 12. For many of the visitors wandering into the area while out shopping in town, there were none of the traditional distinctions between high and low profile games, just a warm focus on the diversity of play.
Throughout the event Phil Fish of Polytron Corporation demoed his impressive forthcoming XBLA release Fez. However, rather than push the game onto players via booths on a busy show floor, GameCity provided a comfy living room style lounge complete with plush sofas and lamp-stands. Away from the hustle and bustle of the market square, visitors were able to relax with the game much like they would at home, playing on a sizeable HD projector screen with an impressive sound system to back it up.
On the Friday Night indie-game party group The Wild Rumpus held a party in a small bar in the town center, a venue stuffed with indie titles for party-goers to sample. Upstairs, endless rounds of The Copenhagen Collective's Move controller based parlor game, Johan Sebastian Joust! were played throughout the early parts of the evening. Later, the presenters of One Life Left, the popular culturally-minded video game radio show, took to the stage to compere karaoke, for which the lyrics of popular sing-along songs had been given a video game makeover. So, Irene Cara's 'Fame' became 'MAME' while Blur's 'Park-Life' transformed into 'Half-Life'. Later still, Polytron's Phil Fish and Naughty Dog's Richard Lemarchand DJ'd into the night.
Through Saturday the main marquee in the town center was given over to a 25th birthday celebration of Nintendo's Zelda series. While the huge numbers of attendees throughout the day (many of whom queued for up to an hour to gain entry) were able to sample the forthcoming Nintendo Wii entry to the series, Skyward Sword, these demo booths were hidden in separate area at the back of the tent.
Instead, main attention was given to previous entries in the series, emulated classics from across the series' celebrated history offering a link to the past for the large numbers of younger gamers, who were able to play perched on beanbags positioned in front of TV screens along the sides of the marquee.
The central area was given over to a craft table where young and old alike could decorate shields, while those with more aggressive tendencies could learn how to sword fight using wooden play swords complete with authentic Zelda sound effects. Those who neglected to come dressed as their favorite Zelda universe character were able to buy the iconic green suit and a bow and arrow, while those who remembered competed to win a 3DS in an impressive cosplay competition.
The atmosphere was one of village fete more than sweaty game show (something helped by the offering of Zelda-themed cake and plastic cups of orange squash), a fitting celebration of a game series that is more about the wonder of childhood discovery than how many polygons it pushes.
Perhaps the most significant event, at least in terms of presence on the wider cultural stage, was the inaugural GameCity Prize, awarded to Minecraft at a ceremony held to mark the close of the festival on the Saturday night. The organizers hope the Prize -- which will be awarded annually from now on -- will become the gaming equivalent of the prestigious Man Booker prize for literature, or Mercury Music prize for recording artists, awarded to the game with the most significant cultural relevance.
Unlike many other video game awards, the GameCity Prize was seized upon by the British mainstream media, perhaps due to its distinguished judging panel which includes MP Tom Watson, writer and comedian Charlie Higson, and South Bank Center Artistic Director Jude Kelly. Stories were carried about the Prize across the mainstream media the day after the event, including an enviable segment on a BBC Radio 4 current affairs programme.
It was a fitting conclusion to a festival that has always celebrated the artistic, cultural importance of video games, holding the medium up as something that's inclusive, and should be enjoyed by anyone and not just core gamers.
By straddling the blockbuster and indie divide, shifting focus away from mere product onto the process and wider meaning of games, GameCity shines a light on an aspect of video games often missed by so many other specialist game shows. To see the festival act as a catalyst in propelling the gaming medium forward in cultural terms is both fitting and testament to the firm, clear vision of the organizers that has weathered the storm of changing fashions around it.