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9.03m – The emotional impact of games

9.03m – Martyn McLaughlin looks at 9.03m, a unique game from a Scottish independent studio offering a tender and considered interpretation of the destruction wrought by the Japanese tsunami.

IT appeared on the shores of Del Norte County from nowhere one spring morning, as if a crew of ghosts had delivered it to safety from the swells of the Pacific, only to retreat back into the surf. When the distinctive boat was first discovered by residents of the rural community in California’s northwestern tip, its well-weathered hull found upside down,  they knew it had come from afar. Only when they scraped back a layer of gooseneck barnacles, however, did the startling truth emerge.

The panga fishing boat, the property of Takata High School Boat Club in Iwate Prefecture, was the first recorded item of debris washed up on the western seaboard of the US from the Japanese tsunami. The vessel, discovered more than 12 months after the disaster, was among an estimated five million tonnes of debris which fell into the ocean after nature exacted her wrath on Japan. While around 70% of the material sank to the seabed, the remainder was whipped by wind and currents towards distant land masses.

It is a harrowing reality which may seem an unlikely source material for the medium of gaming. But a graduate from the University of Abertay Dundee has won plaudits for his sensitive interpretation of the disaster that claimed the lives of nearly 19,000 people. Tomorrow night, Karl Inglott’s game, 9.03m, will come before some of the heavyweights of the British game industry, having been shortlisted for two prizes at the annual TIGA game awards ceremony. For a title which began as a university project, it is a resounding success story, and proof of the vision and enterprise prevalent in the independent sector.

Set on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, one of the areas where swaths of the debris ended up, 9.03m asks players to follow shimmering the trails of light left by butterflies as they flutter across the coastline. The discoveries that lie in wait ought to be made first hand, but each provides a poetic reminder of the lives lost, casting the on-screen tide back further. The entire experience lasts a little under a quarter hour, but it will linger in the mind for long after.

The story of how Inglott came to create 9.03m is no less gripping than the end result. Having researched games with emotional weight as part of his honours project at Abertay, the idea of coding his own arrived after the Tohuko earthquake struck on 11 March, 2011. An honorary member of Dundee’s Japanese community thanks to his wife, a Japanese national, he paid close attention to the media’s coverage of the disaster in her homeland. Stumbling across articles about the debris washing up in the US was a key moment in the game’s genesis.

“The first thing that I thought was how poignant it was, a reminder,” he told Scotsman Games. “I read how the US was taking measures to dispose of the debris, and how hoarders had been collecting it to sell on or keep.” Allied to the devastating videos of people trying to escape the tsunami, or the footage of matchstick figures left to simply look on helpless as waves landed ashore, Inglott soon had the basis for 9.03m.

“I decided to use objects on the beach to mimic the news stories, making the game quite calm, as it probably was when they first found debris washing up,” Inglott explained. “I wanted the player to look at the object and think of the person, think of who they were and the memories they left behind. The objects, I felt, had to be quite personal. I also wanted to put some memory to each of them, something that would link the objects to the people who passed away.”

The concept – refined and eventually released via Space Budgie, the independent studio where Inglott is both director and designer – is executed with tenderness: a bracelet found on the beach bears the inscription, ‘Love life and happiness together’, while a pocket watch is stopped at the time the disaster struck. Each object leads to another as the player walks around the beach, the only control manoeuvre available.

Indeed, the mechanics of the game could scarcely be more elementary, giving some cause to categorise it as a ‘wander-em-up.’ However, the pared back mechanism provides the perfect complement to a title where the narrative is king. With a minimalist piano score and an art style evoking the deep blues and lilacs of twilight, it is a creation of brevity and grace.

Inglott describes 9.03m as an “art / empathy” game, but like many inspiring releases of late from independent developers, it is more than the sum of its descriptive parts. If categorisation is essential, then the title could be said to come under the banner dubbed Games for Change. A label given to games exploring complicated subject matters grounded in the everyday, exemplars of a genre still in its incubation include Lucas Pope’s Papers Please, a superb and taut game which sees the player become an immigration official, and That Dragon, Cancer, an Ouya release exploring a father’s response after his four year-old child is diagnosed with cancer.

The breadth of issues and emotions broached by such titles – others have tackled themes including depression, suicide and Tourette’s syndrome – may be an encouraging indication of how a new generation of developers have self-assurance in their medium, liberated rather than constrained by the resources of working outside the traditional powerhouse studios. So too, the releases to date have coalesced into a powerful argument against those who believe the only way games can elicit sentiment is through photorealistic graphics.

So too, the nomination of 9.03m at the TIGA awards – it is shortlisted in the Game with the Purpose and Student Game categories – shows that the wider industry is paying attention. The judges at tomorrow’s ceremony include Jason Kingsley, Rebellion’s CEO, Stuart Whyte, Lionhead’s studio director, and Agostino Simonetta, Sony Computer Entertainment Limited’s European development account manager. In a year or two, it may be that will we may see such companies of that stature muster the bravery and commitment to eschew the usual annualised sequel cycle and create something entirely different, although commercial sensibilities may dictate otherwise.

In the meantime, Inglott and his five colleagues at Space Budgie – all alumni of Abertay – are pushing ahead with future projects, including Glitchspace, its first commercial game, which makes the intriguing promise of granting players “the ability to reprogram objects in the world through a visual programming language.” As a graduate game developer with a young family, Inglott concedes that the journey has not always been easy. Half of the revenue generated by 9.03m has been donated by Space Budgie to Aid For Japan, which helps children who were left orphaned by the disaster, and the studio hopes that in time, all the proceeds for the game will go towards the charity’s cause.

At the same time, however, the team realise they need money to grow and prosper.  “I’m not sure how I’m actually still going,” Inglott admitted. “It didn’t help that most of the funding for start-ups had dried up by the time I graduated. The recession and cutbacks most likely had a large role in it. My project, because it’s quite niche, was not something that many investors would have wanted to finance, so we had to do all of the post-university work on it with no income.”

Unless funding emerges to aid the creation of Glitchspace and other games, Inglott concedes that he will probably have to take up employment away from Space Budgie, working on its IPs in his spare time. The studio is, however, exploring the possibility of raising capital via Kickstarter. Whatever the model, the industry as a whole should hope that Inglott and his ilk receive support, for they are offering a glimpse of what the narrative of games are capable of.

As for the discovery made in Del Norte County? A few months after it came as shore a group of six US students began making plans and raising funds  for its return to Japan. Last month, their work paid off, and the humble vessel arrived back home at Takata High School in Iwate Prefecture. According to Akihito Yokoto, the school’s principal, it is known as the “miracle boat.”

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