Looking Back on Lyst (2015)

At the beginning of this month – when summer was only just beginning to hit the Nordic region – I once again had the privilege of attending the annual Lyst Summit on love, sexuality and romance in games. Its debut event was held in København, and while it took place on a boat, this year’s event in Helsinki went a step beyond. A few dozen of us – academics, developers and artists- descended upon rural Vartiosaari for a weekend of inspiration, creativity, relaxation and (inevitably) emotional bonding.

My own trip culminated in setting up camp on Thursday night, ready for a day of talks in Hakaniemi’s WHS Teatteri Union. A few of us had settled in early, and so introductions were made – with a few reunions thrown in for good measure. Morning brought with it clean air, an abundance of greenery and an exciting journey to central Helsinki via motorised raft, boat and metro.

Travelling from the campsite to the summit venue was far from a typical commute.

The summit followed the same format as last year: a day of talks, peppered with breaks, light lunch and a small selection of games to try out. Just like last year, these talks dealt with a variety of topics: from Dr Hanna Wirman’s opening talk on the classification of games (from dating sims to My Little Pony bukkake); through Prof. Mata Haggis’ practical guide to weaving emotion into plot structures; to frank and demonstrative offerings from dancer Sarah Homewood and porn actor Dale Cooper. The programme was eclectic but never chaotic, once again reminding all in attendance that expressions of love and sexuality are huge and complex parts of the human experience, and yet it’s a topic which games have only just begun to scratch the surface of.

Joy Richardson provides a snapshot example of how fairytales have skewed notions on stepmotherhood so strongly towards the negative (left-hand side of the sheet)

I found there were many ‘takeaways’, as the conference parlance goes, but a few notions stuck out for me from this array of talks:

  • that family and the bonds therein remain a woefully underused area in games, which all too often fall back on bluntness and the assumed family unit of father/mother/brother/daughter (Joy Richardson);
  • that as the field has grown, there are now more examples of art games dealing with very niche aspects of sexuality – often drawn from the author’s personal experiences (Dale Cooper);
  • that a successful plot need not encompass resolution for both a character’s intrinsic and extrinsic struggles (Mata Haggis).

As the summit wrapped up, we headed back out of Helsinki city centre on a boat ride to Vartiosaari, where dinner and drinks were served amidst an open barn. Where we gathered would become a communal hub for jamming over the rest of the weekend, but for that Friday night it became the staging ground for Zack Woods’ Playfully Transmitted Diseases – a running party game in which groups would share stories, cheer each other on and generally ‘break the ice’ with the goal of collecting letters from each other. It also became the stage for this piece of doom-laiden advice from one of our island hosts, Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen.

Saturday morning brought with it the start of Lyst Summit’s 2015 game jam, and although we’d generally assembled in our pre-determined groups the night before, it was here that much of the conceptualisation work was done. To help along with this – and get us motivated after a sluggish/hungover breakfast -a number of us took part in a fascinating workshop led by Sabine Herrer and Henrike Lode. Entitled Let’s Get Personal: Leveraging your dirty secrets for game design, the workshop began with a brief presentation before we were tasked with trying to illustrate a moment from our own romantic or sexual pasts. The idea was to bore down to the essence of this moment as a mechanic. We then discussed these in small groups, refined the idea where necessary, and pursued them if we so wished – either in our assigned jam groups, or solo.

My own idea – depicting the moment I felt my pre-formed concepts of sexuality drop from underneath me – didn’t make it past the pencil-and-paper stage. However, the workshopping process was as personally gratifying as it was fascinating to see around me, since games with a personal story attached are so often seen in isolation. They give every sign of having come out of nowhere, and while I’m not sure to what extent that is true or false, sessions and game jams like this one at Lyst allow a group of people to support each other in connecting to that creative process.

There’s no easy way to segue into the fact that the game I helped make at Lyst Summit was at some remove from these sorts of deep and personal motivations. As Joon, Raimund Schumacher and I returned to discussions we’d begun over dinner, we began to prototype the game which would become Noah’s Arks.

We tested the idea of “Noah’s Arks” and its interface at the same time, using an iPad drawing app. and my paper prototyping kit

Borne initially from an idea which riffed on the phrase, “ships passing in the night”, we made a straightforward game in which two players must fling animals between their on-screen arks in order to make mating pairs, and so save them from the biblical flood. It leans heavily upon co-operative, social interaction and a crisp art style, exploring relationships through the lens of a heavily-fantasised, long-lasting myth – with an absurd, modern twist. The game can be downloaded for free from itch.io:

The game was kept intentionally simple, and so the three of us were generally at liberty to soak up much of the jam atmosphere on Vartiosaari. Moments came and went, such as when rain forced more jammers indoors at the wooden kindergarten cabin or the Artist House, overlooking our campsite. Well into the first solid day of jamming, we came to realise that said cabin had a mother bird nesting in it, and we adopted her as our mascot. There was good food, bright Nordic midnights, and an unforgettable night spent in the sauna – with Richard Lemarchand leading us to embody The World’s Quietest Synthesiser. In reality this became an organic jamming session, with haunting vocals and a beat made all the more spell-binding for the fact it was held up by a dozen nude game artists. I simply cannot express how fundamentally and intimately human the game jam became after that.

I began the Sunday morning with a walk around the island – reflecting on many personal revelations and re-charging after the previous month spent dashing around the Baltic region. The day’s work comprised of animal art assets for our game, ready for the jam’s evening closure. As is traditional for game jams, we swept aside our working tools for this, and began a round of presentations – to each other, and a selection of invited guests.

Runa Haukland, Mathilda Bjarnehed and Simon Stålhandske with “Myling”

The results were even more varied than last year, all tackling wildly different aspects of the theme: from a point-and-click photosphere story of woodland spirits (Myling) to a card game about domestic arguments and our own quirky, arcade-style title. There were also two performance-style games, including Sabine Herrer’s Fashion Party (customise paper cutouts of various anatomical parts in order to try and impress the nominated Fashion Pope) and a profoundly intimate game for all the summit’s attendees, about pleasing a member of your trio through non-sexual, physical stimuli.

Said game (which was named Surrender) went on to garner the most votes from this summit’s participants, and I can see why. For me personally, it married an innovative and physical expression of game mechanics (the player being tended to must make their choices known by stepping towards the source of the most pleasing sensations) with a truly intimate (yet safe) play experience.

The transition from mock-blindfolded arousal of one’s hands and wrists to gathering for the closing group photo and then dinner was always going to be abrupt – but then, it felt like a macrocosm of the experience to come as Lyst began to wrap up. We went out with a bang, as Sabine held a ceremonial bonfire for the death of Fashion Party (which I captured below), but as Monday came around we departed from Vartiosaari in waves, all heading our separate ways across northern Europe and even further afield.

Just as in 2014, Lyst Summit is an experience too intimate and detailed to sum up neatly. It mirrors its subject matter in both form and outcome, leaving participants like me dazed and inspired. That’s not to say that what it does is somehow wishy-washy or artsy, though – at its core seems to be a strong belief that games can and should address these fundamental parts of the human experience. By bringing together the people that it does, Lyst expresses this goal with practical and thought-provoking guidance, support and inspiration. The more this movement continues, the more I feel we’re going to see real change in games like these, as an art form and artistic medium.

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