One thing I won’t miss about San Francisco at all is getting lost, wandering around at 8 PM with a dead phone before eventually calling a cab and crying when I finally got to my hotel room (look, it was a long day, ok?). One thing I will miss about GDC is, well, everything else. Okay, besides food prices—granted, maybe I didn’t look hard enough, but damn, the Frisco is expensive.
Let me back up a bit. For those who may not know, I was a scholarship recipient of the very first year of I Need Diverse Games scholars for All Access Passes to GDC 2016. Thanks to Tanya DePass and the wonderful people on the advisory board, I was able to get a pass to represent myself in San Francisco.
As a writer and game designer, a lot of my core interests in GDC was the narrative and design side of things. Planning for GDC, I had looked at plenty of talks and shoved them all into my schedule; from one on Life Is Strange and real-world issues (of course I went to that one) to “Don’t Fear the Queer” and the Rez 15-year postmortem. And networking, of course, but that didn’t go nearly as well as I would have hoped or liked. That’s another story entirely, of course.
The first day was one of the most tiring, hectic, confusing days of my life, but also without a doubt one of the best. Despite having to deal with a fear of flying and getting to my flight just as boarding had started, getting lost multiple times throughout the day, and dealing with incredibly exhaustion, it was one of the best days. I got to meet one of my favorite people, Riot Games’ Soha Kareem, and I hung out with her for a bit before my first of five talks for the day, “The Exposition Burden,” which was led by Jennifer Hepler (and was fantastic).
The first two days of GDC consisted of the Narrative Summit, which I actually didn’t know until that first talk. I had just thought there were a smattering of narrative-focused talks throughout the week (and there were), but the Narrative Summit was entirely focused on writing and narrative design, which are both my core focus when it comes to games—both making and analysis and criticisms on games.
Monday, despite being exhausting, had two of my favorite talks of the week: “Dragon Age: Inquisition: Trespasser–Building to an Emotional Theme” and “Life Is Strange Case Study: Using Interactive Storytelling and Game Design to Tackle Real-World Problems.” While Dragon Age isn’t one of my favorite games or series by any means, it proved to be one of the most fascinating talks, as John Epler and Patrick Weekes talked about their processes of iteration and how they came upon the vision for the Trespasser DLC. If you’re curious, it was, and I kid you not, a combination of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
On the other hand, the Life Is Strange panel was great because it offered a look at one of my favorite games of all time and the research they did for that. For the beginning of Episode 4, the producers of the game researched and talked with doctors to make sure equipment and medical bills were accurate to the real world, and I find that to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the game, and the elaboration on it was great. Not to mention I got to talk to Michel Koch quite a bit as me and a few others asked him questions about the game. A group of about ten of us from the panel hung out in the wrap up area for about an hour or so.
Tuesday was day two of the Narrative Summit, including a talk about the Narrative Design process for the new Tomb Raider series (I even ended up asking the team a question!), a writer Q&A (where I got to meet fellow FemHype writer Emma Kidwell!), as well as a talk by one of the co-founders of Failbetter Games who made a smoke and mirror on stage. It was a pretty great moment, to be honest.
From the Narrative Summit alone, I had 13 talks I went to between two days. It was intense—you’d be surprised. From morning until 6 PM when things started to wrap up, I had barely any time for lunch (and gosh, were there a lot of people at all of the places to eat by the Moscone Center), and after taking notes for each talk, it was a lot. You’d think sitting in a chair taking notes wouldn’t be that tough, but by the end of Monday, I was nodding off a bit. Granted, that was the day I was up at 4 AM to travel to San Francisco, but still—long days.
The rest of the week was just as busy, in all honesty. Wednesday included meeting Tanya DePass and other recipients of the INDG GDC Scholarship. It was relatively quick, as plenty of us had talks to get to (the Firewatch talk was a big one, while I ended up missing the indie writer roundtable due to being a few minutes too late).
So for most of Wednesday, since I had a big gap of time, I went to the GDC floor to look at the indie games there, stop by some of the exhibitors, and just look around. I had thought the core of the event, admittedly, were the talks, but I was surprised by how big the expo floor, career center, and all of that was. I got to meet and talk to Nina Freeman and Rebekka Dunlap of Star Maid Games, as well as talk to people from Avalanche and Sony. There was also the return of the Game Design Challenge for GDC’s 30th anniversary.
The Game Design Challenge, as it was explained, was a recurring panel that featured a myriad of game developers who got a prompt of a game to design in the weeks before GDC. At the event, it would be the first time they showed off their ideas, prototypes, etc. From there, the audience would applaud to vote on which game they thought was best. The panel was fascinating, as the concept was a game that was meant to last thirty years, and with participants including Nina Freeman, Anna Kipnis, Zach Gage, and Chris Crawford, all of the games thought up were fascinating. It was a high point of my day for sure, as the behind design processes and prototyping processes was one of the coolest things. That was one of the most fascinating parts of GDC in general: going to these talks and seeing how these design processes for developers went.
And that night? I got to hang out with Polygon’s Phil Kollar and Riot’s Soha Kareem. And we had quesadillas. It was pretty rad.
Thursday consisted of two actual, official, professional meetings with different companies (I know, Sloane at a meeting? Seems wild), and—you guessed it—more talks. The big ones of the day were the Rez postmortem by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, and even as someone who had never played Rez, it was fascinating to hear how Mizuguchi’s sudden interests in electronic music and the need to “find a groove” helped create Rez. Also, he said “we were all a sperm once.” Yeah. GDC really was something.
Also, Atsushi Inaba’s panel on action game design with Platinum Games was one of the highlights of the event, too. Learning the focuses behind what makes games like The Wonderful 101, Bayonetta 2, among others was so great and fascinating, as, to me, those games are pure design. The design behind what makes them so tight was a great learning experience.
Friday was the last day of my adventure, and I only really went to a talk on Ink, which is the narrative scripting language used by Inkle in games like 80 Days. It was a neat talk that let me learn about a potential option for storytelling. I honestly recommend checking it out (it’s free!), as it seems like an easy tool for interactive, branching storytelling. The rest of Friday was spent nervously getting to the SFO on BART, and nervously flying back to LAX. By the time I got to bed it was 11 PM, I had been up all day, traveling to and from an airport … it wasn’t fun. It saved money, but gosh, Friday was not much of a day.
Also, I ended up getting three books at GDC: Embed With Games by Cara Ellison, Earthbound by Ken Baumann, and The Game Narrative Toolbox. I haven’t cracked into any of them yet, but I’m really excited to.
GDC 2016 was, without a doubt, one of the best weeks of my life. I got to meet great friends and inspirations, I got to learn more to hone my craft in order to better it, and I just had a great, if exhausting week. I want to give a lot of thanks to Tanya DePass, I Need Diverse Games, and the advisory board for their GDC scholarship for giving me the opportunity to attend GDC 2016. I want to use what I learned to help give back to the industry as best I can. Also, thanks to my parents for helping pay a lot of my way to San Francisco.
And speaking of that, I do want to bring up one thing before I finish this. GDC was great, but there’s a big problem with affordability. I was only able to go because I could get a free all access pass and because I had a family who helped pay a good part of my expenses. Affordability is a problem because there are so many devs who are still learning, who may still be in school, who can’t afford to go to GDC, and who miss out on a lot—from the talks, the summits, the workshops, and the networking. I wish it could be more affordable so more people could go, show off their games, and be involved in what is a pretty dang neat, if tiring event.