Game Jams with James: A Fireside with Noah Ratcliff

After a decent six month hiatus, we are back with the third installment of “Game Jams with James”: Chats with developers about game jams, games from jams, and short form games. For our third “Game Jams with James”, James is talking with Noah Ratcliff, who bested James in the game jam duel #BigGameJamFightWhoIsGunnaWin. Noah is also an experimental developer, a veteran of countless jams and currently working on “Crazy Platez”.

James: How do you feel about short form games?

Noah: As a creator and as a player, I feel like the scale of little games opens the door for more experimentation, personality, and breaks from the mainstream. It is a lot easier to noodle around on the fringes of play, what games can say, and how they can say it when you are not spending thousands of hours to fill out your game with a few hours of gameplay. I think players are also more receptive to more personal or avant-garde themes in games when the gameplay commitment is a few minutes to an hour instead of one hundred hours.

James: I completely agree with you about time commitment when making experiments. However, for playing games, do you think personal and avant-garde games fit short form better than long form?

Noah: As a player, I would love to see some longer personal and avant-garde games for sure! Although, a lot of it has to do with what the creator is trying to say with their game, and how they are saying it. There is a sweet spot in length and pace for emotional impact and connection, but that spot varies from game to game. Too long, and players lose interest, or they just do not feel the way you want them to at the right time. It is hard for me to see “That Dragon, Cancer” impacting me the way it did over one hundred hours of gameplay instead of two.

Screenshot of "That Dragon, Cancer"
Screenshot of “That Dragon, Cancer”, a game by Numinous Games

James: What is your favorite game jam?

Noah: I cut my teeth on Ludum Dare, so it holds a special place in my heart. I actually just wrapped five years without missing a single Ludum Dare last December. A big thing that drew me to the Ludum Dare community was just how supportive and tight-knit the community felt. The jam does a great job of encouraging progress sharing and feedback during the jam, and the jam was built around friendly competition, both with yourself and your fellow jammers. Unfortunately, as Ludum Dare has continued to grow, I feel like the community has grown a bit further apart. I have been moving more towards smaller game jams on and Game Jolt for their smaller, more intimate, communities.

James: Congratulations! That is an impressive accomplishment. There definitely is an upper limit for jam participation when it comes to jam community. Do you see any parallels between game jams becoming too big and long form games?

Noah: I think there is a critical mass where game jams can start feeling less personal and more ‘commercial’ as they leave their niche and enter the mainstream. Ludum Dare is a good example of this. That is not to say they are not good, they just do not feel as personal as smaller jams that focus on niche themes and subjects, and use that niche to unite the community. The same can go for a lot of mainstream long form games. When a game’s budget demands that it attract millions of sales, the level of intimacy and niche in narrative and gameplay often has to be sacrificed to minimize risk.

Screenshot of "Noah and The Quest to Turn on The Light"
Screenshot of “Noah and The Quest to Turn on The Light”, a game by Noah Ratcliff

James: What is your favorite game jam game that someone else made?

Noah: This is kind of a hard one, there are lots of jam games I have really loved over the years! A game that immediately comes to my mind, though, is “A Mind Is A Small Place” by Juju AdamsDaniel Marques, Chris Anselmo and Jan Vorisek. I love how evocative every room, object, color, interaction, and sound is in that game. It put me in an emotional space that I do not think any other game has before, and that really inspired me. I was still working passively on “Noah and The Quest to Turn on The Light” at that time, which tried to explore how play can be used to communicate emotion through experience instead of just written dialogue, so it was nice to see a game that did that so well, in my opinion.

James: Do you think a longer game could capture that emotional space? Sustain it or use it meaningfully in a larger context?

Noah: I definitely think so! Again, it really depends on what is being communicated. It would be really cool to see a longer version of “A Mind Is A Small Place”, and I would love to eventually revisit “Noah and The Quest to Turn on The Light” and explore its use of play in a longer game, perhaps five to ten hours long instead of fifteen to thirty minutes.

Video of “A Mind is A Small Place”, a game by Juju Adams, Daniel Marques, Chris Anselmo and Jan Vorisek

James: What is your favorite game jam game that you made?

Noah: Another hard one! I think if I had to pick it would be “Unluck Quest”, which my great friend and roommate Aidan Markham and I worked on together for #BigGameJamFightWhoIsGunnaWin. Not only did it win the jam – sorry bub -, but “Unluck Quest” is still our best collaboration yet. It was my first time writing for a game of this size, and it was so much fun creating this quirky world full of self-aware, sarcastic, and surprisingly expressive inanimate objects. Everyone in the local game development scene here in Rochester loved it, and it blasted the word “bub” into the local vernacular. “Unluck Quest” also ended up with a number of Let’s Plays, all of which I watched completely and loved. Nothing is more enjoyable than watching someone play and enjoy your silly game. We are planning on bringing Dollop – the big old green bubbo in “Unluck Quest” -, back for a longer experience here in the next couple years.

James: Bub is the best familiar term! You definitely beat Joe and I in #BigGameJamFightWhoIsGunnaWin. So I will be sure to challenge you to a rematch: #BigGameJamFightWhoIsGunnaWin2. Outside of just that micro-jam, it is neat to see how these hyper small game jams have the capacity to churn out cool projects. Do you think there is anything special about hyper small jams, opposed to just jamming alone or with friends outside a ‘jam’ setting?

Noah: We need to do #BigGameJamFightWhoIsGunnaWin2 for sure! Because of their size and relatively low maintenance, hyper small jams are able to focus in on tiny and weird niches. Personally, they inspire me to get really creative, because I am not competing to stand out in a big pool of entries. Instead, I am just making some neat and weird stuff with a few other neat creators. I have found that entering a jam with that carefree mindset almost always means I will be happier with what I make during the jam than I am with something I ‘try’ on.

The fast-paced and collaborative nature of group jamming is what makes jam games so special. Sometimes you have to drop features, leave development art in, compromise on ideas, or leave whole big decisions up to your teammates and trust that your collective collaborative vision will work out. Without a deadline and a general theme to fit your game within, it is easy to spend too long ‘perfecting’ everything, and often a lot of compromises you would have been forced to make are lost. The same goes for solo jamming. I much prefer working with others, because those collaborative ideas and compromises add so much more depth.

Screenshot of "Unlock Quest"
Screenshot of “Unluck Quest”, a game by Noah Ratcliff and Aidan Markham

Further reading, a few notable Noah Ratcliff games: