This year, I, along with teammates William Miller and Jack Cooke, returned to the second annual Rosetta Stone Game Jam to try to win back-to-back 1st Place titles. This is the story of what happened (continued from Part I).
The sun is beginning to set outside as we pass the half-way point of competition hours. Setting aside six hours the night previous for sleep was a calculated maneuver to preserve high functioning, but with fifteen hours to go we need to make that count. Most of the big work is done. Will has written a fully functional 2D game engine in C in about as much time as it takes a normal person to run their weekly errands. But we have little time yet to appreciate the magnitude of that accomplishment as all our focus is trained on the work remaining.
7pm Saturday (-14 hours): Dinner break. Rosetta Stone caters three meals on Saturday and takes the whole competition out for banquet meals Friday evening and Sunday morning. While lunch was a more lively affair, dinner is somewhat austere. Competitors arrive haphazardly and do not linger, gathering food to take back to their work rooms. It has been some hours since we spoke with anyone not on our team, and sightings of fellow participants in the halls are getting rarer. The whole building is quieter, too.
Back in our room, I am completing the level tuning. Will is arm-deep in OpenGL, trying to separate the map data into separate render targets and passes so he can blend between them. He’s begun muttering to himself — talking himself through the tedious process and the bugs that are arising. We’re approaching the threshold beyond which fatigue will begin to inhibit the ability to remain in the abstract frame of mind necessary to program. For the first time, we begin to feel the hours we have left.
11pm Saturday (-10 hours): Not long ago Jack went down for a brief nap, hoping to take the edge off the headache that’s been building since midday. I’ve copied over all the latest assets from him and I am decorating and trimming the levels with the final art. It’s a good task for nighttime — mostly mindless, and mistakes are easy to spot. It’s been a while since any of us needed to speak to each other. We awoke at a reasonable hour today, but adrenaline levels have been high with the excitement of the event, and now we’re beginning to feel the effects of prolonged exposure. Small irritations are starting to become noticeable, and the quality of light and heat in the room begins to feel incorrect. We stay quiet, and work.
3am Sunday (-6 hours): The levels are done. Jack recovered, made a swath of new decoration sprites and a few re-dos at my request, then went down for another nap. Will has succeeded in getting the rendering system to display layers exclusively and recognize transition, but he’s blocked trying to get the ink blot texture to display properly and cause the renderers to swap with the mouse and the camera moving around it. Now trudging through sound effects and music I am largely oblivious, but I am aware that both of us are low on cognitive resources. We aren’t panicking yet, but we realize that if the game is going to work with all the systems in place by 9am, it could mean a death march.
6am Sunday (-3 hours): “Winning time.” The final stretch when everything either comes together or all is lost. The margin could not be thinner: the one mechanic we need, the one system that ties the whole game together and makes it unique and interesting, is the ink blot. And with mere hours remaining, after hours spent in dogged, wretched struggle with an obtuse system and his own weakening constitution, Will states aloud, “I don’t know if I’m going to get it.”
Having completed the level work and finished linking in sound, I’ve been brooding and pacing about for some time. My faith has not wavered until I hear this, like an icy chill. Will pledges to keep trying, and with no recourse I busy myself helping Jack make last-minute polish passes and setting up a credits screen. Finally, at loose ends, I’m looking over Will’s shoulder as he works through the bug. Every step seems to make sense, but it’s so hard for us to tell any more. We both seem only dimly aware of the code changes being made and the formulas being rearranged. Suddenly, a breakthrough — the blot renders the transition, but it looks burnt out, like someone picked the wrong blending mode in Photoshop. I realize the problem almost at the same moment Will finds the solution… invert the ink blot from black on transparency to white on transparency… and it works.
We both sag into our chairs, with a slow high five and a grin.
8am Sunday (-1 hour): Working with a new frenzy thanks to a fresh rush of endorphins from the breakthrough, we’ve managed to tie in the credits screen to a newly-made ending level, and we’ve tossed in some level-hopping cheats. We need to make sure that if we fail to play our own game well enough to advance, we can still show off all the levels. A few last-minute updates to the tileset from Jack go in, and Will makes a clean build to test on Jack’s laptop. Both of us are shaking badly enough that moving the mouse and typing require concentration. We get a last little heart attack as Jack’s computer appears to fail to recognize mouse input, breaking the ink blot mechanic, but it turns out his Command key was stuck down. Shaking with fatigue and adrenaline withdrawal, we move the files onto the provided jump drives and walk with nervous relief up to the reception desk at Rosetta Stone to hand it in.
I can recall little of what happened between then and the judging. We lounged about on couches until it was time to go to the restaurant, and then we enjoyed the presentations until it was time to give ours. Ten minutes is only just enough time, and as the speech-giver I found it hard to keep my sentences clear and descriptive after twenty-six hours awake. I managed to convey our central ideas, our creative choices and process, while Will played it on the projector behind me. People paid attention well, and they asked thoughtful questions about things like multiplayer options, the range of replayability in the game, and expansions to the ink blot mechanic. When our time was up I felt I could have said it better, but people came up to us continuously to comment that they thought it was excellent and that we had presented it well.
By this point, we had resigned ourself to the prospect of an average finish, and found to our pleasure that we felt good about that. The magnitude of what we had undertaken, especially compared to our work the previous year, reinforced that we had done ourselves proud, whatever the judges might say. We were all enamored of our idea and pleased with the results given the time frame. The C engine alone was a stunning achievement — even the Rosetta Stone code reviewers seemed hesitant to believe Will had written it all in a day and a half. And by this point, even one person coming up to us to say he thought the game was brilliant would have been enough.
However, we did get a little more 2nd Place proved to everyone that last year’s victory was not a fluke, and that we were a top tier team capable of standing up with the best that two years of jams could muster. More than anything, the jam gave us a renewed feeling of worth, a confidence in our ability as game craftsmen. If any thought could sum up the experience of finishing a game jam like this (let alone winning a prize), it would be “if we can do something like that, in this place and under these extraordinary circumstances, what could we go and do next?”