Announcing The Winners Of The 4th Annual Public Domain Game Jam!

from the gaming-like-it's-1926 dept

Well, it took us a little longer than usual, but we’re finally ready to announce the winners of our fourth annual public domain game jam, Gaming Like It’s 1926! We asked designers to create games based on works published in 1926 (plus some earlier sound recordings, due to the complexities of copyright law) that entered the public domain in the US this year. There seemed to be a lot of excitement around the public domain in 2022, and that resulted in us getting more submissions than in any jam since the first. There were so many great games, and you should check them all out — but first, here are the winners in our six prize categories for Gaming Like It’s 1926:

Best Analog Game Nude On A Yellow Sofa by Nora Katz

Inspired by Henri Matisse’s 1926 painting of the same name, Nude On A Yellow Sofa by Nora Katz is a game about exploring the relationship between artist and muse. We’ve seen games in past years that involved getting the players to create art, but this one takes it to a new level: over a series of eight rounds, each representing a period of a creative career, players will tell the story of an evolving artistic collaboration while each creating eight works of art using a medium of their choice. In the ninth and final round, they assemble a retrospective gallery exhibit of the works a century later. Throughout the game, they are made to confront the joy, vulnerability, and turbulence of an artistic relationship with the help of story prompts and themed rounds. It’s a phenomenally creative piece of game design that uses a single 1926 painting as the core inspiration for exploring a timeless concept, and we’re thrilled to name it the Best Analog Game.

Best Digital Game — A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle DECODED by Anna Wu

There are many ways to build something new based on an existing work, but sometimes the most direct can be one of the most effective: telling the story of your own engagement with it. That’s what Anna Wu does in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle DECODED, a short narrative game (mostly text-based, with other media judiciously used in various places) about Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid’s 1926 poem. As the game explains at the outset, the poem’s title caught Wu’s eye when scanning lists of 1926 works, and what follows is a personal story about the journey of, well, decoding this epic work written in the Scots language. The game uses its light interactive elements to bring the concept of translating an unfamiliar language into the gameplay itself, and succeeds in immersing the player in the designer’s own experience, as if you were with them on the journey. It is a simple story, extremely well told, and a showcase of how games can bring new perspectives to old works by interacting with them directly and literally. For that, it wins Best Digital Game.

Best Adaptation — The Wall Across The River by Seth Ellis

Good roleplaying and storytelling games use their mechanics to provide players with lots of interesting prompts and inspirations; great ones find a way to marry those mechanics with the core themes and aesthetics of the story being told, evoking the desired feeling through the most fundamental aspects of play. The Wall Across The River by Seth Ellis is one such game, adapting Hope Mirrlees’s 1926 fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist into a roleplaying board game that forefronts the novel’s central tension: a divide between the rational and the fantastical, between the ordered world and the fairy-land of glamor and magic that clouds the mind. This tension becomes the central mechanic, as two players take up the two sides of this dance (with additional players taking on a judge-like role) and compete: will the rational Mayor successfully wall off the foggy land of the fairy-folk, or will the ethereal Duke conquer the town with ever-spreading mist? As the players lay down cards on the board in pursuit of these goals, they tell twisting stories full of magic and mystery that feel firmly situated in the setting, plot, and tone of the novel, making this a worthy winner of Best Adaptation.

Best Remix — Dreaming the Cave by David Harris

If you’re a fan of the game jam, you probably recognize the name David Harris by now: he won the Best Analog Game category in both the 1925 and 1924 jams with his games Fish Magic and The 24th Kandinsky. This year, he’s back with another entry that continues his tradition of creating exceptionally original games that explore the work of a specific visual artist — or in this case, two artists. Dreaming the Cave is a game about the artistic partnership of Czech artists Toyen (born Marie Čermínová) and Jindřich Štyrský, and it plays out using the latter’s 1926 painting Jeskyně (The Cave) as its game board, and a set of cards depicting paintings by both artists as its game pieces. Through the process of mixing and matching these cards on the board, players are prompted to narrate a surreal dream scene that continues the partnership of these artists beyond Styrský’s death in 1942. Like Harris’s past games, it’s quite difficult to describe, because it is creative and unusual and custom-tailored to suit the specific artwork it explores, with the goal of helping players gain a deeper understanding of it. By using not just one work from one artist but several different ones from across the career of two artists, in a way that explores their original connection while encouraging players to imagine new ones, it takes the award for Best Remix.

Best Deep Cut — The Obstruction Method by Jason Morningstar from Bully Pulpit Games

When new works enter the public domain, it’s easy to focus on the novels, the paintings, the movies, the songs… but as we all know, copyright covers a whole lot more than that! Not for the first time, this year’s deep cut winner draws its inspiration from somewhere else entirely: a scientific paper. The Obstruction Method by Jason Morningstar of Bully Pulpit Games is a live-action roleplaying game based on Frances Holden’s behaviorist study involving 803 albino rats and an electrified maze. Players take on the roles of Holden and the people around her, and quickly find that their effort to test the rats has become its own experiment in which they themselves are the subjects. The game and its materials are beautifully presented to evoke the aesthetic of a 1920s scientific study, and the story itself spirals out far beyond its source material, as the real people involved had fascinating connections to the contemporary worlds of poetry and more. By taking source material that might seem too dry at first glance, and exposing its fascinating depth while also crafting an extremely clever premise for roleplaying, the game is an easy choice for Best Deep Cut.

Best Visuals — Mr. Top Hat Doesn’t Give A Damn! by Josh from Dirtbug Games

It’s an exciting time in the public domain for fans of animation, with new works from the first golden age of American cartoons exiting copyright protection every year. Mr. Top Hat Doesn’t Give A Damn! by Josh of Dirtbug Games is a playful ode to the aesthetics of the era, pulling clips from several 1926 cartoons to create a short, comedic quasi-platformer that tells a story about the titular Mr. Top Hat. The game is unfinished, ending on a note from the designer that there is more to come, but it already crams in plenty of entertainment in its first two stages, which introduce the player to Mr. Top Hat and have them guide him through a few early dilemmas. It’s just plain fun to look at, and the AI-generated narrator commenting on the action throughout elevates it to a new level. Describing any of the jokes, which make clever use of both the narration and the visuals, would spoil them, and it’s better if you go into the short experience without knowing much in advance. By mining this exciting vein of animated visual assets, and enhancing them with some hand-made effects and new assets, then tying it all together in a story that perfectly suits the look, Mr. Top Hat wins the award for Best Visuals.

The winning designers will be contacted via their Itch pages to arrange their prizes, so if you see your game listed here, keep an eye on your incoming comments!

As in past years, we’ll be taking a closer look at each of these winners with spotlight posts in the weeks to come. Also like past years, we’ve got a podcast episode discussing the winners and some of our favorite entries that didn’t quite make the cut! You can listen to the episode now on our feed or via Soundcloud:

A huge thanks to all the designers who submitted games to this year’s jam. There are so many games worth playing, and I strongly urge everyone to check out all the entries. We’ll be back next year with Gaming Like Its 1927, and it’s never too early to start looking at the works that will be entering the public domain, and brainstorming your game ideas! We hope to get even more entries next year, and continue demonstrating why a rich and growing public domain benefits us all and leads to the creation of new, exciting works.

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