Announcing The Winners Of The 5th Annual Public Domain Game Jam!

from the gaming-like-it's-1927 dept

In January, we asked designers to create games based on works that entered the public domain this year for our fifth annual public domain game jam, Gaming Like It’s 1927! It took us a little while to get through all the entries, but now it’s time to announce the winners, and it was not an easy decision. There were so many great entries this year, and you should check them all out.

As usual, we’ve got winners in six different categories, each of of whom will receive a prize and be featured in a spotlight post over the coming weeks. Some great games didn’t quite make the cut, and it was painful to leave them out. The Chess Player by Nora Katz (who won Best Analog Game last year) is a roleplaying game that brilliantly uses a regular chess game as the driver of its storytelling system; CREAMPiED! by S Westdahl is a fast-paced card game that blends comedy with great competitive mechanics; Meowtropolis by Gear Flower Games is an ambitious 3D adventure game with a grimy lo-fi aesthetic. But alas, we had to narrow the field down to just six, and so without further delay, here are the winners of Gaming Like It’s 1927:

Best Analog Game — Tower Tree Stories by David Harris

First it was The 24th Kandinsky for the 1924 jam, then Fish Magic for 1925 and Dreaming The Cave for 1926, and frankly at this point we just assume that David Harris will submit an excellent and truly original game — and this year’s entry, Tower Tree Stories, did not disappoint. Unlike his past games, which all focused on newly-public-domain paintings, Tower Tree Stories takes its inspiration from a more obscure source: the 1927 yearbook of Greensburg High School in Indiana, a full copy of which is included with the game to serve as the primary material. If you’ve ever looked at an old yearbook, you know what it feels like to flip through its pages: you get a glimpse of so many lives, a snapshot of the faces of staff and students at a single moment in time, tidbits of information about student life and people’s personalities and ambitions…. but all of it is so clearly the tip of a mysterious iceberg. And it’s from that very feeling that this unique roleplaying game emerges. Players step into the shoes of randomly selected students and begin forming relationships with other students, building out a map of their connections and interactions. The clever rules provide plenty of assistance and scaffolding, but the real inspiration is the yearbook: the game asks players to ponder the lives behind the faces, and the truths that are hidden behind the strictures of a much more conservative era. This original premise, combined with David’s now-well-established talent for creating simple game mechanics that perfectly harmonize with the game’s theme and intent, make Tower Tree Stories a great and fascinating entry that we’re thrilled to name Best Analog Game.

Best Digital Game Escape From 1927 by Jacob P. Silvia

Among the highest-profile works to enter the public domain this year are the first few books in the famous Hardy Boys series. In fact, we rather expected there to be more entries based on the Hardy Boys in this year’s jam! The most notable of those we did get, Escape From 1927 by Jacob P. Silvia, takes the form of a classic point-and-click adventure game / hidden object game, and is a loose adaptation of the first Hardy Boys book, The Tower Treasure. The gameplay is simple, the puzzles are easy, and the graphics are a slightly-cheeky collage of disparate styles drawn from both the original book and AI-generated art — but what truly shines is the writing. The story is told through dialogue written with a consistently clipped and comedic tone, hitting all the necessary beats of the story with a flippant style that never leaves you buried in walls of text. Best of all, it incorporates themes of copyright and the public domain into the jokes (at one point a ghost shrieks “forever minus a day!”) and even into the puzzles themselves! This delightful fact elevates Escape From 1927 from a quick joke to a coherent and well-considered piece of game design, and one that is well deserving of the Best Digital Game award.

Best Adaptation To And Again by Perrin Ellis

Some game designers find inspiration in the public domain by uncovering works they weren’t previously familiar with and exploring them for the first time, while others embrace the expiration of copyright on works that they already know and care about — and To and Again by Perrin Ellis, who also won last year’s Best Adaptation prize with The Wall Across The River, is clearly a product of the latter. In the introduction, Ellis explains that the 1927 children’s book of the same name (which ultimately turned into an ongoing series) was a cherished childhood favorite, and one that felt like a “private fictional world” since few other people had ever heard of it. The game (a combination of board game, roleplaying game, and storytelling system) is fueled by that lifelong love, and assembles a few simple mechanics to capture the sense of adventure delivered by the original story about animals going on a journey. Guided by a game master, players use a few dice and some character stats to traverse the “Journey Board” via a series of individual “Episodes”. The scaffolding for this activity is provided by a robust rulebook full of characters, dice tables, and inspirational gameplay examples, but is carefully designed to avoid overwhelming or restrictive rules and defer to the players’ creativity. The Best Adaptation category is reserved for games that meaningfully engage with the original work’s style, story, purpose, and/or intent — and as a labor of love that faithfully converts this children’s story into a game full of imagination, To and Again is a worthy recipient.

Best Remix Lucia by Azzyfree

Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been in the public domain for a long time: it was never registered for copyright in the US, and its UK protections ran out in 1962. This year, a 1927 play based on the book entered the public domain, and that play forms the foundation of Lucia by Azzyfree. But for the game, a traditional visual novel that tells the story of a young woman who encounters Dracula in a New York City automat while navigating her own tumultuous personal tragedies, the play is just one element. Multiple 1927 works are incorporated throughout, with posters for 1927 films like Metropolis populating its dark and rainy cityscape backgrounds, and 1927 music lilting away quietly in the background of the automat, which is itself based on Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting Automat (which also serves as the inspiration for the depiction of the game’s main character). As a fully-realized visual novel replete with original dialogue, original art, and plenty of attention to detail, Lucia was a strong candidate for several categories (like Best Visuals and Best Adaptation), but these additional elements made it one of the few candidates for the Best Remix category, which goes to the game that best incorporates material from multiple different 1927 works. The remix elements in Lucia are woven together in perfect harmony, and they combine with the game’s many other strengths (which are extra impressive from a first-time designer!) to earn it the prize this year.

Best Deep Cut The Pigeon Wager by Jason Morningstar from Bully Pulpit Games

Jason Morningstar’s entry in last year’s game jam, The Obstruction Method, blew us away with its creative use of obscure material, and this year’s entry is no different. The Pigeon Wager is exactly the kind of game the Best Deep Cut category was created for. It’s not based on a famous movie, nor even on an obscure novel or underappreciated painting, but on a truly deep cut: a 1927 article in the Wilson Ornithological Club’s Quarterly Magazine of Ornithology on “The Military Use Of The Homing Pigeon”. Jason has turned this historical curiosity into an elegant, polished roleplaying game for three players who step into the shoes of three characters involved in the Hoboken Homing Pigeon Association’s big pigeon race. The stakes are high, as the story wraps the race up with organized crime and the interactions between Irish and Italian gangs in early 20th century New Jersey. Players are tasked with making conversation as the race unfolds, and are helped along by a variety of creative game materials including newspaper pages and a backing soundtrack that must be audible while playing. The soundtrack is one of the most interesting elements, as it includes sound cues that the players must respond to, and turns the whole thing into a live-action improv exercise. For (once again) taking a small, arcane 1927 work and building it out into an original and unexpected game, The Pigeon Wager was an easy choice as the winner of Best Deep Cut.

Best Visuals Urbanity by Government Name

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was one of the highest-profile films that entered the public domain this year, and it showed up in several entries. The film is best remembered and most highly praised for its visuals and special effects, so it’s fitting that it would serve as the source material for the winner in this category. Government Name’s Urbanity is a highly artistic video game that explores the themes of Metropolis while drawing heavily on its imagery. But it doesn’t just drop the already-beautiful sets and scenery into a game; rather, it uses them in a very modern graphical experiment by employing AI art generation. Shots from the film were used as the source material to rapidly generate assets for the game, where they form unsettling and distorted 3D cityscapes populated by eerily faceless characters. Every scene in the game is visually striking, and though the gameplay is simple (and occasionally janky) you’ll find yourself wanting to continue just to see what comes on screen next. The visual adventure is combined with dramatic music, plus original narration and dialogue also generated with the help of AI tools, and polished off with voiceover work. As an artistically-inspired work that is both a reflection on a famously beautiful film and an ambitious experiment with AI tools for creating art and more (AI was even used to generate code for the game), Urbanity takes the cake for Best Visuals this year.

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!

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 soon with a podcast discussing the winners, and then before you know it, it will be time for Gaming Like Its 1928 — so it’s never too early to start looking at the works that will be entering the public domain, and brainstorming your game ideas!

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