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Svilupparty – Dispatch from the Italian dev scene

Last weekend I got to spend some time in Bologna at Svilupparty, the largest annual convention for Italian game designers and developers. I strolled around the convention floor – hosted by the Archivio Videoludico, the main video game archive in Italy – for a few hours, trying to get a feel for what contemporary Italian developers are working on.

A few things stood out. One, is the return (did iIMG_20160514_123802194_HDRt ever really go away?) of the multiplayer couch-based brawler. Surprise hits such as Duck Game and Brawlhalla rekindled the interest toward this type of games in the indie space, and it seems like Italy is not lagging behind in this specific area. Games such as Rainbow Force Battle Academy by Studio Lude and Five Minutes Rage by Indomitus Games offer clever variations on the theme of chaotic brawling action.

Another notable trend is that of retro-inspired shooters, where “retro” stands for a number of often very different things. From Bolopix’s elegant monochromatic infinite shooter Space Squids, to Breaking Bytes‘ exercise in 16-bit filology Xydonia, all the way to Gridd, Antab Studio‘s Rez-inspired cyberpunk shooter, Svilupparty was a treat for fans of flying, dodging, and shooting in rapid succession.

And then, of course, there’s VR. Among the many project showcased IMG_20160514_145035719at Svilupparty, Yon Paradox stood out as a convincing attempt at using VR in a non-photorealistic manner, which puts it in the same category as stuff like SuperHyperCube. At the other end of the spectrum there are projects like Progetto Ustica, a free serious game in VR on the infamous (and still largely unresolved) mystery of the Ustica Massacre.

Finally, a few interesting bits and bobs. Ajax Boat is a wacky ASCII game involving boats and drowning sailors. Definitely worth a look. Cast of the Seven
Godsends
is a metroidvanya meets Ghouls ‘n Ghosts affair, with unexpected character transformations, ad is available on Steam. Red Rope: Don’t Fall Behind, one of my favorites from this year’s show, described by the authors as “an allegorical co-op” is, well, an allegorical co-op in which two players are tied to the same rope.

Video game histories in Italy

01

The first Issue of Zzap!, 1986.

A new project
My project for 2016-2017 (and possibly beyond) is to trace, gather and make sense of the histories of video games in Italy. I have received a post-doc fellowship from Università di Torino to do it, so this will be my main commitment for the foreseeable future.
Why histories rather than history? A broad theoretical reason (I’ll keep it short), and then to the meat of it.

Multiplicity
There is no such thing as one media history. There might be no such thing as one history in general (ask him), but it’s even more complicated for media. For example, when one tries to write down the history of a medium diligently and in an orderly fashion, other media get in the way. So, the history of video games is also the history of the TV set, the history of vector-based screens, the history of microprocessors, the history of box art illustrations, and so on infinitum. To say it with him, “there are no media, but rather always only multimedia systems”. While tracing the histories of video game in Italy, I will have to carve out those that are relevant to me from this entanglement of technology, uses, discourses, products, and designs.
So, how will I do it? The tentative answer is: three methods, and three subjects.

Three methods
Method number one: Interviews. In the last thirty years or so, Italy’s game industry evolved from a peculiar and rather insular phenomenon to a well-established hub of digital creativity. I will interview both the prime movers and the newcomers, in the hope that they will help me trace a profile of Italy’s video game production culture.
Method number two: Archives. I have worked in video game related archives in the past, and agree with Guins when he rhetorically asks whether game studies is “somehow exempt from the expectation that archival research — long considered a requirement for astute, rigorous, and credible scholarship in many fields — will be carried out”. There’s no reason to bypass rigorous archival research when dealing with the history in video games. So, off to Bologna.
Method number three: Encountering things. Archives are a great source of material. But unarchived stuff, found outside of archives, in private collections, flea markets, Internet repositories, on line auctions, is sometimes as valuable. Opening up old games, both materially and metaphorically, and looking at the ways in which they were designed and built, their relation to the conditions out of which they were produced, is a way to deal with this medium, that usually bears great results.

dylan_dog_gli_uccisori_02

Simulmondo’s Dylan Dog, an early case of transmedia storytelling, 1992

Three subjects
Zelda’s Triforce, Lacan’s Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real, the Lord of The Rings Trilogy, the three Stooges. Things work better in a trio (proof of the poor performance of both one and two is here). So, three subjects. Or, more precisely, three perspectives on the histories of video games in Italy.
Subject number one: A history of production. As of today, there is no comprehensive study of the history of the Italian video game industry. It is a complex weaving of professional and amateur developers, large companies and proto-indies, world’s firsts (see, for example, one of the earliest cases of transmedia storytelling…) and rip-offs. It is a fascinating history that needs to be told.
Subject number two: Style. Is there an Italian way of making games? A precise style, a form of game design that is uniquely Italian, or that was developed via reciprocal influences and cross-pollination by italian developers? One needs to play a lot of games and ask a lot of questions to find out.
Subject number three: Discourses. As excellently demonstrated by Kirkpatrick, the history of video games was informed by the discourses produced by communities of players, non-players, producers and critics. These apparently ephemeral pieces of the larger social discourse on media and technology can be found scattered in specialized magazines, newspapers, instant books, blog posts, and are a fascinating barometer of the salience of games in the wider cultural conversation. What kinds of discourses on games were produced in Italy?

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Santaragione’s Mirrormoon EP, 2013

So, there you have it
This is what I am planning to do. If you are an Italian designer, developer, producer, player, and feel you might have some insight on the histories that I am working on, feel free to contact me. If you are interested in the project, check this space every now and then, as I will update it with interesting findings and other bits of my research as I go along.