May 27, 2014 5:00 PM | John Polson
Bram Ruiter, one of the filmmakers behind the Devolver Digital-published 5-part documentary Super Game Jam, speaks about the creation of the first episode released last week, and shares what might change in the episodes to come.
The first episode features Jan Willem Nijman (pictured left) of Ridiculous Fishing and LUFTRAUSERS; and Richard Boeser of ibb and obb, who make a game in 48 hours based on the theme of "breakup". The series as a whole aims to capture "the creative process, technical skill, and friendships that form through a game jam event on a more personal and intimate level."
You can watch the trailer for episode 1 of Super Game Jam below or dive into purchasing it at Steam for $20. The games made in the jam will also be included. Note that only the first episode is available now, but the rest will post in the coming months.
Now that you've watched it, read on for this candid discussion with filmmaker Bram Ruiter on the choices he and Daniel Oliveira Carneiro made in shooting and editing the episode, along with how the whole project came to be.
John Polson: Could you talk about your decisions on how you chose to film, edit, and interview the devs? I liked the way the devs reflected on their process at the end and wanted more!
Bram Ruiter: A game jam is a very linear endeavour. In this case it was 2 people getting a theme, working it out on paper, getting into the actual jamming and overcoming whatever hurdle they encountered. So what we did was basically register what happened and sometimes jump in to ask them what happened specifically. When you shoot a documentary you never know what will happen, especially when it's about 2 people who never worked before trying to make something that's fun to play.
It's not like we didn't have an idea of how the episode would eventually turn out, but every film is rewritten 3 times. First in concept, then while shooting and eventually while editing. And in this case the editing process was very 'rewrite heavy'. Now, the narrative of Super Game Jam is pretty much set in stone. Like I said, it's a very lineair thing. But finding the right moments in hours and hours of footage to make the narrative clear to the viewer was quite the struggle. Most of the things happen on screens, in their heads or in that exact room. Translating that so every viewer knows what's going on is quite difficult sometimes. We wanted to make a documentary that game enthusiasts could enjoy as well as our moms and dads.
John Polson: I've seen quite a few documentaries where the subjects "reflect" on aspects of the film. What steered you away from having the developers "postmortem" their jam on camera, such as having them watch the film and give commentary?
Bram Ruiter: Well, we reflected on their process right after shooting the game jam, but I decided to cut it out, because it slowed down the flow of the documentary. The reflection at the end of the documentary (at the party) wasn't much longer than how it's actually in the documentary. And that's one of those documentary things. You're very reliant on your subjects, how they feel and what they actually want to talk about. You could push them into tears, but that doesn't fit this documentary. The reflection is more of an emotional nature, instead of an in depth discussion. And to be honest, that emotional aspect resonates more with us since going over all the things we gusted viewed at the end of the documentary might make the documentary rather anticlimactic. You know, certain things work, others don't.
We're gonna expand on that in the future though. We'll add more special features, like extended interviews and cut scenes, and personally I'd love to do a commentary track with the jammers for every episode. But yeah, we first had to get that first episode out there.
John Polson: I hope those ideas come to fruition. I was particularly curious about the dynamic of Jan taking lead in the jam, especially with his determination to make a racing game, and how that impacted Richard.
Bram Ruiter: Jan is a game jam veteran. I believe every Vlambeer-game started out as an experiment or some kind of game jam. Richard, having worked on ibb & obb for like 5 years (which was also his first game), had never been in a game jam before shooting this episode. So JW leading the way was a very natural and obvious conclusion. That's why I think the episode focused more on Richard than JW, because Richard was basically discovering the wild world of game jams. It worked perfectly as a first episode/pilot: the audience experiences that world through the eyes of the newcomer.
Or at least, that was the idea!
John Polson: So the games made in the jams are playable. Any chance for a "commentary mode" for them? How would you annotate or edit the jam games, to make it more pedagogical, a way to learn how and why things were done for the game?
Bram Ruiter: I think we actually talked about this at some points during production. We looked at how Valve did this for the Portal series and it would fit Super Game Jam very well. But because the games are so short and so variously made (engine-wise or code-wise) we're not sure how annotating could work. We could maybe do like a Let's Play, but since every shoot is quite hectic and everyone lives all over the world, it's quite difficult to actually get every team back together to play their game for a while and talk about it. We'll probably look into this at some point, but I'm not sure how do-able this actually is.
John Polson: I don't consider myself an expert in documentaries, but I had a question about how their games were shown back-to-back towards the beginning. I wasn't sure how that fit into the flow of the episode.
Bram Ruiter: Apart from getting to know them as human beings, it's good to know what these people made in prior of Super Game Jam. Just from a context point of view. It takes one look at Ibb & Obb and you understand what Richard's visual style is. But compare that to a game like Luftrausers and the audience get a glimpse of how diverse these developers actually are.
John Polson: I agree with that. I guess I was just thinking there might have been a way to connect them at better parts of the film. For instance, I thought ibb & obb's characters would have been neat juxtaposed with the green and pink racers in the car we see, mid-jam.
Bram Ruiter: Yeah, we definitely get that. It was hard to fit this in, because during the shoot we focused mainly on the jamming and not so much on their past. I like how it is now, because it breaks up their conversation. We had an edit without the break and their conversation felt like it overstayed its welcome. Cutting the conversation short would not have worked either. So we fitted it in there and now it functions as a quick audio-visual breather before diving back into the development progress.
John Polson: How did you become the movie makers for this?
Bram Ruiter: I met JW and Rami before they set-up Vlambeer and wanted to make a documentary about their path to glory ever since. Daniel met them a while later. The documentary never happened, but it slowly evolved into the idea for Super Game Jam. Daniel and I met at A Maze 2013 in Berlin where we talked about the concept and basically decided that we wanted to do this together. Then Rami introduced us to Devolver, Daniel flew over to Austin to pitch it to them and they immediately said yes.
John Polson: Who picked the themes? How did that happen?
Bram Ruiter: We picked the first theme. We decided on 'cooking', but our assistant (oblivious to the notion that the jammers weren't suppose to know the theme in advance) spoiled it to Richard. We had to come up with a new theme on the fly and we decided on 'breakup' (in favour of 'going on vacation'). From there every previous team came up with a theme for the next team which we showed as a video message.
John Polson: Who picked the devs? Why were they chosen?
Bram Ruiter: Well, we had a shortlist. A wish list of sorts. Not everyone who we reached out to got back to us, but that's quite obvious since Daniel and myself are not very well-known. We based the pairs on location, schedule and, most importantly, dynamic. It was like a chemistry project: what would happen if you mix chemical x with substance y? Sometimes the pairs could fill in very different roles during jamming, other times it was the discrepancy between their general output. This was why we teamed Grapefrukt with Cactus: both programmers, both visual artists, but very, very different kind of game designers.
John Polson: I thank you for your time! I'm glad we got to talk about your perspective on the film, rather than my posting mere criticisms or observations. Any last words, as we look towards future Super Game Jam episodes?
Bram Ruiter: Yes, thanks for that, man. I liked this, and it's nice to have someone who's open to a discussion instead of just criticising our product.
Well, it's been quite the ride. We've been traveling all over the world every 2 weeks for the past 3 or 4 months. We just finished filming the last episode and it'd be nice to focus on the edit full-time from now on. But having it out there feels really good. People are sending us messages they got inspired by our documentary and want to enter game jams, and that's basically all we ever wanted.
[Bram Ruiter (left) and Daniel Oliveira Carneiro, taken with the Interstellar Selfie Station.]