Splash Jam isn’t your typical game jam. For starters, the 48-hour event takes place on an eight-deck cruise ship. It departs from Tromsø, Norway—the third largest urban area north of the Arctic Circle—and travels 700 miles to southern Trondheim. Towering fjords and snowy mountain ranges line the journey, and, free from light pollution, meteor showers are as ubiquitous as the crisp sea air. If you’re lucky, you might even see the Northern Lights. For game developers, balancing inspiration with distraction can be as tough as creating the games themselves.
Partly inspired by Train Jam—a 52-hour pilgrimage that runs from Chicago to San Francisco—Splash Jam 2017 marks the event’s second annual get together. “I love the idea of doing a game jam on a train,” says co-founder Runa Haukland. “But the longest train journey in Norway is just eight hours. Even then you need to change trains, so doing it this way just wasn’t feasible. This boat sits a lot of people, it goes on forever, and also allows us to show off the beautiful country we live in.”
Haukland’s counterpart Henriette Myrlund adds: “Sure it’s a little outlandish, but Splash allows us to put focus on Norway as a game developer. Also: elsewhere in the world, jams tend to be more commercial-minded. In Europe, exploration seems more important.”
It's not all coding at Splash. This eldritch card game, for example, explores your innermost fears, depicted by some gruesome hand-drawn artwork. Be it burning to death, drowning, addiction, or dealing with a codependent friendship, this unnamed gem is a genuine terror.
This sense of intrigue is clear from the jam’s outset. Gathered in a quaint Norwegian ale house just off Tromsø’s main drag, the ‘kickoff’ sees participants—strangers at this point—forming groups and drafting ideas. From the sublime to the ridiculous, the jam’s ‘rotations’ theme provides much food for thought. Four hours and several pints of craft beer later, projects are tenuously outlined, and it’s time to board the MS Finnmarken just after midnight. Jammers are here faced with their first major dilemma: Do they head to bed for a fresh start, or relax in the ship’s on-deck jacuzzi?
Bleary eyed or bushy tailed, day one is about turning last night’s considerations into reality. Overly ambitious ideas are whittled down, while some projects are scrapped entirely. Throughout the day, jammers divide their time between work in the conference centre, three-course meals in the dining hall and sightseeing on the viewing deck—a balance that’s occasionally interrupted by group stretching exercises, or inter-team brainstorming by the omnipresent coffee machine.
Despite the restrictive nature of these events, interpretations of the jam’s theme are wide and varied. A tourist simulator pokes fun at the nuances of language. A local co-op game sees players controlling individual car wheels to hilarious effect. A top-down Hotline Miami-like shooter randomises weapons by way of a carousel. A Tinder-esque app considers how sexual assault is portrayed in the media and wider society.
After suffering a bout of seasickness on day one, one Splash Jammer got creative with torn up coffee cups, post it notes and scrap paper. A Blue Peter-inspired deal, this worker placement game sees a papercraft spider defending its lair.
With deadline looming, day two is more focused—a fact underscored by the previous evening’s jawdropping Northern Lights display. It’s not the worst of compromises, but there’s an argument to be made that Splash Jam offers too much in the way of distraction.
“For me it’s been hard to adapt,” says developer Peter Smith, whose war game is based on soldier rotation. “There was a moment last night where everyone was really locked in. And then someone comes in and shouts: ‘Hey, everyone: Northern Lights—go!’ Immediately, there’s this sense there’s something bigger happening that you can’t ignore. It puts into perspective the stressful side of the jam, it offsets it, which is nice.”
For some, two days at sea provides a different distraction: seasickness. Anders is a returning Splash Jammer who was forced to adapt his plans due to migraines on day one. Instead of staring at a screen all day, he’s now crafting a MacGyver-esque board game, made of cardboard coffee cups, post-it notes and scraps of paper.
Made of spring door stops and LED lights, this quirky installation was the jam’s most outlandish project. In its final state, the hardware was used to create a whack-a-mole-type game. Its special glasses made it sparkle.
Across the room, Robin Baumgarten tinkers with a hardware installation comprised of spring projection door stops and LED lights (with diffraction glasses purchased from an online EDM rave store), while another group fleshes out the rules of their eldritch card game.
Little is off limits at Splash, and while it produces some great projects—the standard of the final product is unashamedly determined by each team’s ability (or lack thereof) to overlook the diversions along the way.
“I took this trip for the first time last year when we did Splash Jam and, to be honest, I was glad I wasn’t making a game,” says Haukland. “It was nice to just take it all in. We are talking about making some changes next year so that it might be easier to enjoy the trip fully.”
Myrlund agrees: “We might even make it into a workshop or conference, so that you don’t have the pressure of finishing a game. You can take a dip in the jacuzzi without feeling guilty. We might even add an extra day.”
Adding another day would of course cost more money, and while Splash Jam is funded by public and private sponsors, maintaining their interest is crucial to the jam’s future. But with so much to offer—not least its gorgeous scenery—the jam’s organisers remain confident this is but the beginning of something big.
“The Northern Lights are of course a big draw for the jam, however we play it down just in case it doesn’t happen,” says Myrlund. “We’re never sure, we’ll cross our fingers. And then, suddenly, boom! This makes it extra special. It’s the cherry on top, for sure.”