A MAZE./Berlin 2016: Festival recap

From feeding peanuts to jellyfish, to dildos, and dick pics and drone warfare, we relay the myriad of mind-boggling experiences on show at the year's A MAZE. in Berlin and chat to festival director Thorsten S. Wiedemann about how it all comes together.

Feature by Andrew Gordon | 09 May 2016

It’s approaching two on Saturday morning and the walls of Urban Spree’s modest concert space are starting to drip. The venue is dingy and industrial, every surface plastered in graffiti and grimey layers of peeling stickers. A tall, dastardly handsome red-haired German man appears before the throng, arms raised and beaming.

Cheers ring out above the din of the hardcore band on stage as he’s whisked from his from his feet and goes tumbling over hands and heads towards the back of the room. For a brief moment all eyes are fixed on the mustached man though soon enough the band strikes up another chorus the moshing resumes. Such a scene is fairly typical of Berlin’s notorious Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg borough at peak time on a weekend night, but the present performance by Sweden’s Fucking Werewolf ASSO is just a tiny glimpse of a much bigger, weirder event that, even by Berlin’s standards, is anything but conventional.

Just through the next wall, for instance, a row of eight revellers stand side by side clutching a rainbow of dildos dressed in tiny clothing which are affixed to a table like joysticks, giggling mischievously as cartoon genitalia slurps and flails around the monitor before them like soggy rubber bands. A little ways beyond them is a woman, crouched and wearing a bulky headset, prodding thin air with a black plastic stick.

Outside, past the beat-up Polish firetruck blasting kitschy Europop, a group is congregated around a tree and facing a wall-sized projected screen, holding beers in one hand and slapping coloured buttons strapped to its branches in the other. Welcome to A MAZE./Berlin 2016, the fifth installment of the already legendary international independant videogames festival, and a one-of-a-kind phenomenon.

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Actually, that’s not strictly true. In the years since the first A MAZE event (a humble gathering of forty or so local game developers in a small city centre nightclub) festival director and aforementioned crowdsurfer Thorsten “Storno” Wiedemann has been invited to take his unique videogame happening on the road, spreading his belief in games as an inspiring and essential cultural form to locales as far flung as South Africa and Palestine.

Modelled on the likes of Cannes and Berlinale film festivals, establishing A MAZE as a truly international festival was something Wiedemann was keen to stress from day one. Wiedemann is an avid film buff, having previously worked at the Berlinale as escort of political VIPs after a short-lived stint as an actor (“I realised “Fuck! I can’t remember text!”), and so A MAZE is his attempt to do for video games what the big prestigious knees-ups do for films: to celebrate the best, most adventurous content the medium has to offer, to create an environment for meaningful cultural exchange and to stimulate experimental game making worldwide.

“It was good for me to just see how [film festivals] work, to see how they select movies, and what is the purpose in what they are doing. Because behind the scenes it’s not about VIPs. Of course you want to have a red carpet because this is what film is about – red carpet and faces. But actually it’s about movies and the content of movies. Especially about social critical content or about great stories that have to do with our society, and this was something I was thinking we should do in games as well. So I didn’t want to do a convention or something like that. I didn’t want to do a market thing. I wanted to do something that inspires creatives, brings in creatives together, and also makes visible that there is a scene, that there is something going on beyond the mainstream.”

Independent games at A MAZE

Without a doubt, the games exhibited at A MAZE have much more in common with the kind of challenging, politically conscious media you’d encounter in a film festival programme than they do the flashy major studio productions that line the halls of an event like Gamescom, the hellish advertising circus that is Germany’s biggest videogames shinding. Take Killbox for example, a game installation for two players put together by a team of Dundee-based game developers in collaboration with American artist Joseph DeLappe.

Unbeknownst to its participants, the game pits one player as a drone pilot and the other as Pakistani child in a village targeted by the US military. The former is instructed to carry out air strikes on a group of supposed insurgents from their far away, highly abstracted perspective while the later roams jovially around a colourful world collecting shiny orbs in a purposefully cliche videogamey fashion with no warning what’s about to happen. After the missiles hit, the roles are reversed. “It’s quite a dark experience”, co-creator Malath Abbas admits in a sobering presentation about the game. “One in every fifty or so people will refuse to play at a certain point... it happens every time we show it”.

Yet while remaining a staunch supporter of purposefully difficult content, the last you’d call A MAZE would be somber. Wiedemann is proud of the festival’s “DIY... punk rock style”, but there can be few punk acts beyond the Cramps who truly share the utter flamboyance and playfulness that A MAZE exudes in abundance. With its unmistakable sherbert pink branding and the infectiously whimsical demeanor of its attendees, one imagines that if A MAZE was a punk band, it would exclusively play scuzzed up K-Pop covers.

A Maze Berlin

Here’s only a partial list of the litany of daft things The Skinny encountered during the four days of the festival: the previously alluded-to Genital Jousting, a game which teaches the importance of consent while also celebrating the joy of being penetrated by long floppy penises; a game consisting solely of a real life vacuum cleaner whose nozzle players have to point at specified colours as quickly as possible, colours which often turn out to be located on the clothing of unsuspecting passers-by; the festival director clad in a Santa hat, singing karaoke to an ear-splittingly high-pitched, thoroughly Lynchian rendition of Last Christmas; and a game in which players must stick their arm inside a shoebox and, by observing their movements on a digital display, safely navigate their hand through a tangle of wires in order to feed a peanut to a jellyfish.

As much of this silly fun as A MAZE has to offer however, there’s also something serious and important at the heart of its eclectic curatorial purview. By showcasing a consistently weird and wacky range of experiences, the festival has established a precedence as a place where voices and ideas that have been historically marginalised by the mainstream industry can not only be heard, but are bolstered and celebrated.

It’s a place where a game like Cobra Club, for example, in which players pose and configure an avatar so as to compose the most artful, aesthetically appealing dick pics they can muster, is displayed openly and proudly. Described by its creator (and NYU academic) Robert Yang as a “good and earnest”, empowering recognition of “dick pics as positive force in society” that asserts that “anyone should be able to feel sexy”, Cobra Club was nonetheless banned by Twitch.tv – the biggest source of videogame video content outside of Youtube – who relegated it to a blacklist alongside titles depicting sadistic violence and rape. At A MAZE, it’s free for all to see and play, albeit veiled somewhat satirically behind a tacky shower curtain.

It’s also a place where games and creators from different cultural backgrounds are purposefully sought out and supported. South African game developer Cukia Kimani spoke about how, after growing up in an environment which “just didn't facilitate learning game development” and a childhood spent wandering obliviously “who's making [these games]? Who are these magicians?”, A MAZE almost by accident served as his introduction to the indie game community.

"A MAZE Johannesburg happened," Kimani recounts. “I was working next to the venue and I saw Thorsten at the window and he looked pretty lost, so I went to him and said ‘You’re the A MAZE guy’ and he said ‘Yes, yes, yes, I’m the A MAZE guy’.” On a whim, Kimani showed Wiedemann something he was working on and before he knew it, Wiedemann had talked him into speaking on a panel at the festival alongside some of his heroes from the European game scene: “That was the moment I realised I'd built up this hierarchical system where I thought, these guys are all better than me.

"I couldn't believe I was meeting all these international devs and it was changing my world. This community it one of the most welcoming I've been around, and I've been around the block. It's a place where you can be inspire, motivated to keep creating games that break the medium and reform it again."

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Indeed, as much as Wiedemann aspires to emulate the prestigious film festivals of the world, he strives to avoid the red carpet mentality for this very reason. “I don't want to introduce stardom. This is something that I think is necessary. Because the whole game design thing and the community that I see here is very democratic. Everyone is the same level. I don't want to have this VIP hierarchy. This is something which makes the festival a playground.”

And a playground it is - one in which newbies and veteran converse on equal footing and where everyone is approachable, no matter their percieved klout or whether they're verfied on Twitter. From aspiring nominees to previous award-winners like Laura Dreamfeel, from students to visionary academics like Yang and Naomi Clark, everyone inevitably gets swept up in what A MAZE old-timers affectionately call the “human Katamari”, a reference to a Japanese cult videogame about an alien who rolls around a ball of rubbish that grows so big, it can eventually encompass entire planets.

Caught up in one such Katamari on the closing day of the festival, The Skinny ends up chatting with another South African developer, Richard Baxter, who’s currently based in Berlin. He asks how we’ve enjoyed A MAZE, to which we unsurprisingly reply in the glowing positive. “Your first A MAZE always feel like that,” he responds. “After that it’s different. It feels like coming home.”