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Behold Lyst: The Nordic game jam on romance, love and sex


Sex, love and romance are a huge part of being alive. But when it comes to video games it’s largely unexplored beyond the surface level appeal of conventionally attractive bodies baring lots of flesh. Occasionally these themes are explored a little deeper in titles like Gone Home, Dys4ia, and Cibele, but rarely do they crop up in mainstream titles beyond as a mere window dressing for why our virtual heroes are slaughtering minions (be it for Link to rescue his beloved, Mario searching for his princess, Wander trying to resurrect his lover, or Travis Touchdown trying to get his end away). Lots of video games pay lip service to our more earthly urges, but few actually explore these in any meaningful way.

Enter Patrick Jarnfelt and Andrea Hasselager of the Copenhagen Game Collective, who’ve launched the government-funded annual game jam Lyst, an exploration of video games about romance, love and sex.

The state-funded Lyst network now consists of multiple Scandinavian countries banding together to promote gaming based around these topics. The Lyst Summit is a four-year venture into this fluttery realm with its inaugural conference having launched in Copenhagen in 2014, followed by a Helsinki, Finland summit earlier this year. A Norway event is planned for June 2016, and an epic finale will transpire in Sweden the following year.

“Such a big part of games out there are very one-sided and don’t deal with topics like human emotions in a nuanced way,” Hasselager tells me over Skype.

“It’s all about seeing the status quo and then questioning the status quo and we have a discussion about it,” Jarnfelt adds. “But discussions are not enough in our mind. We’re an artist collective that’s also a bit activist in the sense that we want to do stuff. So we felt it was important to do a game jam to show the world that it’s possible to tackle these subjects in a constructive way.”

This wasn’t without its challenges. For the 40 odd years video games have been around developers have struggled with how to apply them to our lives in ways more illuminating than mere entertainment. Surely the medium has become an increasingly relevant touchstone in our culture, often containing political statements, personal dramas, and presenting us with challenging moral and ethical dilemmas. But when it comes to matters of the heart – or the loins for that matter – games are still very much in their infancy.

“When we started a lot of developers were like ‘but I wouldn’t know what to make,'” Hasselager tells me. “It’s funny that some of the most natural human emotions are so complicated to imagine getting into a game.”

“A lot of people are like ‘you can’t do that. You can’t make Lyst because what if it’s like a bunch of dudes getting together doing a rape game? It will ruin your career,'” she adds. “We were quite nervous.”

Hasselager and Jarnfelt went to great lengths to prevent this sort of sleaze. Participants had to apply to partake in Lyst by writing an essay about what they hoped to achieve through the summit, and the participant count was intentionally kept slim at around 40 developers. This was to provide a more intimate atmosphere as the participants wrack their brains to come up with something bold, experimental and daring.

The setting for this creative incubator is important, and to that end Hasselager and Jarnfelt went all out on what their admittedly somewhat meagre budget could afford. The first Lyst was set on what Hasselager called “an old retired ferry” tethered to a Copenhagen dock for three days. The following Lyst was held on an remote island. One time the organisers even hired a masseuse to offer massages for the participants. “It was very important that we spend that public funding on massages,” Jarnfelt jokes.

The games that emerge from Lyst are as varied and strange as they comes. Some are funny, others are serious; some are physical, others are digital; some are naughty, others are nice.

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‘Just having that physical aspect is so brilliant,’ Jarnfelt says of Custody. ‘Having it in your hand just changes the whole thing.’

The winner of 2014’s Lyst Summit was a game called Custody about two divorced parents trying to raise a child together. Played by two players across three devices, here’s how it works: Each player takes the role of a parent playing a Bejeweled-like puzzle game on a computer. This is how you earn money – or, in other words, it’s your job. The players’ child is a tamagotchi-like character on a mobile device and the two players need to physically pass the child back and forth physically when prompted.

If you’re not good at the Bejeweled-like game, then you’ll be low on funds and unable to buy your child things like teddy bears and ice cream. And if you’re really bad, you’ll fail to cover your alimony payments and lose custody of your child altogether.

Focus too much on the puzzle game, however, and your child will feel neglected and prefer the other parent. Sometimes you’ll find momentum in your work and attaining your offspring becomes a burden, at least momentarily. It’s a catch-22 based on a very real scenario (one of the developers behind it was in the midst of a custody battle). Cruelly, when the game is over after a handful of rounds, the child’s heart gets divided based on which parent it prefers. Sometimes it’s very close, but there’s always a victor.

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Fever.

That year the runner-up (by only one vote) was a pattern-matching game called Fever. Here, two people use one Xbox Gamepad to match shapes. Each button does something different and you need to simultaneously twist, rotate, move and match these shapes in a process so complicated that both players have to use both hands to correctly manipulate the controller. They’ll also need to verbally communicate as they coordinate their efforts across the controller’s various inputs.

“It’s supposed to be like the first time you’re having sex with somebody and you’re trying to figure out ways to do it and not do it, and there’s this communication that gets awkward as it goes on,” Hasselager explains. “That’s actually the conversation you’d have.”

“It’s a perfect digital game representation of how first time sex is,” Jarnfelt adds. “Even the way you communicate sounds like it.”

Sushi Hands is a likewise light-hearted affair for four to 16 players. It’s a bit like musical chairs, only with hands, wherein players need to grab each other’s paws to make abstract sushi formations on a timer. Each piece of sushi requires two or three hands to make and the same person can’t use both hands in the same piece. You can find the exact rules and print out the instructions here.

“It’s a very innocent game. You’re just making sushi,” Jarnfelt says. “So if you present it like that to people they’re like ‘okay, cool.’ Then they start touching each other’s hands and are like ‘okay, this is actually kind of intimate.’ On top of that, there are some pretty suggestive ones as well.” Chopsticks, for example, has people scissoring each other’s hands with fingers while Temaki merges penetration and spooning. “It’s too much for most people,” Jarnfelt laughs.