Train Jam, to put it mildly, is a beast. Now in its fifth consecutive year, the event has only grown with each passing GDC, with over 400 participants in 2019, culminating in a whopping 109 entries on the desktops gracing the expo floor. That’s a lot of games, each representing the blood, sweat and tears of a full 72 hours on the road in their own unique way.
I’ve visited Train Jam the past few years but, with so many games crammed on to a single desktop, I always felt too overwhelmed to try and get to them all. But this time around I got to thinking it seems like such a shame to only play a few of them in light of what people go through to get their games submitted. Over the course of GDC, probably most if not all of them get played at least once, but I’ve been curious to know what it was like to see the full scope of the creations and know I didn’t miss a thing.
So play them all I did, minus one unsubmitted entry and a handful of VR titles. Over Thursday to Friday of last week, I stationed up at one of the four PCs at the Train Jam booth on the GDC Expo floor, settled in with a few Red Bulls, and seriously overstayed my welcome. And what did I learn from the experience?
Well, first, that many of the games provide a lovely inside look into what it’s actually like to be on the train and make a game, from the scenery itself, as seen in 72 Hours, a GIF of the window view over the course of three days of the journey (set to “Waltz of the Flowers” by Tchaikovsky), to the actual creative process, as with the hilarious Jamming, a tongue in cheek reflection on procrastination. There were wholesome ruminations on the trip in A Circuitous Journey, a more comedic take in Adam Saltsman’s Chapter 1 (through 4), and also a game about feeding your friends from the snack table before the official start of Train Jam called Overbooked. It’s remarkable what parts of the experience stood out the most to different developers and how they chose to represent the moments that were most significant to them.
Second, many of the games sadly lack some necessary basic features for demoing on a showfloor, like an exit button to end the game, or had additional needs not met by the conditions of the demo floor (for example, multiplayer or controller based titles) which makes it a little harder to enjoy all of them during GDC (though thankfully, not from their Itch.io pages after the show). Hopefully that’s something the floor crew takes into consideration for setup in the future. CTRL+ALT+DEL was my best friend.
Third, it is truly amazing how creative and complete some of these games can be despite the severe time constraints. Sure, many of the games probably didn’t achieve their final design goals or even incorporate the main objective, but even that has value as a testament to the challenges and limitations within timed game design and the lessons learned in the process. I’m in awe of any level of completion, because if there’s anything I’m sensing from many of these games, it’s that there are constant distractions during Train Jam and plenty of opportunities to not get work done, despite (or perhaps even because of) the social environment. This year’s theme was the word “circuitous”, and even seeing the different takes between games on that alone was fascinating. The deep contrast in interpretations made it worth the time investment of playing all the games alone, whether it was the crude and challenging Basket Crows; the pleasant little story of taking the long way home in Kiki Goes Home; Observations Oblique, a stunningly accurate (and stylishly delivered) metaphor for social anxiety and the difficulty of maintaining eye contact; a geometric pattern puzzle panel game called Circuitous Circuits; or Circuitous Power Run, the “hey this would be great as a full game” game where the longest maze route wins. The sheer scope and variety of formats and premises also served as a reminder of how differently each designer thinks in terms of how to best mechanically represent their perspective.
Ultimately, I expected to see at least a few games that would do well as a fully conceptualized release, and this year did not disappoint. There were some truly great standouts like Evenings In The Forest, a spooky puzzle forest game (which I completely suck at); the oddly satisfying physics game We Have A Frog Problem; the brief but haunting At The Shore: A Fairy Tale; bark bark bark, a touching tearjerker about an aging pet; and the adorable and impressively complete mystery game That’s My Jam.
But completed or no, I can also say that playing them all was completely worth it, no matter how long or how little each game could actually be played. To take a look at what the participants in Train Jam 2019 accomplished this year, head over to Itch.io, browse the list of entries, and click on a few thumbnails. Then settle in for an intimate and imperfectly perfect look at one of the industry’s most unconventional events.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.