Patchwork is not your average game jam game, if such a thing exists.
It's partially a physical game, with wooden blocks that resemble colorful tetrominos, and partially a video game, with a word search-oriented Twine game running concurrently. Made for GxDev — a queer game jam run by the same folks who put on GaymerX and GX2 — by designer Jodediah Holems, it's a fascinating examination of the digital-virtual divide.
"Patchwork is a bit of a game soup," Holems told Polygon. "The official genre is 'Tetris-Jenga-word-search-diary-entry-collect-a-thon', and it is played with two people, two devices that can run an html file, and ten painted pieces," he said.
"One player builds a balancing building, searches for words, and enters found words into their device to read a selection of secret stories. The other player is in control of certain parts of the process, answering questions and assisting the player in such a way as to bend the outcome of the game to their will. Nobody knows how many secret stories there actually are, but it doesn't matter. Some people choose to stop playing after the stories make them cry or laugh or feel."
Holems got the idea for the game after scoring the tetromino-shaped blocks of wood from a local art gallery. "These pieces whispered 'Hey, I really want to be in a game,'" he said. "So, I planned to fulfill their dreams. This merged with a couple of other ideas I had, those being: One, I really want to make a game that is played a little bit in a gamemaker file, a little bit in a Twine file, a little bit in physical space, and maybe also over email or something."
"Two," he continued, "Oh yeah, this is a queer game jam! I should write the letters S, E, I, A, L, B, and N all over the backs of the Tetris tiles. Someone may unwittingly spell LESBIANS. That would be humor."
Bridging the digital and physical
Holems was thinking specifically about the piecemeal nature of our digital and physical reality when making Patchwork. "All digital games have physical elements," he said. "Your hands are always going to be interacting with a mouse, keyboard, controller, or other contraption. A really easy way to make a game that genuinely surprises people is to have that in mind, intentionally forming a physical something that isn't a mouse, keyboard, or typical controller. It's so easy to make something unlike anything your audience has ever seen, and that's incredibly powerful."
I asked Holems if he thinks our lives are stacked too far on either side of the virtual/physical divide. He answered thoughtfully. "I immediately connect physical to body and virtual to mind."
"The Internet, as it exists on phones and computers and wires in our homes, very much fuels the idea of bodies as inconveniences. Chairs, mice, keyboards, controllers, and screens don't respect our bodies," he said. "What is the point of the rest of me when I can lead a happy connected existence as a brain, a couple of fingers, and a pair of eyes?
"That's why I think games with designed physical components are so powerful. Even if they still only require your brain, fingers, and eyes, doing it in a way that is new and interesting lets you know that someone out there respects your fingers. Someone out there understands the terrible sameness your fingers have to deal with every day. Someone out there wants you to experience your body in a world designed for your mind."
Disclosure notice: GXDev was run by personal acquaintances, and I spoke briefly at the event.