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Now Play This hosted virtual field trips inside video games for those stuck at home

The annual festival of experimental game design, Now Play This was scheduled to take place over the past weekend. Like many other events that were canceled or postponed because of social-distancing recommendations, the “IRL” gathering could not take place in real life.
Instead, the festival changed its name to “Now Play This at Home” and hosted livestreams of planned exhibitions via Twitch. A couple of them were not limited to just watching someone give a presentation. Two of the events included guided virtual tours through Half-Life and No Man’s Sky, with live participants joining the field trips.

First up was a virtual tour through the Black Mesa Research Facility on Saturday. The trip was hosted and led by artist and indie video game developer Robert Yang. Yang led a group through Black Mesa, pointing out Easter eggs, commentating on the facility’s function and history, and answering attendees’ questions, just like a real tour guide.Yang also provided some interesting insights into the game’s design that may have flown under some players’ radars.

For example, he explained that if you stop and listen to background conversations, they often don’t make sense. This is because the chats are randomly selected rather than being scripted. The thought was to create an ambient idle background chatter that didn’t really require the player’s attention. However, the NPCs often talk rather loudly, so it’s somewhat hard to ignore.

On Sunday, Gareth Damian Martin, designer of In Other Waters, took a group on a photography tour in No Man’s Sky. His choice of game to use for a photography tour was not surprising considering the sci-fi aesthetic and feel that his game shares with NMS. However, Martin also said that the procedurally generated landscapes in No Man’s Sky provide exciting and unique photo opportunities.

Environments in the game feel more organic since they are created at runtime rather than being designed and sculpted in by artists — in other words, more like architecture than landscape. Just as in the real world, NMS creates order out of chaos rather than the other way around.

Both of the presentations were clever ways to involve the audience rather than the usual non-interactive keynote we’ve become accustomed to. While the festival is over, you can still check out both tours and all the other events at the Now Play This webpage or on its Twitch channel.