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The Isolation Game Jam finds inspiration in nothingness

Header photo by Horatiu Roman.

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The farm is set into a dead-end valley. It has walls composed of old grey stonework, a single tractor, sometimes there are lambs. There isn’t much else, except the endless grey beard of the sky above, its ubiquity matched only by the hay-swathed terrain below it. Here, in this desolation, close to the highland border of north-west Iceland, the closest town about 30 kilometers away, is where the Isolation Game Jam is held.

there are only mountains, tundras, and glaciers for company 

“The best word to describe the area is bleak, and I do not mean that in a bad way,” says Jóhannes Gunnar Þorsteinsson. He’s the organizer and host of the Isolation Game Jam. He also founded Leikjasamsuðan (The Icelandic Game Assembly) to unite fellow Icelandic videogame creators, and introduce the art to other locals who were oblivious to it.

Þorsteinsson lives on Fosshóll farm in Vesturárdalur, which is right next to Kollafoss, the farm where the Isolation Game Jam took place for the first time on April 25th 2014. He didn’t believe that seven people from as far as Romania, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Canada would travel specifically to his remote realm of the world, and only to make videogames and “interactive experiences” for a few days. It sunk in once they dropped their bags on the doorstep.

(Photo taken by Horatiu Roman)

This was the result of a joke he had made some months earlier at the Exile Game Jam 2013 in Denmark. The idea of that jam is to be a cosier experience than the much larger Nordic Game Jam in Copenhagen. It’s hosted far away from the ruckus of the capital city, “in a small town with asphalt roads, and with a grocery store a 20 minute walk from the venue,” as Þorsteinsson remembers it. As he turned up, he boasted that if detachment was the aim then he could do much better—there was civilization there, where he lived there are only mountains, tundras, and glaciers for company.

There is only capacity for eight to ten people to participate in the Isolation Game Jam. They each pay 5500 Icelandic kronur (about $40) to stay at the farmhouse for the jam’s duration (bed linen, towels, and such are all included). Shopping for food is done only once, in bulk, right at the start of the jam as the nearest grocery store is 30 km away, and there’s no public transportation.

(“Abstract Forest” by Minnamari Helmisaari and Karl Bergendahl)

Unlike other game jams, at the heart of the Isolation Game Jam is absorbing the stretches of land beginning at your feet and spreading across the volcanic rocks, up to the highlands, and sinking into the cold coast. It’s from this barren topography that you draw your inspiration—Minnamari Helmisaari and Karl Bergendahl’s entry to the 2014 jam, “Abstract Forest,” captures the magnitude of the landscape in an abstract 3D rendition. “[T]he silence and emptiness was what affected last year’s guests the most,” says Þorsteinsson.

“sitting outside enjoying the nothingness” 

To experience the hulking terrain, each morning after breakfast, the group that formed last year’s participants ventured outdoors, climbing balky ancient rocks, seeing newborn lambs, and feeling the fresh chill against their cheeks. One day they took a trip up to a nearby volcanic lava tap in the district. After returning to lunch, they would begin work for the day, pushing out everything they had felt in the morning through their creative glands. If anyone needed a break or a refresher, they could go for a short walk, “simply sitting outside enjoying the nothingness,” says Þorsteinsson. 

Work would typically cease at about 6pm, at which point they all stopped to prepare a hearty feast—one day having a traditional Icelandic meat soup so as to be further absorbed in the local culture. Work may have continued after this, or it may have spiralled into chats, drinks, and piercing each other with arrows in TowerFall.

(Photo taken by Jóhannes Gunnar Þorsteinsson)

After the success of the first Isolation Game Jam, Þorsteinsson has decided to hold another one this year, at the same location. The date has been moved back to May 28th this time, lasting until June 1st. He has also prepared a full schedule for everyone as a guideline (it’s still very much free-form), to make it more of a rounded experience for anyone who wants that, rather than a spur of the moment get-together. Meals have been given a time for every day, there’s a secret trip, and space is allocated to “enjoy the silence and near complete lack of human civilization.”

“As an extra bonus, this year’s Isolation Game Jam will be hosted in the latter end of the lambing season, which means people will be able to pet and hug lambs,” Þorsteinsson says. Do you really need to know anything more than that? It’s a rare opportunity to be among gorgeous empty vistas barely touched by our far-reaching cultures. If you’re quick, you could go there to have everything north-west Iceland has to offer flow through your system, all in order to output it as a succinct interactive experience. 

Find out more about the Isolation Game Jam on its website.