Even at a progressive game conference such as South by Southwest, there’s a lot of death.
“Everything is killing, dismemberment and sniping and blowing things up,” said Kate Thomas of Portland’s Beardo Games. It was a bit of an exaggeration, as at SXSW there were also games about avoiding zombies, but it’s no secret the game industry loves to digitize disaster.
Beardo, however, has a game about making out.
It was easy to spot “Smooth Operator” on the show floor, as brightly animated tongues twisted and turned and slid around the screen like reptiles protruding from human mouths. It’s a slightly silly, somewhat tricky game of hand-eye coordination, but don’t worry if things go bad. There’s no messy saliva to stress over.
The game, in development for about a year, is pegged for a spring release on iOS and Android. It boasts 20 characters of varying age, race and sex, and it makes no judgment regarding same-sex hookups. Kiss whomever you want, free of scorn, and do it in a laundromat, or in front of a satanic shrine, or a pizza parlor.
Consider the game an ice breaker of sorts, especially if it’s being played on an iPhone. Currently, players will follow on-screen prompts to press the screen in a certain spot, but the game is being reworked so participants’ hands will chase streaks of light across the device.
“We think if you’re chasing lighted paths across the screen in different ways you’ll be mirroring with hand the motion of the tongue,” said Thomas. “That integrates the experience. You’ll also have more interaction with the second player because your hands will bump into one another. You have to get out of each other’s way. There may be sequences that require both of you doing something at the same time.”
Though its simple in conceit, where “Smooth Operator” shines is in its character portraits. There are hippy-looking men, green-haired women, tattooed tough girls and bearded old men. It’s a range of diversity rarely found in far more complex games.
So yes, “Smooth Operator” is important.
“With an intention of inclusiveness, you’re naturally doing something bigger than helping middle schoolers laugh about tongues,” Thomas said. “I don’t want to overplay our hand. This is a juvenile goofy game, but at the same time we’re from Portland, Oregon, so we naturally try to do things a little mindfully, if you will.”
It’s also the rare game to deal with love, but not the only one at SXSW that tackled affection. Taking a more romantic and musical route is Super Chop’s “Ephemerid,” in which two mayflies are constantly finding and losing one another. The game is available now for Apple devices and more recently came to PCs via Steam.
Designer Brent Calhoun said love was definitely on his mind while working on the game.
“There’s sort of this idea of them coming together briefly, and then maybe being separated,” Calhoun said. “Our game is really about a series of tensions, and the main tension is about loving something and being separated from it and then coming back together and what that means. It’s a story of loss and discovery and rediscovery.”
Calhoun said the theme was arrived at by following the game’s musical score. Thomas, however, said “Smooth Operator” was born out of a baseball metaphor from a game jam, in which developers gather and try to create a short game in limited time.
“We really like the idea of a kissing game on mobile devices, especially on phones,” she said. “Some people see the tongues and run and hate the game. If you’re making something that’s trying to make everyone happy then you’re not pushing very hard.”
But really, who’s going to be offended by the idea of kissing someone else?
“Boys are more comfortable cutting off someone’s head than tongue-ing,” she said.
We’re at South by Southwest until Sunday. Join us at latimes.com/sxsw for ongoing coverage of the festival.
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