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Off the Grid: Crossroads and avant-garde gaming


Every other week Scott Jon Siegel contributes Off the Grid, a column on gaming away from the television screen or monitor.

Though physically separate from the rest of Come Out & Play, area/code's Crossroads most definitely had a presence at the New York City festival, drawing players out to Pier 40 in the West Village for a chance to see GPS technology applied successfully to a fast-paced game of territorial control.

Developed as part of the Van Alen Institute's The Good Life exhibition, Crossroads sets players or teams loose in a 4x6 grid of streets, where they must capture intersections using GPS-enabled phones. Their opponents, meanwhile, are attempting to do the same thing, with the hope of having the most intersections in their control at the end of thirty minutes. With phone in hand, a player can capture an intersection by remaining stationary in it for thirty seconds.

Both teams, however, must keep an eye out for the Baron Samedi, an invisible spirit inspired by voodoo culture who wanders randomly through the game-space, flipping control of any intersections he crosses. The Baron is only visible on the players' phones, which also display a map of the play area and other relevant information.

In an added level of strategy, players can influence the Baron's movement through the grid by placing offerings, which the Baron will then follow and devour. The Baron has no allegiances, however, and will temporarily deactivate your phone and steal your offerings if you cross his path.

I was fortunate enough to have a chance to play Crossroads during my time in New York. The experience was revolutionary, though admittedly not without some technical problems.

At the start of the game, both my opponent and I were given mobile phones with the Crossroads application running on them. Once we had each established a clear GPS connection, the phones synced to a server and the game began immediately. Within seconds we could see ourselves on the map--I was playing as the Moon, my opponent the Sun--and we could also see the Baron Samedi, moving slowly and randomly through the streets. Taking off in opposite directions, my opponent and I set out to capture as many intersections as possible.

Before playing, I had discussed the game's early technical difficulties with Frank Lantz, area/code's creative director and lead designer on Crossroads. Frank contrasted the game greatly with Plundr, a location-based pirating game which he developed for Come Out & Play: "Crossroads is like the rebellious older brother," Frank remarked, "gifted, beautiful, fucked up, self-destructive, breaking his parents' hearts."

Although the core mechanics of Crossroads were solidified early on, the game has always relied heavily on its locative technology. Several means of positioning were considered--including WiFi triangulation and dead reckoning--but the team ultimately decided on GPS, which proved to be the best method of obtaining an accurate location.

It is for this reason that Frank refers to Crossroads as "an avant-garde game, for better or for worse." Although it is the technology which makes the game exciting and innovative, it is that same technology which ultimately causes problems.

There were moments during play when the game wasn't able to keep up with me on the map. Several times, this meant that I was unable to capture a particular intersection. Other times, it meant my opponent's location was inaccurate. And cloudy days can do more than rain on your parade; if the phone can't establish a clear connection to GPS satellites, the game is entirely unplayable.

There were many more moments, however, when everything worked brilliantly, and Crossroads felt "next-gen" in a whole new way. In the first 10 minutes of play, I had the lead over my opponent, 7-3. While keeping on the move, I noticed on my map that she was only one block west of me, so I took a moment to intersect with her and gloat.

This was a poor decision on my part. Using her offerings, she began to lead the Baron around the grid. As she continued to capture intersections on her own, the Baron chased me from the east-end all the way to the south-west corner, the whole time flipping possession of any intersections he crossed, which were regrettably mostly mine.

Ten minutes (and one horrific encounter with the Baron) later, my rival was up 13-1. With ten minutes left in the game, we met on opposite ends of Morton, at the intersection of Greenwich. "There's no way I can win now!" I shouted. "I'm all out of offerings!"

"So am I!" she replied. We paused for a moment, and both immediately sprinted north, I in a vain attempt to regain control of the grid, and she in an effort to retain it.

By the end of the game, the score was 11-7 in my favor (though to be fair, I have long legs, and took full advantage of that during play). My opponent and I were both exhausted, but excited. Despite its technical problems, Crossroads had proven itself to be a thoroughly exhilarating experience, with just the right mixture of strategy and action. It just felt right.

If this is avant-garde gaming, then I'll see you on the bleeding edge.

Those hoping to play Crossroads will have one last weekend to do so. The game will be running this Saturday and Sunday, September 30 and October 1, from 12pm to 6pm. Head to Pier 40 in Manhattan and follow the signs for The Good Life in order to play.

Beyond that, let's hope this isn't the last we hear of the Baron Samedi.

Full Disclosure: I worked as an intern for area/code over the summer of 2006. Although I playtested Crossroads during that time, I have done my best to maintain an impartial and unbiased voice in this piece. I would not be reporting on area/code if I didn't think they were worth reporting.

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