This year's Alt.Ctrl.GDC included a carpet-treadmill zombie crawling game, a 'Fear Sphere,' and more
When you think about it, it’s quite odd that videogame controllers exist at all. At first there were just a bunch of chemicals, right? Then, in the infernal heat and pressure of prehistory some of them assembled themselves into the threads of life. They wove themselves into cells, fibres, tissues, muscles, lungs, brains, hands, opposable thumbs. The chemical collections learned how to make things out of other chemicals which spoke to them in their own language. Liquid crystals were trapped behind glass; long-dead plankton became joypads. And somehow the lungs and the brains used energy from food to operate and enjoy these devices.
But they can be stranger. You can control a videogame with wobbly springs, with your partner’s butt, or even with custard. I like games with strange controllers not only because they’re interesting and innovative in their own right but because they expose how weird our existing control methods already are. When I play a game which uses my legs or my face as a control surface I realise how engaged my body already is even when I’m playing Uncharted from a couch. Like fish playing Pokemon, these games de-naturalise existing controls, exposing the very wide range of things you can map to game inputs.
Every year the Game Developers Conference hosts a collection of games with seriously strange controllers called Alt.Ctrl.GDC. Previous years have included games played with vacuum cleaners, a 1951 television, and a custom snail controller which mapped the curl of your fingers to the movement of a gastropod. It is a nice opportunity to manipulate something other than a gamepad, keyboard, or burrito. And bizarre as its contraptions may seem, its ideas sometimes find their way into the mainstream – as with Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, a VR bomb defusal game which debuted here in 2015.
First there was VinylOS, a games console made out of a turntable which is controlled by spinning and scratching a record. Designed by Joseph Who? and Jonas Bo! Of Vienna, it projects the game screen down onto a white vinyl disc, and by manipulating that disc you can play a simple shooter (in which your ship rotates around the disc’s outer edge) or a physics puzzler (in which your orbiting avatar drags a kind of wreckling ball around behind it). It’s cute, but what’s really interesting to me is how the computer knows what you’re doing: VinylOS uses “timecode” vinyl, which some DJs use to control digital music using analogue turntables. The disc emits a special tone which is picked up and interpreted by a listening unit. The computer can tell how far the disc has moved in each direction and can update the player’s position accordingly. So it’s not just that you’re using a turntable as a controller; it’s that all your actions are being distilled into a wavering little tone, and that sound isyour input. The ‘console’ is best when you actually switch the turntable on, get the disc spinning, and try to play along with or modulate its course.
Another experiment in machine senses was Emotional Fugitive Detector by Alexander King, Samuel Von Ehren, and Noca Wu. It’s a dystopian game in which “the robots have won” and made human emotion illegal. One player sits inside an austere metal booth designed to check for feelings and eliminate any which are found; the other sits outside, looking at them through a metal grille, trying to sabotage the machine. The first player has to signal to the second which emotion the booth is looking for before the booth itself picks it up – hence fluttering half-smiles, quick raised eyebrows, and briefly furrowed brows. Sitting inside, knowing your muscles are under close scrutiny, is a sobering experience. And the sight of the other player through the metal grille– glimpsing another human being through the guts of a machine, cut off from them, trying to exchange quick indications of solidarity without being able to break your façade – is surprisingly affecting.
Many of the games at Alt.Ctrl.GDC took this asymmetric form, with one player immersed in an experience and the other sitting “outside” trying to guide them through. I love this kind of gameplay because it forces communication between players, and indeed many were inspired by Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, in which the person in the headset can see a bomb which only the person without it knows how to defuse. The Heist by Setapp similarly consisted of a switchbox and a Samsung Gear headset. Onlookers laughed as my partner and I tried to establish a common vision of the game world. “Okay, the cubes have rotated into the right position but there must be some way to activate them,” he said. I looked at the gigantic red button on my switchboard and told him: “I believe I have the solution.”
Another in this genre was Fear Sphere, possibly more horrifying from the outside than from within. Spectators watched its players crawl inside a giant inflatable black enclosure – big enough to stand up inside – and then be killed (in the game) by some mysterious force. The controller in this case was actually a flashlight with a projector in it, which threw a painfully narrow circle of 3D graphics onto the inside of the enclosure. Outside a navigator had to direct me around a basement using a series of maps, asking me what I could see in order to fix my position. It was all going so well until the monster arrived.
Victor The Loser is an intelligence testing machine which throws a tantrum and sabotages your progress if you do too well (a little robot finger pops out of the console to press the wrong button while you’re still thinking). Orpheus Quest is Guitar Hero with a lyre, the strings being represented by green lasers you block with your fingers. Cryptogram is a puzzle horror game controlled using a bookcase: players pick volumes off the shelf, leaf through them for clues, and then find the trick book which is actually a lever unlocking the next door. RotoRing is a platformer played on two concentric rings of glowing lights. And Sand Garden is a god game which confirms what we all suspected about the gods: that they’re basically children. The players shape a bucolic landscape by heaping up piles of sand, whose height the game can sense; the sandpit you play in directly corresponds to the state of the game world. It’s not quite normal sand but “kinetic sand”, laced with silicone oil, sticky and strange. It may be the physically ickiest videogame I’ve ever played.
For me the highlight was Zombie Crawler, created by students from Upsalla University in Sweden. It’s relatively simple: the player is a zombie who crawls along a corridor towards a human who is trying to shoot them. It’s controlled using a kind of treadmill with handholds on it; moving forward requires literally clawing at its surface. Through some act of neuro-physical alchemy it made me genuinely want to eat the human I was crawling toward, who was forcing me to undergo such strenuous activity. Without really meaning to I began snarling and groaning; victory, when it came, was sweet.
Most of these games are impossible to play outside festivals and conferences. But at least one is actually being released on PC some time this year and will be playable with a mouse and keyboard. Objects In Space, a “modempunk” space trading game controlled via a series of absurdly primitive CRT monitors and clicky buttons. Every system in your ship is activated, and can be independently switched off, by 1980s technology; it’s the kind of game where if you don’t remember to request permission from the space station to undock you will be stuck where you are, unable to legally fire up your reactor. There were six or eight types of sensor which I didn’t understand at all, and the developers describe it as resembling submarine warfare in its emphasis on navigation and stealth. You never see enemies directly, but must detect them by the engine signatures or their FOF beacons.
At Alt.Ctrl.GDC all this was done through an elaborate mocked-up space dashboard with on/off switches for each system. Firing torpedoes required me to flip up a red safety cover and flip the switch underneath. Checking my space emails literally meant typing “MAIL” into a command line interface. When I turned the reactor off, a little fan on the console stopped running. The schematics are online to build such a thing for yourself, but I imagine most of its players will use their mouse to click around the virtual cockpit. Still, it’s great example of how sometimes the philosophy of weird controllers – in this case, of exuberant tactility and complexity for its own sake, existing for the pleasure of interaction as much as for some streamlined instrumental purpose – can carry over to games which require nothing weirder than the routine formations of hydrocarbons with which four billion years of evolution and fifty years of "videogames" have equipped us.