A strategy game played on a sewing machine? Check out these bizarre controllers from GDC

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March 23, 2016 by Daniel Starkey

Every year, GDC exhibits games with strange and unusual controllers. Here's this year's best!

If you look back on it, the way we play games hasn't changed all that much since the 80s. We still use keyboards, mice, and controllers that get incremental upgrades every few years, notoriously fickle motion controllers notwithstanding. These devices have kneecapped a chunk of gaming's potential. For decades, developers have designed around what they could expect their audience to have, and that means a lot of great ideas get tossed out.

ALT+CTRL+GDC is an annual exhibit at the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. Here, developers rethink what it means to a play a game, and how we interact with computers and the software they run. The result? Some of the wackiest, saccharine, heartfelt, and inspired games you'll ever play.

Switchboard Nerds

"Hello, Operator" was the first, and most discussed game at the booth. Played on a real switchboard from the 1920s, players use use switches, cables, and lights to connect a caller to the correct recipient. You can't do much else with it yet, but the game's designer, Mike Lazer-Walker of the MIT Media Lab hopes to incorporate some elements of mystery.

"You can listen in on the calls after you connect them," he said. "It's one of the earliest forms of wiretapping. So you can imagine a murder mystery or international espionage style game that uses something like this. It'd be really exciting!"

He lamented, however, that missing vital bits of information would often mean losing, and creating an outcome that makes play satisfying even when you miss out on parts is a real challenge. "I'm not sure how I'm going to tackle that quite yet," he said. "There's a lot of options, but none of them are clear winners just yet."

The grand goal would be to incorporate the game into an interactive museum piece to teach young minds about the technology of yesteryear. But that's still a ways off.

Cuddly Octopi

There a desperate drought of intelligent games for children, or at least that's the premise behind "Octobo," an adorable game to teach young children shapes, colors and patterns. Octobo is the eponymous octopus, and he only likes to eat certain kinds of fish. So kids get a book with Velcro pieces that they tear out and put in front of Octobo. His expressions, determined by RFID chips, an iPad and some technical wizardry, tell whether the child got the answer right. Later, they can swing Octobo's arms around and even hug him good night. It's a wonderful project that wraps valuable lessons in a night-time story book.

"Octobo" is Yuting Su's master's thesis for her Interactive Media and Games MFA at the University of Southern California. She demonstrated her "proof of concept" at GDC's Experimental Gameplay Workshop last year. There, she showed off an educational pop-up book that would narrate itself based on what the player did.

I spoke with some parents that also tried Octobo and they were floored. It introduces its concepts quickly and gets children involved in a way that most modern educational games don't. "iPads are nice," one said, "but being able to physically play with and hug a stuffed animal, and have it react to your input is incredible."

Slap Your Friends… No, Really

From cuddling to punching and smacking, "Slap Friends" is another cute game that asks players to don hats in the shape of unicorns and other cloying characters. Each hat has two attached mittens containing accelerometers. So, naturally, you put your hands in the mittens and get to slapping your opponent. The characters in the game have long floppy arms that follow your real-world movements. It's all cute fun. The mittens help cushion any actual impact, and players are told to keep it to cartoonish slapfights.

The game's makers bill it as a "dispute resolution simulator," and I can actually see it. Pulling from uncontrollable games like QWOP, it throws a peaceful wrench into the entire mechanism of conflict. When your disagreeable debate partner is now wearing a ridiculous robot hat and struggling to figure out the best way to control long wiggly arms, it's easy to lose sight of the original point of contention.

Turn-Based Strategy game Played with A Sewing Machine

Strategy games are my jam. While they tend to come with some colonialist overtones, they're taxing in ways that other games aren't. And that's how I felt before I played one with a sewing machine.

"Threadsteading" is a strategy game where you and another player take turns sending scouts out into the wilderness. Your scouts will each have six movement points, and will go in a straight line until they've run out. Forests are harder to cross than open plains, for example, so they use up more points. Using a hexagonal grid, each map has quite a few options and plenty of room for laying out complex plans.

The game ends when one or both players have crossed over each of the six towns. Then, points are tallied. Each tile type is worth a different amount, and since the game is all about exploration vs. dominance (another welcome change from the strategy game status quo), only the first person to cross the tile gets credit for it.

By the end, a game of "Threadsteading" yields some intricate stitched designs, which tell the story of that match. It's also gratifying to watch patterns sprawl out on fabric as the machine commits your choices permanently to the board.

Asymmetric Play with a Dose of Malice

"Disruption" is a game about messing with your friend. Two players go head to head in two very different games. One, plays a side-scrolling 2D shooter with a standard arcade-style controller, while the other runs closer to a Pacman clone.

Together, each try to disrupt the other's play. The Pacman clone player tries to disable parts of their opponent's controller, while the shooter can dump extra enemies and obstacles onto their foe's screen. This is a true win-lose game where progress in one harms the other. It's a brilliant, albeit somewhat cynical set-up, that has player one switching out different pieces of their actual controller to keep it functional.

This leads to some charged moments and terse exchange, and almost invites trolls to take their shots. It's a game of patience and counter operation unlike any other. Because while it's one thing to find yourself spawn-camped, it's quite another to lose agency while you play and rush to get back in.

Petitwo

Our last game in this round-up is "Petitwo." It uses a zoetrope, one of the first technologies that could show moving pictures of any sort, to animate a flock of migrating birds. Players collaborate by taking turns leading the flock back home. Like, "Hello, Operator," "Petitwo" blends the classic with the modern.

Using an almost ancient piece of technology and an iPad to play a game is strange. It forces its players to reflect on both the distance and the closeness between the two. That, mixed in with the migratory, cyclical patterns of birds had me feeling melancholic and stuck in a "for how much things change, they sure seem to stay the same" sort of mood.

But, that's the point of this game, isn't it? Connecting our digitally-driven selves to our not-quite lost past.