E3 09: Pluff

The general attitude shown by all of the big three companies this year at E3 seems to be a push towards realism by taking the emphasis off of button presses. The Wii MotionPlus, Sony’s motion controls, and especially Microsoft’s Project Natal are hinting towards a desire to someday do away with buttons, knobs, and entire controllers. Surprisingly, one of the entries at this year’s IndieCade booth showed some of the same ambition, albeit going in somewhat a different direction.

The game is called Pluff, and it does not use a normal controller or keyboard and mouse. Instead, a plush version of the titular fuzzy monster, who can also be seen on the screen of the game, is the means to control it. Hit the jump for an in-depth look at one of the most interesting indie games at the show this year.

When Anthony and I walked up to check out this curious looking game, creator Diana Hughes sat next to the display, stroking the plush Pluff “controller”, while the creature on the screen had a very sad expression on its face. Hughes explained to us that if she or her friend left her booth, Pluff will start to miss human interaction and become depressed. As she petted the doll, the monster’s frown started to turn into a smile.

Through the official Pluff site, Hughes explains how the game works a bit better than I could put together in my own words from memory:

Pluff is an experiment in using e‐textile technology to develop tactile interface devices for video games. The prototype consists of a stuffed animal embedded with sensors and wireless communication that functions as a game controller, and a corresponding game that is played in Flash. Pluff seeks to increase the sophistication of e‐textile applications and methods. At the same time, the combination of onscreen content and physical interface create an emotionally engaging experience for the user.

Now, what this means is that the Pluff doll outside of the game is the key to interacting with the Pluff monster inside of the game. The doll can be manipulated to do tricks, but only if it is happy. This is where Pluff gets quite interesting.

The way in which the player interacts with (or ignores) the Pluff doll influences how it feels. For example, if one shakes Pluff violently, the senors detect that specific bad motion, and the monster in the game becomes upset. Gentle touches, such as petting, will make it happy. However, changing its mood is not as simple as a shake or a pat. Pluff keeps track of every single touch that the player gives the doll, storing them as the monster’s “memories”. Because of this, the more the player abuses the Pluff doll, the longer it takes to make it happy again. The motivation to work toward happiness are the tricks that it will do in that specific emotional state. If you request for it to do a trick while it is upset, it will angrily refuse and go right back to sulking, which is much less entertaining than watching it roll around and have fun.

As it stands, Pluff is only a simple prototype, created as Hughes’ MFA thesis project at the University of Southern California. But she expressed to us that she is looking to take the project beyond what it is now, and is excited about what the future could bring for the little fuzzy guy. We wished her the best of luck and exchanged business cards. Hers has a scene of a smiling Pluff printed on velvet stock paper. As I look at it and stroke its fuzziness now, it hit me that it is a tiny, but great summary of what she and her ambitious project are all about; marrying the senses of touch and sight to make both the character in-game and the player outside feel good.

Ashley Davis