Let’s play with matches
Last week, I went to the PLAY creative gaming festival, which takes place every year in Hamburg, Germany. PLAY17 was both entertaining and educational, with something for people of all ages, including workshops, talks and even a game-themed poetry slam. The highlight of the long weekend, though, was the exhibition spaces, which were filled to the brim with prototypes and new/recent releases by indie developers and students from all over Europe. I had the opportunity to play most of them, and none of them were disappointing. (Except Snake Pass. Hated the controls.)
I’m not really sure what sort of games I expected beforehand, but I vaguely imagined developers playing around with stories, engines and art styles. I don’t think it had popped into my head even once that devs might design their own controllers: as a person coming to games from a consumer perspective, the concept of a game as an exhibition piece, rather than as something in the home or on the go, was completely new to me. So of course, I will now gush about all the shiny new specimens I found at PLAY17 that have their own very special controllers.
This piece involves fire, air and…er…dots.
BloodBank had the distinction of being the only stand in the entire exhibition hall with a bucket of water at the ready. And, despite its name, you were more at risk of burning yourself than losing bodily fluids when trying out this perilous game (hey, you in the comments, stop sniggering).
The content of the game is fairly standard: man wakes up in dark spooky hall; man must try to escape dark spooky hall with nothing but a candle and a snotty handkerchief on his person. And the candle can go out…if the player’s “controller” goes out. Yes, when you step up to the booth to try out BloodBank, the demo assistant hands you a lit safety match, which you hold up to the screen to guide your character in the right direction.
Needless to say, really, I loved BloodBank, because just as the character on-screen is all alone aside from his candle, you are all alone aside from your match. You have no other way to issue prompts to the character, and as your ember fades, you even lose the ability to see your surroundings. There was an added element of danger for me, because I get very nervous around fire, so I was being extra-cautious with my match. The time taken to play the game was obviously very short because a lot of people’s matches extinguished very quickly, but I suppose you could hog the booth and go through several, or cheat with a candle lighter.
This is a game I could see myself playing on an Autumn evening, with a big bag of mini-Milky Ways left over from Halloween and some red wine, were it not for the technical limitations of releasing this on Steam. I discussed with a fellow festival-goer how this would work, and we guessed that it made use of the computer’s webcam. We were told later that experiments in getting this to work with a webcam were unsuccessful due to too much background interference; instead, infra-red detectors from a Wiimote were used to pick up the flame. Still, I’m going to keep my eye out for this game at other indie festivals in the future, because I definitely want to try again. And again. And again.
2. Close the Leaks (Henning Steinbock, Samuel Chapman)
I’ll admit, I walked past Close the Leaks a few times, because I am painfully shy and this game requires four players. I was eventually persuaded to try it out a couple of days into the festival, and while in many ways it is an introvert’s worst nightmare (you need to communicate with your teammates or you will absolutely muck it all up), it’s one of the most inventive and fun games I demoed during the festival.
The core game reminded me very much of Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime – use thrusters placed at 90-degree angles around a spaceship to guide yourself to certain targets, avoiding enemies and fixing your battered ship. But the game does so much more on top of this.
The thrusters work by blowing oxygen out of the ship – lose too much oxygen and everyone in the ship pops their clogs; conserve all your oxygen and you won’t progress to your goal. Each of the thrusters is controlled by a piece of tubing protruding from the display case, and you have to cover the hole with your hand (or some other body part, I suppose…?) to keep the air in, and release it in controlled spurts. You have to make quick decisions with your teammates as to who should release air and when.
Once again, my presumptions about how this game worked on a hardware level were all wrong. I had gone into it thinking that the sounds of air rushing “out of” the tubes were produced in-game, to create an illusion, and the tubing ends had sensors on them that could tell when your hand was covering them. But when I tried it out, I realised actual air was blowing through the pipes. BloodBank and Close the Leaks are both games that allow you to suspend your disbelief very easily, because they incorporate elements of the game so well into the real world – but the finishing touch to Close the Leaks‘s controller put a great big silly smile on my face.
3. RotoRing (Gregory Kogos)
RotoRing goes even further than BloodBank and Close the Leaks. The developer, Gregory Kogos, designed the hardware for the entire game – it was displayed at PLAY17 in its “vanilla form” (see the video above), an adorably quaint wooden box that could almost act as a travel version of the game. A dial and a push button are all that you have to control RotoRing, but it works beautifully.
RotoRing is a very stripped-down game, but that’s precisely what you need sometimes when you are at an event full of games plucked from the weirdest corners of people’s imaginations. The display features two rings made up of LED lights. A single light is brighter than the others; that is your “dot.” The button allows you to move your dot between the rings, while the dial allows you to rotate your dot around the ring you’re currently on. You have to get your dot into the empty spot, all while avoiding the red dots of death. As you progress through the levels, the game starts to demand punishing accuracy (e.g. where it seems like every other dot is red) and impeccable timing (e.g. in levels where the red dots spin around both rings at different speeds, in an almost hypnotic fashion).
It’s a really simple but compelling game, and one that you’ll wish you could own. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until it comes to a festival near you.
What the exhibits at PLAY17 taught me, above all else, is that being creative is a holistic process. It’s a process that involves venturing beyond what you already think a game looks like, even if this means going completely back to the drawing board instead of working with established hardware. Even if it means creating something that is meant for the exhibition hall, and not so much for your living room at home.
Have you seen any weird and wonderful controllers at festivals or game jams? Have you made any funky controllers yourself? What do you think of the games I’ve featured in my article? Let me know in the comments down below!