Alt.Ctrl.GDC: a joyful celebration of brilliant controllers
It's all under control
One of the best, most joyful parts of GDC is Alt.Ctrl.GDC – the section of the show floor dedicated to alternative control methods for games. This year was no exception and I played games using a laser lyre, a box of sand and a bookshelf to name but a few. I think my personal favourite might have been the Calvin and Hobbes-inspired Spacebox [official site] where the player clambers into a massive cardboard box and treats it like a spaceship, leaning to and fro, hitting a tinfoil button to fire and wearing a metal colander with pipe cleaners on it as a space helmet in order to enjoy the human PEWPEW noises coming from the headphones hidden inside.
I feel like that one was my favourite because it did an absolutely amazing job of yanking childish glee out of all the players I saw using it as well as the people watching. I would happily have spent the whole morning in that box and was not-very-secretly disappointed when my time was up. If I hadn't had an appointment to get to I would probably have asked whether I could do some helpful colouring in on the sides of the box or help make backup spaceships from their stash of emergency replacement boxes and duct tape.
TL;DR? Graham, this is my resignation – I'm going to go and become a cardboard spaceship captain forever now.
Here are a handful of the exhibits:
BUT! There was so much else!
There was Doggy Tug-Of-War [official site]; a game where a printer motor hidden inside a box would act like a dog playing tug of war with you!
There was Close the Leaks (To Prevent Imminent Death) [official site], the 4-player leaking spaceship game where you had to stop air leaks in the game by putting your hands over the end of tubes blowing air in real life. Strategically uncovering some of the tubes meant the escaping air would propel the in-game ship across levels in different directions and (hopefully) to a repair station. The trick was to get to your destination by communicating and co-ordinating the puffs of air otherwise your little ship would run out of air and the crew would die.
There was Cryptogram [official site]; a bookcase game where you pulled on books in the same way that you might pull on them to activate a secret entrance in a movie. If you pulled on the right books you'd open up doors in the game on the screen. The really cool part was the interaction loop, so you would get given a slim volume to hold which contained an index and a bunch of riddles. You found the right index option by checking the game screen for clues, then went to the riddle page for that item where it hinted at a particular book title. By pulling on the correct book you'd progress to the next room and the next set of clues!
I really loved the playful angry tech options as well. One was Victor the Loser [official site]. This was more of a humour project and part of the humour was in the surprise factor. I'll spoil it here because the thing about controller oddities or experiments is that you're less likely to be able to try them yourself. What Victor does is it asks you questions and you select answers using a set of buttons. Victor starts taunting you from the outset but then gets more cranky as you do well. At some point, as you're sitting there pondering your options, a little plasticky digit emerges from the controller and jabs one of the wrong answers then Victor mocks you. It's just such a lovely comedic moment – this little machine behaving like a bratty sibling!
The other option for unfriendly tech was the facial recognition game, Emotional Fugitive Detector [official site]. The idea was to express an emotion to a fellow player using your face but without the machine being able to pick up on that emotion. The software seemed really good at picking up anger and (rather positively, although not for when I was playing the game) it read my neutral expression as happy so I failed on that one too. Surprise and sadness were harder for it to pick up (or I was better at being subtle with those).
The controller here was cool because if you were doing the emoting you'd go into a booth and look down at an ipad that would tell you onscreen what the game was scanning for and thus what you needed to try to convey without being caught. The other player looked through a grille to see your face but couldn't see the ipad. They would press buttons corresponding to the emotions and if you could get through the game without losing your three lives you would win.
What else? Sand Garden [official site] got you to pile sand up in a box in order to affect the height of terrain in a game map, thus attempting to please the inhabitants who would want to live at particular altitudes. There was the laser lyre of Orpheus Quest [official site] which was basically a Guitar Hero-style music game and you'd "play" the notes on screen by passing your fingers through the corresponding green laser "string" on the instrument. The lack of haptic feedback made this incredibly difficult so I ended up patting my fingers on the emitters rather than making a plucking motion when I played.
vinylOS [official site] challenged you to scratch a record in order to play a simple shooter. Well, simple to understand and blooming difficult to excel at! There was also a second game mode where you used the circular motion of the turntable to swing a little circle on a stick around in the hopes of batting foes away from the centre of the record. Again, it sounded so simple, AND YET.
There was a space trading game called Objects In Space [official site] which had this brilliant console rigged up so that you could control your ship by flicking REALLY pleasing switches and activating torpedos and engaging thrusters and all manner of other delicious things. You started the thing up by putting a key in the ignition and turning it a quarter then pressing a button, for goodness sake. The instructions are available online so you can build one yourself. I'm not sure about the game buried underneath but the version at GDC had such pleasing switches!
There was a light puzzle called RotoRing [official site] about hopping between concentric circles of LEDs – kind of between some of Robin Baumgarten's work and Kenny Sun's Circa Infinity game – which you controlled with a dial and a button. That one was a tight, clean experience and totally contrasted with the UFO belt game, UFO Bellies [official site] a few aisles away. That one had you putting on these padded circles round your waist with primary coloured sections. You'd be playing with a partner and looking for information on the screen about which colour to create. To make progress you needed to bash the right segments of your coloured belts into one another – yellow and yellow if you were making yellow, blue and red if you needed purple and so on. It was gloriously daft and you'd end up bum-bumping with a total stranger!
I was too scared to go in Fear Sphere [official site] which ended up winning the inaugural Alt.Ctrl.GDC award at the IGF. That one put one player in an inflatable sphere and the other in a guidance role outside. The one in the sphere had a flashlight controller which projected snippets of the game world onto the walls as they were stalked by an unknown foe. NOPE NOPE NOPE. I did stop to admire the trophy Robin Baumgarten had made - flashing rainbow lights and a movement sensor were involved.
Anyway, that article was probably the right length for my notice period. I am now going into space in a cardboard box with a colander on my head. GOODBYE FOREVER!