Video games may be a huge business but all too often attention is focused on the usual major publishers and platform holders who stick to the franchises and formulas they know best, iterating year on year. However, go under the radar and there’s an endlessly fascinating world of developers who like to experiment with new forms of play, subverting and redefining what games can be.
Many can be found on the festival circuit and specially curated conventions such as EGX’s Leftfield Collection or Now Play This, part of the London Games Festival. Some go on to become award-winning commercial games, and even the strangest prototypes can lead to big hits, such as upcoming crank-operated handheld console Playdate, which sold 20,000 units in 20 minutes.
Speaking to just a handful of experimental developers, we look at the weird ways you can tell new stories in games, engage audiences with new kinds of gameplay, and delight with new hardware.
Narrative has played a more important role in games in the past decade, and this doesn’t just mean games becoming more like books with lots of text or apeing film and television. Developers are not just finding new ways of telling stories but also the kind of stories that have been underrepresented in the medium.
Experimental developer Julia Makivic makes games from a narrative perspective but perhaps some more unusual approaches when compared to other developers. Void of Memory can be described as an ‘alt-controller’ game, not using conventional controls like a gamepad or mouse and keyboard. However, its bright pink server that players interact with is also the story.
“It was supposed to represent a futuristic server used for surveillance,” Makivic explains. “Throughout interacting with it, players are prompted to use the server for active surveillance, but as the game goes along, the player starts to meet various characters that are kind of trapped in this interface.”
It transpires that this server combines organic and mechanical technology and has absorbed someone, trapping their soul inside. “The player gets to choose whether they go along with the intended use of the server, or whether they can wreak some havoc and subvert it,” she adds.
It’s a fascinating premise, though Makivic is also conscious that the narrative context surrounding Void of Memory might also be lost on players interacting with it for the five or ten minutes it takes to play. The stronger impression is the ornate design of the server, which also can be interacted with extensions of the server, which players can flip over and make different choices, changing the screen display on the server.
“I view it as making an object that comes from some kind of story world and the interface and the mechanics are supposed to add layers of context to the story and immerse you more than say something purely digital,” she explains. “It's not necessarily the easiest medium with which to tell stories, so I mostly wanted players to go away with a particular feeling without necessarily focusing on the pure narrative details.”
The diversity of ways to make games is also a way of bringing in new voices like Makivic, who hadn’t seen herself as a ‘gamer’, which she had associated with games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. “It wasn't until college when I took a class in interactive fiction, which seemed like a perfect avenue as I was already into telling stories via comics and illustrating,” she explained.
For some developers, narrative and gameplay might even take a step back to the concept itself. For Jay Tholen, Hypnospace Outlaw began as a sequel to a small game he made in 2014 called Hypnospace Enforcer, set in the future where you were a cop tracking down people on a literal information superhighway in an actual car.
While he had intended to follow a similar idea in Hypnospace Outlaw, preliminary work was focused on building up the game where people had their own fake web pages about themselves via its own in-game operating system inspired by Y2K and early internet culture in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, as the game became set in an alternate reality.
“It was just much more fun to work on the web stuff and people react in a strong way to it,” Tholen explains. “As we started development, we didn't have a narrative or plan, we just made the tools to make pages, and then I sort of made a bunch of pages with content. For about a year I was not thinking much about how this would be a video game, it was just a bunch of fake internet pages.
That was how Hypnospace Outlaw, while technically a point-and-click adventure, was embraced as a nostalgic internet simulator. Although your role was a moderator policing illegal activity like viruses, copyright violations and cyberbullying, players could enjoy just clicking on various user-created web pages reminiscent of GeoCities homepages, while the PC version even allowed users to create their own fake pages and songs with a page builder and sequence tuner.
Indeed, it got to a point where so much time was spent indulging in creating this fake internet that it required publisher input to steer the game towards a sense of progression and including ‘gameplay’. “If it was up to me entirely, it might just be a fake internet,” Tholen laughs.
Doing away with narrative altogether for just the experience is Airplane Mode by Hosni Auji, perhaps one of the most authentic flight simulations for many people – unlike the likes of Microsoft Flight Simulator where you’re in the cockpit, this puts you in the seat of economy class of a commercial flight.
“Personally, I always found flying to be a ritualistic experience. Even if you know a person well, flying with them will show you a side of them you might not recognise,” Auji explains, who wanted to include a host of commercial aviation quirks that would feel uncannily familiar with most people, from the way the PA pauses your in-flight film (sourced from the public domain), to a corded remote control, to the layout of a flight meal.
It’s certainly a bold choice to forgo the sightseeing thrill of travel in exchange for the most terribly mundane aspects, and certainly not the kind of experience players might expect from a game, although its release last year may have also resonated with people who have been stuck in lockdown due to the global pandemic. As a humorous touch, it was included in this year’s Now Play This festival as a way for attendees to virtually travel to the festival.
“I think there is the space and the appetite for alternative experiences in video games,” he argues. “Game development tools have never been as accessible as they are today, and this effectively means width and breadth of what compelling games can be being challenged frequently, which can only be good for the medium.”
Robin Baumgarten has also spent many years pursuing a fascination in gaming hardware, albeit through a seemingly mundane object, a door-stopper spring. The idea had actually come from an online video of someone’s cat playing with a door-stopper spring, leading to a eureka moment: “It looked so fun, so I thought I'm going to use it as an interface.”
These everyday springs have formed the basis of various Baumgarten’s projects, the most well-known being Line Wobbler, which has been exhibited everywhere from gaming bars to international museums, and even as a custom Christmas installation at King’s Cross Station. As strange as it may appear – a door-stopper spring connected to a long LED strip display – it’s described as a “one-dimensional dungeon crawler” where the player moves their avatar, a green dot, along the line, defeating red dot enemies by wobbling the controller in order to proceed to the next level.
“If you have an object that looks super weird, I guess you need to have the rest of the interaction be somewhat simple and familiar, otherwise you alienate the user entirely,” Baumgarten explains. “Mechanically, Line Wobbler is actually a very traditional game, but in a very unusual setting and interaction.”
However, as he has been experimenting further with other wobbly-based designs – and employing ever more door-stopper springs in the process – Baumgarten is also less interested in attaching gameplay mechanics to his work and considers them as an art installation that you can interact with.
“It's not my job to really define what this is, I just present it to you as an object and you decide what to do with this.” he smiles. “I found this exploratory style very fun, just to present it without any descriptions. Kids especially love to experiment and they figure out the possible interactions after a while.”
One thing that many of these experimental games have in common is that, regardless how unusual the concept the game is or how it appears compared to what a core gaming audience might expect, they are in fact very accessible, especially to a general non-traditional gaming audience who might be intimidated by a game controller’s sticks and triggers.
“Traditional games controllers rely on a lot of very well-trained twitch reflexes, and a lot of games are designed for that specifically, so they cater to a player that already knows this,” says Makivic when discussing why she likes making alt controller games. “With alt controls, people expect it to be tricky and weird and not really know how to do it at first. That's why it's a bit more welcoming to everybody else because no one is really expected to be 'good' at it.”
Baumgarten has however had different reactions based on where he has shown Line Wobbler. “When I showed it at King’s Cross [Station], people were almost afraid to touch it, so I did need to give them some instructions and say, 'Hey, this is a game, you can play it!',” he says. “When you show it at a games event then people expect this interactivity, so if something looks like a joystick, it must be a joystick!”
For Auji, it’s all about having an accessible interface that doesn’t alienate potential audiences. “Often parents would bring their children to these shows, and I would notice them eyeing the game from a distance,” he says. “I ask if they would like to try and they would say: ‘Oh no, I don't know how to play games, I'm just here with my daughter.’”
“I would reply that if they could use a mouse, they could play the game. They would try it and have a good time. That is why it remained a core pillar of our design to make sure the game only needed a mouse.”
Of course, the question other developers might have is just who these weird games are for if they’re not targeting a traditional core gaming audience with established genres and tastes. More experimental games are also typically shorter experiences; for example, Makivic purposely designed Void of Memory for an events audience who won’t have time to play through a typically full-length game.
Tholen admits he was worried about how people would perceive Hypnospace Outlaw, which was neither a point-and-click adventure nor a simulation on par with train or flight simulators, although that didn’t affect the publisher whom he had sent an early build.
“I think they recognised that this was about playing with a weird operating system on a very strange fake internet,” he says. “Even though there's no established community for this genre, I think he thought that would be enough to have enough people interested in it that they would try it.”
While Baumgarten is content pivoting to a more arts crowd (although his current project is a large-scale installation based on Quantum Garden, which uses door-stopper springs and LEDs to simulate a quantum particle), he explains strange hardware ideas can also find their way into other commercial avenues, having previously had meetings with the likes of Bandai Namco and Hasbro. Indeed, it was through prototyping a take on drone racing with FPV goggles that Velan Studios took its concept to Nintendo, which led to mixed-reality toy racer Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit.
“Is it an arcade game, is it like a toy, or is it just like a video game that looks weird? None of these are streamlined,” says Baumgarten. “But you can talk to big arcade manufacturers or toy companies. If you have a prototype you've made and you could imagine it with some well known IP then they’re often happy to take this.”
Going against the grain can be risky, and many projects are often a part-time passion that won’t necessarily make any money. But being experimental is ultimately important in inspiring more new diverse experiences to an ever-evolving and multi-faceted industry.
Julia Makivic: Twitter
Jay Tholen: Twitter
Hosni Auji: Twitter
Robin Baumgarten: Twitter
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