Here I am, trying to play a can-can on a laser harp in the middle of a crowd-choked show floor at the Game Developers Conference in downtown San Francisco. It’s just not going well. I feel like I’m letting my on-screen Orpheus down – thanks to my clumsy fingers, the mythic musician fumbles on his lyre as he tries to lull a cute, bubblified version of the three-headed dog Cerberus into slumber. Finally, Offenbach’s “Infernal Galop” lets up, and I can cease my plucking.
“It’s okay. You actually did a lot better than most people,” says Laura Palavecino, one of the developers of the game, titled Orpheus Quest. “It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
Clearly. Though I have no way of knowing how difficult playing a real lyre might be, if Orpheus Quest's charming facsimile is anything to go by, I suspect I'm not cut out for it. The design is simple and elegant: essentially the guitar controller responsible in that deluge of colored plastic that we called the mid-aughts rhythm game boom, but with the five buttons replaced with glowing green lasers. The instrument lacks the satisfying tactility of those gaudy buttons, but it gives the experience a flavor – and difficulty – all its own.
Orpheus Quest is but one of over a dozen games represented at Alt.Ctrl.GDC, one of the most popular recurring exhibits at the conference. Just a few steps from my lyrical misadventures, a lone game developer challenges me to brave his mysterious wooden shoebox, which apparently simulates the act of playing tug-of-war with a dog. Dubbed Doggy Tug-of-War, it more than delivers on its promise. Not far from that, I see a large crowd gathered around two women, who are tag-teaming a laptop and belting out orders to a giant inflatable ball.
The only thing that the games of Alt.Ctrl.GDC really have in common is a love for unusual input devices: books, a cardboard box, or even a flashlight filled to the brim with circuit-boards. Many of them are openly experimental or academic in origin, and the vibe of the exhibit is one of anarchic fun. Spend a few minutes wandering around and you might catch yourself believing – if only for a split second – that we may one day overthrow the old controller-and-mouse regime that has oppressed us for far too long.
That said, one of the only games that featured a conventional control scheme was also one of the stand-outs. Developed by Jerry Belich, the aptly-named Cylindrus is essentially a seek-and-destroy game in the vein of early Atari classics like Combat, but the playfield is a cylindrical array of 600 LED lights. The game’s unique shape hinders your ability to see your opponents, which forces you to walk (or run) around the circle like a crazy person to try to align your shots. Much like split-screen shooting games, Cylindrus rewards knowledge of your enemy’s exact whereabouts – the difference here is that you can guess at it based on where your opponent is actually standing. Unlike the vast majority of the games on display, Cylindrus felt like something that regular, non-game-developer geeks might actually want to play.
The inflatable ball I mentioned earlier is the Fear Sphere, and it won Alt.Ctrl.GDC's first ever award. It was also the clear crowd favorite. A lone brave sucker enters the inflatable mass and has to navigate their way through a labyrinthine office complex while pursued by a formless foe, armed with nothing but a gyroscopic flashlight. They must listen carefully to their cooperators on the outside, who have a copy of the building’s blueprints and can see from the player’s perspective through a screen.
Much like the unlikely indie hit Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, which splits a group of eager friends into one bomb handler and a team who has to decipher the defusal manual, games like Fear Sphere prove that the lure of asymmetric information can produce scares as well as laughs – though it helps that you're locked inside a pitch-black mass. Unlike Keep Talking, however, it features no use of VR at all – the installation does all the work. It’s harrowing stuff.
Since a large number of the games at Alt.Ctrl.GDC were conceived for school projects or theses, many of them are merely proofs-of-concept, unlikely to grace a store shelf soon, or ever. This includes Setapp’s The Heist, another Keep Talking-like that uses a GearVR and a proprietary controller that resembles an operator’s switchboard to simulate a Matrix-style heist, with only the headset-wearer able to discern what is actually occurring in the game. I donned the GearVR in my playthrough, and in a weirdly meta moment. the experience of describing and solving the gameworld to a person who had never seen it before struck me as remarkably similar to the act of writing about games. Setapp plans to bring the microgame to market as a free download, and then expand the concept into a bigger production as the virtual reality market grows.
VinylOS is another eye-catching homebrew project that got a lot of attention. Built by Josef Who and Jonas Bo, it’s an ordinary DJ turntable with a screen projected onto it; though it features multiple games, the one I played was a Tempest-esque arcade shooter that had me spinning the turntable to fly a ship around a circular space. Scratching the record fires the ship’s cannon, which presents the player with a balancing act: stand and fire, or bob and sway away from the evil aliens. It made for an interesting conversation, but it feels like it'd be more at home in an art gallery than an arcade.
As fun as the gimmicks were, it was two of the more conventional experiences that were the most enjoyable. The first, Schadenfreude, captures the mundane grind of office life by forcing you and four strangers to huddle together on a fake elevator, complete with fake cell phones to awkwardly stare into while you avoid all eye contact. Like in most “hidden-role” games, something is amiss – two of the five conspire to send the other three to the wrong floors, for no reason other than their own sadistic amusement. I was cast as one of the fraudsters, and had fun wasting everybody else’s time. Flat Earth Games’ trading sim Objects in Space was well done – though its glacial, submarine-inspired combat seems more suited to a dark rainy night than a tradeshow booth with a teeming crowd. The massive, fully-operational “ship deck” overwhelmed me with its complexity – though the inscrutable blueprints are available online, most of us will be content to fly this space truck with a keyboard and mouse.
Alt.Ctrl.GDC may be one of the most entertaining exhibits at one of the most raucous conventions in the gaming industry, but more than anything else, it made me genuinely curious about what was next. These kinds of installation games make a great impression, but for most of us, they’re totally unreachable. Beyond the bustle of of GDC and similar events, they make a momentary impression, and then steal into the night, never to be seen again. A permanent exhibition would do wonders for that – a sort of "new arcade," similar to the pinball museums that have cropped up in recent years. But, for now, this is as good as it gets.