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Dog butts and a “haunted” NES: The strange game machines of IndieCade East

Non-traditional user inputs for Line Wobbler, Butt Sniffin Pugs, and NESpectre
Non-traditional user inputs for Line Wobbler, Butt Sniffin Pugs, and NESpectre

IndieCade East always proves to be a breath of fresh air for game design. Every year at this event in New York’s Museum Of The Moving Image, there seem to be fewer things designers won’t try to make their games feel wholly new and original. This year’s featured exhibition, “Strange Arcade,” focused on non-traditional game interfaces and how subversion of technology can foster a greater sense of play. There were games played with cardboard houses worn over your face, games played with sets of large wooden cranks, and games played with vintage telephone switchboards. Here are a few of the projects that kept us captivated as we figured out what the heck we were doing with their wacky contraptions.

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Line Wobbler has been touring conventions and art shows for a while now. As an installation piece, it fits in much better in the museum setting than most video games. With a joystick made from a steel spring, players move their one-pixel hero up and down a five meter strip of LED lights hung from the ceiling. Referred to as a “one-dimensional dungeon crawler” by its creators, half the game’s fun is recognizing patterns in the lights that correspond to enemies, lava pits, conveyor belts, and other typical dungeon fare. The other half of the fun is figuring out how to deal with those obstacles without ever straying from the straight-line path of the LED strip. A bonafide spectacle, Line Wobbler was one of the few games that was just as much fun to watch as it was to play, as the complete abstraction of graphical elements allowed onlookers to interpret the brightly colored dots however they wanted.

Codex Bash was another game that fit extremely well in the open and interactive space of the museum. To diffuse a bomb, players needed to input codes using four brightly colored buttons that were spread out in a 7-foot square of the gallery’s space. Cracking the codes was easy enough, using a combination of on-screen clues and printed out documents, much like Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes. But reaching the buttons took a bit more work, particularly when more than one needed to be held down at the same time, often leading the players to beg for help from passers-by and onlookers. This might be a fine enough game to play with a group of friends in a private setting, but within the organized chaos of the museum gallery, there was a demonstrable sense of empathy among the onlookers. Wanting to help a stranger achieve their goals, lending a helping hand, and recognizing that you’ve inadvertently bonded as a team—that was a powerful expression of what games can accomplish.

Speaking of games that drew in passersby with simple rules and bright colors, Henka Twist Caper played out like a faster and more forgiving version of Johann Sebastian Joust. Each player takes a PlayStation Move controller (you know, it’s like a Wii remote with a light-up color ball on top) and has to find the exact angle at which their controller lights up, earning them points for as long as they can hold that position. Everybody is just as concerned with finding their own unique angle as they are with preventing everyone else from doing the same, so there’s a lot of staring at your remote in one hand while blindly waving your other hand to push and grab opposing players.

That desire to mess with one another is the most engaging aspect, which is why the game is recommended to be played within a small taped-off square on the ground. Each session was fast and silly, with newcomers figuring out what to do within a few seconds. Unfortunately, the only indicator of how close anybody was to “winning” was a bar graph on a nearby computer screen. We were all far too focused on our immediate surroundings to ever look at it, so the game necessitated a commentator to announce things like, “Blue is in the lead, but red is catching up!” so that we’d know when to protect ourselves and when to flail at one another.

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NESpectre’s audience interface during a game of Contra

The most captivating display of the ways designers can subvert conventional game controls was not in the featured exhibition but one of the panel presentations. Zachary Johnson and Andy Reitano showed off their “haunted NES,” called NESpectre, a classic Nintendo Entertainment System that had been hard modified to allow live-editing of any game’s code while it ran. Much like how Game Genie products would alter a game’s codes to change the number of lives players had and how much damage they took, the NESpectre could do the same thing while the game was actively running, meaning data could be edited at any time mid-game. Even better, by connecting to a local wifi network, everyone in the theater could affect the game by using a custom web app Johnson and Reitano had put together.

During Contra, we could change what weapons the players had or how fast they would move. During Tetris, we could vote for what shape the next falling block would be. With dozens of participants wildly tapping on their screens during a game of Track & Field, we were able to enter more button presses than any normal NES gamepad could produce, so our long-jumpers were able to run fast enough to break the game’s vertical limit.

Butt Sniffin Pugs’ prototype controller

One of the better known quantities of the Strange Arcade was the internet-favorite Butt Sniffin Pugs. Here, two players take control of a pair of pugs as they wander around a public park and solve puzzles, like catching fireflies for frogs or stealing a sandwich from an old lady. Or if you’d rather, the pugs can just goof around and rub their butts on the grass. A lot of the game’s hype is focused on its custom controller, crafted from an oversized tennis ball and the rear half of a stuffed dog doll that’s used as an action button. While the finished version of the game will support gamepads (it’s currently on track for Mac, Windows, Linux, and PlayStation 4), the husband-and-wife development leads are looking into mass-producing smaller versions of the game’s now iconic ball-and-butt apparatus. While it presently functions as a three-button trackball, the plan is for the final controller to be recognized as a gamepad, so it can be used with any number of other games. (They even joked about trying Dark Souls with it, which you know someone will figure out how to do.) This is one Strange Arcade experience that might be coming home in the near future.