Inside the colorful, magical, slightly terrifying world of alternative game controllers

For these developers, a gamepad is just a box to think outside of.

I thought I’d be okay with being locked inside a coffin, but I was wrong. For one thing, it’s pitch black; for another, the walls feel incredibly tight. I can feel them pressing in on me and it’s causing my breathing to speed up. I have a phone, but it’s running out of battery, and panic makes me fumble even the most mundane actions. As the 911 dispatcher tries desperately to pinpoint my location, I realise that I’m not going to make it. I try and fail to think of some last words. I settle on: “Uh, so, hey, listen. If I cut off, I just want to say... thanks for trying.”

Smooth, John. That’ll look great on your headstone.

The coffin belongs to a bunch of Swedish game design students, and, naturally, it’s part of a game called Grave Call. But it might not even be the weirdest peripheral on display at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Each year, developers from across the world lug great castles of custom hardware to participate in Alt.Ctrl.GDC, a showcase for weird control interfaces of every kind.

In 2017 I encountered a shooter played on a spinning vinyl record, a god game controlled by sand and a monster maze played from within a giant inflatable sphere. So I was excited to see what I’d find this year. These games are rarely playable in your home, and sometimes barely playable at GDC. But their strangeness does offer fascinating insights into what games can be, and their ideas sometimes filter down - not only onto PCs and consoles but into mobile games, art galleries and interactive public installations.

Robin Baumgarten with his beautiful glowing offspring.

Take Robin Baumgarten: an excitable bearded man who has become a kind of travelling troubadour of strange controllers, which he displays across Europe. A couple of years ago I played his game Knife To Meet You, awkwardly balanced on the windowsill of a pub in London. It consisted of three buttons which players have to press while a whirling blade tries to cut their fingers. Every time it gets you an LCD display flashes up malicious messages along the lines of “got you, ha ha ha.”

To GDC Baumgarten brought Wobble Garden: the latest in a series of wobble-based games which exploit the built-in physical properties of the doorstop spring. “I watched a cat play with the doorstep spring,” Robin told me. “The cat was really having a lot of fun, and I thought, well, if the cat is having fun then humans can too.” In this one, the player must “walk” their fingers across a field of upright doorstop springs with lights around their base, which glow to signify safe areas or moving enemy “centipedes”. It’s fun but easy, and it doesn’t ever actually let you do what you really want to do: pull back the spring and let it ping hard. Like George Buckenham’s Punch the Custard, it’s a kind of found object art, and might be best approached as an excuse to play with the object in question.

Other games, though, were more involved, asking the player to use their whole bodies. Voiceball, made by Stephen Borden, Alex Turbyfield, Talal Alothman, Ali Yildirim and Ilya Polyakov, specifically engages the lungs, chest, throat and mouth. It’s basically Pong, but in order to get the ball into your opponent’s goal you have to hold an even singing tone and certain notes, low or high. At first you feel pretty silly trying to control a videogame by going “ooohh, ahhhh, ohhhhh”. But then you realise you’re having to think deeply about how your body is making sound: starting in your chest, vibrating up across your vocal chords, shaped by your tongue and lips. It’s a playful version of choir practice or the voice training apps which promise to help you sing or modify your voice.

Wannabe Tom Cruises with Yo, Bartender!

Then there was Yo, Bartender! created by Swedish group Kraken. Wiimotes are concealed inside fake bottles of vodka, whiskey, rum, tequila and so forth. Infrared sensors detect when these bottles are held upside down near a glass. Your job is to please a parade of pestering customers by giving them drinks with the correct proportions of each ingredient - at speed, naturally. To do well you need to use the space around you as a kind of filing system, making sure your hands know where each bottle is and always putting them back in their right place. If you get it right there is a real sense of rhythm, even virtuosity, as you rapidly swap bottles in and out. Apparently some players showboated by tossing the bottles behind their backs as they poured. Not many were successful.

The most physically demanding game I played, though, was Clunker Junker, a broken-down spaceship simulator for two players. Each is responsible for a pair of consoles which can only be operated using bizarre custom-built space tools which wrap around your arm. When your system takes a hit, it stops working and a panel below the console flies open, revealing a hole into which your space-wrench can dock. To fix the system you have to insert it and then wind a handle on the wrench. So you frantically rotate, dock and spin, moving from console to console in a surprisingly exhausting way.

The experience is ridiculous, and intense, but trouble is afoot. One of the docks for the space wrench is too shallow, making it difficult to get purchase. Everything was custom-cut for the game by computer-controlled lasers, but it was all put together in three days, meaning some glitches. “I said to the laser person ‘make it shallow’,” developer Henry Lam told me. “I thought it would be like half an inch. But it came back like this. It’s one thing to change software: it’s another thing to change something that physically is there.” As we played, other parts of the interface, punished by several days’ play, also broke. “It’s a crappy spaceship, so this is a feature!” declared Lam’s comrade Andrew Genualdi. “Destructible interface!” exclaimed Lam.

Henry Lam walks a player through Clunker Junker. Henry Lam walks a player through Clunker Junker.

This kind of equipment failure is an occupational hazard at Alt.Ctrl.GDC. Most of these games are made on a low budget and on a tight deadline, and their creators don’t have the facilities to repair everything properly. I played Unicornelia, by The Sad Unicorns, in which the player dons a unicorn’s horn and crawls inside a tent representing an equine body to manage cutesy Windows 95 pop-ups representing competing life priorities. Sadly my horn stopped working and I was quickly overwhelmed by a torrent of unicorn feelings. Still, putting the player in such a silly position felt like a nice way to get them past the barrier which normally prevents us from thinking about our vulnerabilities and our pains.

Not all games had such specific system requirements. Pump the Frog is an engaging little platformer in which players use a large air pump to inflate and deflate a roughly spherical amphibian to take advantage of various air currents and blowing fans. I appreciated how it allowed me to play with a body which was wholly unlike most videogame bodies: alternately small and big, concentrated and diffuse, at the mercy of the environment and yet able to exploit it. I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t turn up on PC and Mac soon; it would play perfectly well without an actual pump.

Similarly, Mark Wars, while cleverly blending the digital and material, would work pretty well on a smartphone. Two players take turns to draw black line on a large hexagonal grid. Each has a little robot which follows the black lines slavishly. If it comes to a fork, it will randomly decide which to follow - and of course you can draw lines branching off your opponent’s paths as well. So as both players draw stroke and counterstroke to create a path for their robot to reach the goal and divert their opponent’s robot into a dead end, they are basically managing randomness. They can’t control their robot but they can maximise the chances of their robot reaching the goal. It was a nice fit for the game’s sci-fi space mining theme: designers of robots (such as Facebook algorithms or automated vehicles) often cannot directly control the outcome, and must instead try to make sure that likelihood is on their side.

Grave Call, of course, would not be so easy to take home. Designed by students at Uppsala University in Sweden, it’s part of a trend of asymmetric co-op games in which players with different abilities and information levels must help each other out (other such games this year included Too Many Captains and Vaccination). In this case, one player is an emergency dispatcher sitting at a computer while the other player takes a phone inside the pitch-black coffin. The buried player has to use clues found on the phone to figure out who buried them and why, feeding information to the dispatcher who must rescue them before the battery runs out. It’s a bit like 2017’s A Normal Lost Phone, which asks you to explore the life of a lost phone’s owner, but sped up and with extremely high stakes. I actually had to sign a waiver indemnifying the developers against legal claims before they’d let me be buried.

I’m usually pretty cool in these types of games. I’ve watched that scene in Jurassic Park where Jeff Goldblum guides Laura Dern through the bunker often enough to know the importance of clear, calm communication in a crisis. But Grave Call really got to me in a way I didn’t expect. It takes the fear and anxiety we all feel when our phone battery is running out and accelerates it. As I scrolled through the contacts list and babbled useless information about florists and car parks, the tension rose mercilessly. Finally, when I realised I was not going to survive, I was possessed by a strange peace. I hope at least I faced my end with dignity.

Part of the ominous waiver players were asked to sign before taking part in Grave Call. Part of the ominous waiver players were asked to sign before taking part in Grave Call.

One game, however, stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of its sheer strangeness. Puppet Pandemonium by Fluffy Games, which won the IGF prize for the best game of Alt.Ctrl.GDC, left me drained, amused and thoroughly confused. Two players stand behind a fake theatre stage, manipulating puppets called Bleep and Bloop and reading out their lines from a screen. These puppets are themselves running a Twitch channel in which they play a series of videogames controlled via buttons on their head. The other players play the “audience” and periodically help the puppets by pressing buttons on their own panel. So two players perform as puppets who are performing as gamers who are playing a game, which is actually being played by the players, while the other players perform as an audience who are watching the puppets perform and also play the games.

I’ve written and thought plenty about how videogames relate to performance, and even I don’t know how many levels of fiction and performance are going on here. As I made myself hoarse doing funny puppet voices at my friend Claris, ad-libbing bizarre diatribes about my fictional grandmother and slapping a button on my puppet’s head, I didn’t even know which part of this bizarre assembly was the actual controller. Was it the button helmet worn by my puppet, or the puppet himself? Or was it the audience opposite me, who I was trying to manipulate through showmanship into helping me win the game? Or was I the controller, manipulated by the context of a fake theatre and the insistent prompts of the screen into doing this weird dance - more played than playing?

It made me think about how a good comedian or preacher uses the audience themselves as a kind of musical instrument, provoking laughter and awe which help their cause. It made me think about the control interface of the puppet, beaming photons across a theatre as its “input” and hopefully tempting a reaction from the audience as its “output”. It made me think about how the audience of a Twitch channel are far from passive, but change how the game is played simply by their presence. In a delightful paradox, its controls were limited to the extreme reaches of the control complexity spectrum: at one end, a single button, pressed at the wrong or right time; at the other, the infinite nuance of gesture, voice and facial expression as interpreted by other people. It joyously brought human connection and chaos flooding into the game experience in a really rare fashion.

Strange controller games might seem impossible to play for most people, but they’re more common than you think. If you live in the UK, you can visit the National Videogame Arcade in Nottingham, the recurring Now Play This festival in London, or Feral Vector in Hebden Bridge. In the USA you can go to Babycastles in New York City, Bit Bash in Chicago or Indiecade in Los Angeles. Germany has the A Maze festival and the Game Science Centre; South Africa has the Super Friendship Arcade. A more comprehensive list can be found here. You could also, of course, attempt to create your own versions. Just please don’t try burying each other alive at home.

Top image: Maddy Siriouthay and Dylan Negri with Unicornelia.