Arcades aren't dying, I've learned in recent weeks, but they're certainly evolving into some strange forms in their struggle for survival.
Over on our sister site Eurogamer, Simon Parkin reported on Heart of Gaming over a week back: a fascinating compendium of the machines thought lost to the closure of big arcades and game centers in the UK, kept alive by the commendable dedication of the fighting game community and the hard work of one man, Mark Starkey. Gaming needs informed and passionate people like Starkey if it's going to hold on to its lustrous past, and as I stumbled upon another strange arcade earlier this week I realised there's another breed that's also vital to the future of the form.
In the late '80s, British television played host to a show called The Secret Life of Machines, in which a man named Tim Hunkin would charismatically break down the innards and history of an everyday device, and his partner in crime Rex Garrod would occasionally crash a car. Hunkin's an engineer at heart, though he's also something of an artist, writer and cartoonist. It turns out he's a heck of a game designer too.
Nestled on Southwold Pier in the UK is a little monument to the charming peculiarities of Hunkin's mind: a collection of homemade arcade machines that are quite unlike anything you've likely ever played before. A fair few of them are throwaway pranks, little postcard jokes told with servos and screens that communicate a very English sense of humor.
Take Pet or Meat, a simple roulette wheel that decides the fate of a cute little lamb, or Whack-a-Banker, a self-explanatory variation on Wac-a-Mole that allows you to vent your frustrations on the 21st century's favourite boogeyman. It's a sense of humor that's very much in keeping with the English seaside, in fact, and there's a clear line you can draw between Hunkin's own creations and the odd automata that Victorian resorts once chimed along to.
And there's one game in Hunkin's collection that's delighted me as much as anything I've played this year. Mobility Masterclass is cute enough from the off -- featuring a walking frame attached to a cabinet, you must shift it at just the right time in order to cross a carousel of traffic, rendered by lines of models filmed and presented on a screen in front of you.
It's an eccentric spin on Frogger, the end goal being a lovingly realized model of the Rivoli Ballroom (the only remaining intact 1950s ballroom remaining in London, England) at the core of the carousel, but there's a strange and brilliant twist. It was only after playing through a couple of times, transfixed to the screen as I dodged between tiny cars, that a friend told me to look upwards. The entire game -- the carousel, the cars and the mobility walker -- was played out in real-time, with a camera working its way towards the centre and transmitting its images live to the player's screen.
Seeing an engineer's literal take on an age-old video game design -- filtered through a little knock-kneed end-of-pier spirit -- was a revelation, and as much as it thrilled me it also reminded me how an outsider's perspective can really reinvigorate a medium. History's full of grand designs and inventions that have come from people far removed from the industry whose art they contribute to -- from the fevered paintings of Henry Darger through to the tangled beauty of Los Angeles' Watts Towers, created by the mysterious odd-jobbing Simon Rodia.
Hunkin's arcade machines feel like they belong to that lineage, and they're also among a grand tradition of often brilliant and always fascinating games created by new and inquisitive minds lending fresh insight into old problems. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams' twisting text adventure Bureaucracy was an early example, and there have been plenty more since. Takeshi no Chōsenjō, a 1986 Famicom curio, was designed by famed polymath Takeshi Kitano and it shows. There's the slapstick of Takeshi's Castle in there, but also no small amount of the existentialism that's marked his films: "Why are you taking this game so seriously?" it asks upon completion, while one task requires you to leave the controller untouched for an entire hour.
There are some better-known examples, too. Earthbound, which made a triumphant return to North America and has also been granted life in Europe for the first time thanks to last week's Virtual Console release, was created in part by Shigesato Itoi, another multi-talented Japanese who'd plied several trades writing short stories, song lyrics and, bizarrely, voicing the father in Hayao Mayazaki's masterpiece My Neighbour Totoro. His outsider view is what, arguably, makes Earthbound a unique RPG, freed from the fantasy tropes that had and have since shackled the genre.
It doesn't just take celebrity or your own TV series to be able to contribute a new perspective, as when an expert in another field turns their attention to games really interesting things can happen. We've had plenty of poor examples before -- the cross-traffic between games and cinema more often than not ends in a car crash, but that's because those behind the wheel don't seem to be too bothered about where they're headed. David Goyer's script for Black Ops 2 was a swill of sterile nonsense, and Ellen Page's turn in Beyond looks to be sadly oblivious to the medium it's in.
It's a more modest director that's proving what can be done when transposing a cinematic mind to an interactive world, though. Starbreeze's forthcoming Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is benefitting from the supervision of Josef Fares, a Swedish director responsible for a series of light-hearted, serious-minded films, and instead of smothering the game with cut-scenes and dialogue he's bringing across some lessons that games would have done well to study some time ago: it's a brief, wordless adventure that respects the player's time, telling its story through a variety of gentle interactions spread across two to three hours of play.
People like Fares, Itoi and Hunkin bring an outsider's inquisitiveness to their work, deconstructing games and rebuilding them using their own particular toolsets until something new and quite often fascinating is formed. In an industry where new business models rather than new ideas are touted as the future, maybe it's these new players that we should be looking towards for experiences that are genuinely exciting.
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