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It’s dark in here. Yet here I am, armed with only a modded flashlight that shines the imagery of a lonely basement on the spherical dome I’m standing in. On a headset, my friend on the outside of this dark absence barks directions at me. “I’m by a room that says ‘lab,’” I yell into the black void, referencing a sign I’ve walked by according to what I’ve seen through my flashlight controller reflected on the wall. “I literally can’t hear you,” my friend says back. I repeat my sentence, only much louder. “What?” she says, much to my dismay.
I’m playing New Arcade’s Fear Sphere, recent winner of the first-ever Alt.Ctrl.GDC award at the Game Developer’s Conference 2017. It’s a two-player co-op game where one player crawls into an inflated abomination of taped together garbage bags, and the other, armed with only paper maps, tries to direct the other player to an escape. Needless to say, on the perpetually loud Expo Floor of GDC 2017, my escape from this virtual basement is unsuccessful. And with that, I crawled out of the dim sphere, only to be greeted by bright lights and stares from the small crowd that’s gathered to watch this bizarre showcase of cooperation (or lack thereof).
Alt.Ctrl.GDC is my favorite part of the week-long conference. It’s a congregation of all things lovely, weird, and creative about video games, and stretches their interactivity to often bizarre and brain-bending heights. It’s the only place where you’ll see repurposed printers and taped-together garbage bags sharing the same space, all utilized in the name of video games.
I snake my way through the claustrophobic aisles of Alt.Ctrl.GDC, playing anything that catches my eye. I halt at Emotional Fugitive Detector, an experiment borne of NYU Game Center students Alexander King, Samuel Von Ehren, and Noca Wu. Emotional Fugitive Detector is a two-player game, where one player sticks their face into a makeshift tin ‘machine.’ Inside of it lies a webcam, the product of a ‘robot’ who has outlawed emotions. The player on the inside’s goal is to convey emotions in secret—where the ‘robot’ cannot read their emotion, but the player on the opposite end (only visible through small slits in the contraption) has to try to guess what emotion they’re trying to convey.
Luckily, I’m apparently really good at reading the slyest of smirks and the sneakiest of angry eyebrow furrowing. I eventually fail after a couple wrong guesses, and we’re promptly “executed” (or, ushered away from the game to make way for new secretly emotional humans in line). We move on. I watch people play games with manipulated toy harps and modified turntables. I play tug-of-war with a virtual dog by yanking a string, its developer tells me that they repurposed a printer for the project, and opens up the machine to show the device that once was printing out ink-bled paper, now yanked a string like a dog.
Walking through Alt.Ctrl.GDC is wildly inspirational. It’s a celebration of repurposing mundane machinery and the lengths we can go if we use our creativity to realize any sort of idea; no matter how unfeasible or dumb it may sound. Like in the childlike play of Sand Garden, where myself and some strangers shoved our hands in mushy sand to recreate a topographically pristine map fit for villages. Or with the aptly titled Super Furry Neon Cat Heads, when I captured mice in VR to the tune of a rhythm game, but to the outside world, was smacking a lights-and-button outfitted cat tower. No two games at Alt.Ctrl.GDC are alike; no two games use the same materials, ideas, or anything else. The only thread that ties everything together is that they’re alternative ways to play, and fun as hell to boot.
All photos by Caty McCarthy.