Attendees at this year's BitSummit festival in Kyoto could be forgiven for overlooking one of the most intriguing games of the show. Tucked away in the back corner of the Miyakomesse show floor in a dim, uninviting corner, the game's "booth" consisted of a small, waist-height cabinet connected to a pair of glowing wires running up to and along the back wall of the convention hall.
LED lights pulsed along the two wires, occasionally bursting into a shimmering rainbow of colors. You could be forgiving for thinking it was some sort of pop art demo. Only the constant crowd of people jockeying to take their turn at the cabinet betrayed the fact that this unlikely creation was, in fact, a video game: Line Wobbler.
While it looks like no other video game you've ever seen, and its name sounds like some sort of obscene British euphemism, Line Wobbler turned out to be one of the most addictive and popular works on display at BitSummit. While many games accumulated a steady line of attendees during the show, few could claim to have generated a genuine crowd. Line Wobbler ranked among those rare gems. No doubt the novelty factor helped — it was the only game at the show that ran on bespoke hardware and didn't involve any sort of screen or, you know, graphics — but this popularity also speaks to its accessibility.
Line Wobbler may be the world's first one-dimensional video game. Well, maybe that's a stretch (there's always a precedent for any gaming "first" you care to name), but there's no denying that the game redefines minimalism. It feels like a throwback to those simple LED handhelds of the ’70s, but far more elaborate in presentation. Compare Resogun to the original Defender and you'll get the idea: An old concept presented with modern fidelity.
In this case, the game's presentation consists of a single wire lined with colored LEDs; the Line Wobbler demo unit included two side-by-side demo stations, hence its dual wires. Precisely how many LEDs the wire contains, exactly, I couldn't say, but probably a couple hundred. The player controls a point of green light that moves along the LED wire, with the goal being to nudge the green light along to the "goal" light at the far end of the line. In order to reach the goal, however, you need to work your way past hazardous red points of light — touch one and your light explodes into one of those periodic rainbow bursts that illuminated the back wall of BitSummit every few seconds. After losing a life, you have to start the current level over again.
That accounts for the "line" part of Line Wobbler; the "wobbler" has to do with the control interface. Players guide their line with a single control knob attached to the central platform by means of a spring-like coiled wire. This offers marvelously precise analogue control: Nudge the knob forward and your green dot will edge its way toward the goal, or tilt it all the forward to go screaming toward the far end (or, more likely, a quick death). This is the entire interface. There's no fire button, no touch screen, only a wiggly control stick that allows you to move forward or backward.
In order to deal with the red-light threats you face, you need to move both forward and backward in rapid succession. By wobbling the control stick, the green light begins to shimmer and becomes a yellow pulse capable of destroying any red hazard it encounters. It's a simple mechanic, but it requires a deft touch and quick reflexes.
Line Wobbler's hazards start out quite unassuming: Stationary enemy dots that you can destroy easily. As you advance through stages, though, the layouts and mechanisms quickly grow more dangerous. The red dots begin moving, and after a while you begin to encounter purple generators that emit red dots on a regular cycle. And the line itself becomes a hazard: Sections of the wire will begin to shift from white to yellow and then orange, representing "lava" that can only be crossed once it strobes back to white. Navigating stages proves to be trickier than you might expect, as you need to nudge yourself close to hazards (while avoiding lava) before "wobbling" those dangers into submission.
While it's perhaps somewhat impractical for casual play, given that it requires a custom-built installation to play on, Line Wobbler definitely seems like the kind of thing that would go over incredibly well at venues like bars. It's simple and uncomplicated, yet complex enough to feel instantly addictive. It's so easy to pick up! You feel like you should be able to breeze through the challenges that other people struggle with as you watch and wait for your turn. But then you grasp the wobble-controller yourself and discover that the interface offers remarkable subtlety, just as the game's patterns contain unexpected deviousness.
Line Wobbler's design and construction make it the antithesis of conventional game design these days. It's not precisely something you can download for free, with its handmade construction and reliance on a custom physical format. So who knows what the game's future will be? In any case, it offered a pleasant counterpoint to the frequently predictable software on offer at BitSummit by taking a common theme and pushing it a step further: Amidst an ocean of games looking to the past for inspiration, Line Wobbler proved to be the biggest and boldest throwback in the room.