September 7, 2008
This year’s Prix Ars Electronica recognized a tactile augmented reality game, a game sculpture, and the project behind an optical-illusion game that, as it happens, I spent quite a bit of time playing earlier this year (at the Game Developers Conference). Each got an honorary mention in the interactive art category. The larger Ars Electronica festival also featured something between an urban game, a flash mob, and a ritual. An engagement with space and physicality ran through them all.
Julian Oliver’s levelHead, like many augmented reality experiences, is experienced both immediately (at the site of non-augmented reality) and by looking in a video mirror (where the augmentation is visible). It’s a spatial navigation and memory game that involves moving an animated silhouette through photographic rooms of an odd, technically-oriented building (e.g., it has a “machine room”). The piece has been around since 2007, but I’ve never had a chance to play it before.
Like others I saw at Ars, drawn in from the moment they got their hands on the piece, I found it a pleasure just to hold the levelHead cube, see the image change as I tilted it, watch the figure walk, and so on. I wasn’t bothered at all by the flickering of the AR image — when I was playing I filtered it out, noticing it much more when I was a spectator (and it’s pretty evident in this video I took). However, on the other hand, I had persistent trouble with “playing in the mirror.” I didn’t make errors when I wanted to move the character side-to-side, but I kept tilting the cube toward me when I should have tipped it away (and vice versa). Obviously, given the AR nature of the interface, this isn’t something that should be “fixed” by allowing me to invert the vertical axis on my controller (this cube is no thumbstick). But I was surprised that I didn’t adapt during the period I played (which, admittedly, I would have liked to be longer, but there was a queue).
The similarly-capitalized-and-enjambed “theDemos” is the alternate name of Yan Kit Keith Lam, creator of Moving Mario. Unfortunately, this project was only present as documentation — while the entire point of the piece is to take the virtual world of Super Mario Bros and bring it, lurching, into the physical space of the everyday world.
Rather than the landscape of the Mario world scrolling by on our television sets, Moving Mario affixes the landscape to the wall. Then a television, with Mario in the middle, moves along the wall as directed by a player with a gamepad. The player, of course, must walk alongside. In the video documentation it looks intriguingly awkward. I would have liked to see certain other elements of Mario’s world recreated (like the inability to go back to the left after moving right) but it’s of limited value to offer much critique of a sculpture like this without its physical presence. (I really wonder what it sounds like.)
The game I played at GDC was the PlayStation and PSP title Echochrome. Its basis is Jun Fujiki‘s Escher-style OLE Coordinate System. This was brought together with a number of Fujiki’s other applications for a Prix honor under the name Extended Cognitive Tools. In the video documentation presented, other tools (like Constellation) looked fascinating. But only the OLE Coordinate System was available for hands-on play. Still, the original was clearly as compelling to the Ars audiences as the more polished commercial version was to GDC audiences. It involves moving one or more human figures through relatively simple, rotatable spaces featuring optical illusions. The illusion has different aspects depending on its rotation (e.g., if you move something to occlude a gap, the gap is functionally absent while it is not visible, allowing the characters to walk across spaces they would have fallen through before). It makes for compelling visual experiences and puzzle gameplay.
Finally, I didn’t make it to either the 3pm or 9pm iterations of the “Linz city game” StadtRitual, but I’m guessing that the play was pretty unstructured. The card that came with my badge includes the line, “There is only one rule: Persons wearing same colored badges are friends for the day.” The emphasis seems fully on being physically present in space with others in a new way. In this emphasis on space and physicality, it appears like the game-related pieces honored by the Prix — but using only our everyday bodies.
Overall, while I would be surprised to see an Ars category for games any time soon, the Prix seems more gaming-friendly than one might guess, and I suspect there’s more gaming goodness waiting in some of the exhibitions I haven’t yet seen (I noticed an arcade cabinet when I walked past one of them last night). It will be interesting to see how things develop — and especially to see if this emphasis on space and physicality is a prerequisite for a game being recognized by Ars in the future.