When I sit down to play Lumines Remastered—the Nintendo Switch port of the puzzle game that was, at one point, the PlayStation Portable’s killer app—I’m invited to put on a belt of Joy-Cons. This “peripheral,” designed by the Lumines team for the Nintendo Indies showcase at the Game Developers Conference, is designed to show off one of the remaster’s oddest new features.
Taking advantage of the Joy-Con’s dynamic vibration, Lumines Remastered allows additional sets of the controllers to be synced to the Switch to act solely as vibration nodes, pulsing and jumping along with the beat of the music and Tetris-meets-3D-Chess gameplay. The makeshift belt is a means to illustrate this mechanic, and as I wear it, desperately trying not to make a joke about the Rez vibrator, I’m struck by the way it jarrs my hips into the play. Each block put into place sends a shock of energy through my body. Normally, playing a game like this, only your hands and your mind are involved in the rhythm. Now, my whole body felt a part of the action.
Control interfaces that involve more than just the player’s hands—that strive for a more embodied play experience—aren’t new by any means. But, as I wandered the halls of GDC this year, there was a sense they were gaining gaming popularity in a way they hadn’t before. Moreover, it seemed as though they were capable of changing how players, well, play.
Nintendo, certainly, feels like one of the major drivers here. The company has shown a dedication to making the Switch, in its first year, a hub for creative ideas about interaction. The Nintendo Labo, an experiment in papercraft and the overlap between toy design and game design, makes use of the unique features of the Joy-Cons to turn the stuff of digital play into the stuff of more physical, traditional play. With Labo, Joy-Con functions empower papercraft pianos and robots, little toy machines that become wrapped up in the videogame experience offered on the Switch console. Labo is decidedly aimed at younger players, but the ideas Nintendo is trying to mainstream have implications far beyond. The relationship between game worlds and the real world is already porous, so why not break the barrier down even further?
Alt.ctrl.GDC is an incubator for these sorts of ideas, and it’s also one of the best parts of the Game Developers Conference. For the past five years, the project has taken over an ever-growing section of the conference floor with interactive installation art and smaller projects, all with the singular mandate of exploring new ways to play. The controllers ran the gamut this year from puppets to switchboards to an actual coffin. Seeing these games is always thrilling, and other showgoers seem to think so, too. Every year, the crowd gets bigger, and it’s common to hear people talking excitedly about the strange, creative methods of input on display.
Alongside Nintendo’s efforts to mainstream alternate controller concepts that would have at one point seemed impossible, the gaming world seems poised to embrace the strange creativity of alt.ctrl.GDC and its purveyors. This is a good thing. As this movement grows, there is a chance to push beyond the controller to embrace the body itself as a site for interactivity, as a place where we can hybridize ourselves with our games and play in two worlds at once. As the year moves forward from the excitement of GDC to the doldrums of the regular gaming world, my sincerest hope is that we take that chance.