Artist Statement

Experimental art-game, 2013. Stencyl, Pixen, Photoshop, Little Sound DJ, Audacity

“Control” is an experimental prototype art game that embodies the interface divide between the real and virtual worlds, critically embodying the resolution divide between the real and virtual worlds as mediated through the arcade videogame interface. It is a self reflexive artefact, a meta game that provides a critical articulation of interface constraints by using the arcade videogame interface to explore its own limitations. These limitations in terms of both the control scheme and the audiovisual aesthetics serve to illustrate the distance in the communicative link between the digital and nondigital. Controls narrative presents a timeline of controller complexity. This serves not only as a historical reference, but also as a robust challenge for players interfacing through the games deliberately constrained control scheme. The journey through game controller evolution combined with the high difficulty level encourages increased awareness of and empathy towards the role of accessibility in videogame design.
For most games and interaction design pieces, the aim is to make the user forget that they are connecting to the computer through an interface. In the bid for greatest accessibility, most often with the ulterior goal of maximised sales, the interface link is abstracted to become seamless and invisible. In Control however, the interface link actually becomes the game, mirrored back to the user by the visual interface through a low bitrate representation of their hand on a physical controller. Control is an art game experience that intends to provoke discussion and reflection on the limitations of the physical interface and the nature of the human computer symbiosis in videogaming.
The game was authored using Stencyl, chosen since its tile based graphics system approximates the constraints encountered by 2d arcade game developers in the 1980s and 1990s. Pixen and Photoshop were used as the graphics production platforms, with the majority of work done through Pixen, which is purpose designed for aliased, tile and sprite graphics production. Colour cycling animations are used to compensate for the limitations of the chosen colour scheme, a technique commonly used on vintage videogame systems. This technique proves effective as a feedback method when used to visually highlight in-game target areas.
The music for Control was composed using Little Sound DJ / LSDJ which runs on the 1989 Nintendo Game Boy. LSDJ allows access to the Game Boy’s 4 channel sound chip via a tracker based interface (figure x). It was chosen as an era-appropriate sound aesthetic, producing a chiptune sound immediately identifiable with 8bit videogaming. The in-game level theme uses a simple 4 bar, 72 beats per minute loop. There are four variations of the game theme that play in response to the player’s energy level, at 100%, 75%, 50%, and 25% respectively. As the player loses energy, the themes become more frantic, so increasing the sense of urgency.
Gameplay errors are highlighted with a sampled sound taken from the tape loading sequence the ZX Spectrum conversion of Chase HQ running on the emulator Fuse. Similar to the noise made by a fax machine upon connection, it provides a shrill auditory jolt before progressing to the next stage of gameplay. The open source audio editing application Audacity was used for recording, editing, and sound file conversion and export.
The goal of Control is to successfully click all the interface elements that are highlighted on each level within the set time limit, while negotiating the limitations of the game’s own manual control scheme. It is expected that the player will encounter failure and frustration during gameplay, as with any challenging game. Control has 10 levels. The first 9 of these are based on existing videogame controllers, while Level 10 is the ‘OctoPad’, an experimental concept prototype. The player must successfully press all the highlighted controls to proceed to the next stage. If the timer or energy level reaches zero then it’s ‘Game Over’!
The player is represented onscreen by a hand avatar, which is controlled using the basic arcade videogame control mechanism of 8 directions and one action button. The five digits of the hand are individually used to press the onscreen game controls. In order to use one of the fingers, the player must hold down the action button along with the appropriate directional controls. For example, the combination of left and action corresponds to the thumb. The imposed nature of the control restrictions on the virtual hand, and their complexity in relative terms to their real world analogs is intended to encourage increased awareness of the necessity for accessibility in videogame design, while highlighting the divide between the digital and physical worlds.
Control echoes the hand to controller aspect of the videogame interface in the diegetic space of the visual interface through a downsampled meta interface. It makes the game interface the constant point of focus, rather than have it disappear to make way for an unrelated feedback visual. This goes against the notion of the ideal of interface design where an interface should be so intuitive that it for all intents and purposes ‘disappears’. In Control the visual interface will not let you forget that you’re manually interfacing with the computer through a hand to controller link. By using a low fidelity reproduction of the hand in the playfield, both visually and in terms of the available control scheme, the game reflects the resolution divide between the analog and digital worlds. In addition to the challenge provided, the increasing button count of the onscreen game controllers is intended to reflect the evolution of game input devices. The final level of Control confronts the user with the speculative ‘OctoPad’ prototype game controller that exaggerates the complexity of existing devices. The progress a player makes through the game levels is a measure of their own patience and ability to play within a constrained control scheme and increasingly more difficult level layout.

  • Dr. KIERAN NOLAN‘s (b.1976, IE)  art based research explores the collision of videogame aesthetics, new media art, and interaction design. In particular he is interested in how the arcade videogame interface can act as a self-reflexive art object through a series of experiential artefacts. This body of work frames the arcade videogame as both a platform and genre, investigating the aesthetics, materiality, and connective properties of its interface through a bridging of technical, historic, and creative inquiry. The view of the arcade videogame interface explored encompasses a holistic perspective reaching beyond the communicative link of the audio-visual feedback and input controls. This expanded view includes the physical and internal form of the arcade hardware, while also considering the interface as defined by environment and user context. A critical element of reflective understanding into the materials engaged with through the practice based dimension of this study is gained from working in media constraints equivalent or approximate to those faced by arcade game creators in the 1980s and 1990s. These production methods are augmented with emergent technologies where appropriate, with the aim of realising alternate critical reflective paths for arcade interface evolution. The resultant body of work is intended to contribute to academic discourse and understanding of the arcade videogame interface as a common thread linking the worlds of new media art, interface design, game studies, and indie-game development.

Full text and Photo (PDF) p. 203-206