Alternate controllers in a world we can’t touch

With Covid-19’s devastating effects on travel, public movement, and basic physicality, video games have become a much-needed outlet for people to maintain a sense of connection and creativity. But while digital games and their platforms are surviving (and even thriving), other game subcultures are finding new challenges, particularly the world of alternate controllers, which often work with physical or hybrid games.

In 2013, Jess Marcotte had been designing games for less than half a year when they started a new project: a two-player game about a dangerous condition that can happen while scuba diving. Sometimes called “rapture of the deep,” nitrogen narcosis happens when nitrogen builds up in the brain, causing confusion, poor judgment, and even euphoria. “Given that my coding skills were more limited at the time, I was able to use physical props to add complexity to the game instead,” they recalled. The game required one player to wear scuba gear while playing tic-tac-toe with another person – a challenge when you’re hampered by layers of bulky equipment.

“I think that first project showed me that there are a lot of effects that can’t be reproduced digitally, or that can have more impact if they’re physical,” said Marcotte. “That’s when I really became interested in what alt controls can do.”

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