Touch the future: meet the games embracing the material world
Goop news, everyone.
The Dexmo F2 is a strange, multi-jointed device that sits on the back of your hand and extends right down to the ends of your fingers. It sort of crouches there, radiating a sense of coiled energy. In point of fact, it looks like it's priming itself to scuttle up your arm before entering your skull through the ear, where it will presumably do the kinds of things that you don't want anything doing in there - least of all a kind of steampunk mantis-spider with gears and brake discs where its conscience should be.
Granted, I'm not sure these are good qualities to anticipate in something that's eventually going to be a consumer device. Luckily, though, behind the sinister thrill of the prototype's visual presence lies something you might actually be interested in clamping onto your body. The Dexmo F2's a single-hand exoskeleton designed by Dextra Robotics - a company name that conjures strangely lovable images of C3PO et al wearing sweat bands and Sketchers - and its aim is to give virtual reality games a vital sense of touch. You know: you'll reach out for something in a virtual world and the Dexmo F2 will halt your fingers, while applying a gentle force to your fingertips. The Dexmo F2 will complete the illusion. I really want to try it, although I'm hoping they debug the thing properly so that I can promise my wife that I'll still be able to play the piano afterwards.
Dextra Robotics' big hope is a rather strange device for sure, but it feels like the ragged outer edge of a storm that's been gathering for a while. Quietly, over the last generation, game designers started to get really interested in the notion of interacting with a game world via touch. Or, to get to the heart of the matter, they've gotten interested in the playful potential of materials and material physics.
Look around, and you'll see signs of this stuff - and I do mean stuff - everywhere. Nintendo's E3 slate was full of games that seemed born from materials rather than narratives or mascots or movesets or any of the more traditional ways that we often pretend that games are meant to start to come together. Yoshi's latest is all about chunky knit and thick padding - a visual conceit, perhaps, but one that can't help but lend the game's platforming gauntlets a bouncy tactility. Meanwhile, Mario Maker's resorted to scrappy old graph paper to bring a little engineer's clarity to the messy world of user-generated content. You almost want to play it with a tooth-gnarled stub of pencil.
Speaking of messiness, the star of Nintendo's forthcoming line-up is undoubtedly Splatoon, a team-based shooter in which absolutely all of the mechanical inventiveness flows from the material at its core - thick, colourful globs of ink that you fling around the environment, covering your enemies or laying down pools you can then dive into for stealth, speed, and even ammo recharges. There are very good design reasons for opting for ink. In a shooter, it's always nice to see the bullets as they come at you. In a territory capture puzzler it's equally nice to have a clear idea of who's winning at any moment. And, of course, in a Nintendo game, it's important to be able to divorce virtual violence from the realities of an actual battlefield. That said, though, I can't help hoping the whole game just bubbled outwards uncontrollably, ideas pouring from the properties of the material itself. Just think! A game made from mucking about with paint, or mucking about with digital paint at least. Who knows, maybe it all came spilling out of those thick juice shakes you're rewarded with at the end of each day in Pikmin 3?
Nintendo's not alone. One of my favourite games of the last generation was From Dust, which was kind of about God, but mainly about slapping mud around and painting with hot stone. Elsewhere, PixelJunk Shooter was obsessed with the interaction of water, magma, ice and rock: there was something really special about the weight of fluid in that game, the thickness of it as it fell through the air.
Spintire's grainy swamps, Angry Bird's transitions from wood to frozen wood that splinters into brittle shards, Minecraft, which is teaching an entire generation how not to build its houses - material physics are everywhere you look. One of the most exciting interviews I've ever been involved with was with one of the men behind Pixelux, a team that's made a material physics system called DMM that's already cropped up in games like The Force Unleashed and movies like X-Men: First Class. DMM can make ice that melts and ice that shatters, and it can stick this stuff in your games. For a happy hour, I heard about things like Young's Modulus, and about the reason why you actually can walk on water - just as long as you're actually running rather than walking, and just as long as the speed of your running doesn't rip you to pieces.
Then, of course, there's E-deru Sunaba, which Kotaku tells me translates roughly to The Surprising Sandbox. We're back at the Dexmo F2 edge of invention here, with an actual sandbox that uses real-time projection mapping to turn your castles into islands, your trenches into rivers and seas. It's From Dust once again, but it's for children to get stuck into with their actual hands. I do wonder how much of this vogue for material physics simulation comes from a generation of developers growing up and having children. Watching kids play - and the things they choose to play with - must be rather humbling for designers of fun, and designers of systems. Toys make a great gift, but you know what young kids really like to play with? Wrapping paper.
It's not exactly difficult to sense a positive outcome from a trend that already involves squid ink, exo-skeletons and magical sandpits, but even so, I can't easily tell you just how excited I am for a gaming future that embraces material properties as a legitimate jumping-off point for playfulness. It reminds me of that moment from a few years back when Cliff Bleszinski admitted that the real reason so many games revolve around shooting is that shooting is one of the only interactions games can really nail at present.
In general, I tend to find the discussion about video gaming's verbs that emerges from this kind of insight smugly reductionist - if nothing else, it avoids the fascinating matter of how many different kinds of shooting there are in games, how many different sensations and impulses and objectives behind it there are, and that, as interactions go, simply blasting stuff's still ripe with untapped potential. Even so, I think it's impossible to pluck away at the thick sand of From Dust or emerge, drenched but unbowed, from a round of Splatoon, and not feel that you're witnessing a bold new direction for games. The future is almost here, as Edge mag used to say. I can almost touch it.