The Allure Of Plush Tech

When I was a kid the future looked like this. 

Modern. Sleek. Cool. Technology, we dreamed, would deliver us a touchscreen-controlled, voice-activated world in which humans harness technology, build a peaceful world and look fabulous doing it.

In my own lifetime, this streamlined aesthetic extends from the Starship Enterprise to the iPad, and it's only logical to note that Jonathan Ive was conceived at roughly the same time NBC aired the first episode of Star Trek, the original series.

We now live in the computer-centric future Star Trek imagined, but with even cooler gadgets. I mean, who needs a separate Tricorder and Communicator when an iPhone functions as both?

Heck, if I were the Captain of anything, I could record my Captain's Log on my tablet computer (i.e. iPad) decked out in Star Trek's futuristic LCARS UI. Yes, Dr McCoy, there's an app for that.

So if we've already reached that techno-future (warp-speed and transporters aside), how does technology feed our wish-fulfillment now? Easy. Put Mr Ive on furlough and bring in Captain Kangaroo. Now we want to play in a tactile world. We want cardboard, yarn, and corduroy. We want to re-connect with real-world things. Virtually, of course.

Wearing my amateur social scientist hat, it all makes sense. Our persistently-online existence - with our faces buried in digital devices and social interactions mediated by screens - makes us hungry to reconnect with soft, curvy, analogue things. There's something comforting about inhabiting a world I want to touch and squeeze and roll around in. The simplest activity, like pulling open a zipper in Kirby's Epic Yarn, feels something akin to eating a warm chocolate chip cookie. It feels like home.

Note: click to enlarge images.

I trace this tactile visual style in games back to Pikmin, but we can find precursors in games like Conker's Bad Fur Day (N64) and Viva Piñata (Xbox), both developed by Rare. This analogue texture look requires serious digital horsepower, and Rare was among the first console developers to exploit the dynamic shadowing, coloured lighting and long draw distance necessary to pull it off. 

More recently, we're seeing a spate of games with visual designs inspired by textiles and natural-world elements. Little Big Planet remains the touchstone for this tactile art style, with its levels and building materials made of paper, cardboard, wood, sponge and stone.

Super Mario Galaxy takes a more cartoonish approach, but many of its levels appear to be upholstered in plush canvas with soft features. The Black Hole planet is made of dirt and stone; Pear Planet and the Tropic Planets appear to be covered in felt. Starship Mario in SMG 2 looks like a giant plush toy begging to be hugged. 

The most cohesive application of tactile art design is also my latest gaming obsession: Kirby's Epic Yarn. Kirby navigates a world made entirely of fabric, buttons, zippers, yarn, and string. These elements fuse brilliantly with the game's mechanics, so leaping to grab a piece of string can help you reach a higher platform... or unravel an enemy.

Flock, a thin but charming sandbox puzzler from last year, illustrates how this design aesthetic can elevate an otherwise shallow gaming experience. I lost interest in the repetitive gameplay fairly soon, but messing around with the physics in its cushy, whimsical pastures kept me playing longer that I otherwise might have. Similarly, Modnation Racers brings a vinyl art twist to the tactile concept, but in service of a game with problems under the hood.

And finally (for now), we have Ilomilo, an utterly cuddly puzzle game I'm enjoying to the hilt, despite my ineptitude with spatial puzzlers. I've spent only a short time with it, but the charming art style is a big reason I feel so connected to the game. More on this one soon.

We'll see if this tactile art design has legs and, if so, how it serves the games that use it. Kirby's Epic Yarn is a masterpiece (yeah, I went there), but not because it's a Kirby game in a sewing basket. KEY succeeds because the game is about its art design. The game and its distinctive visuals are one. We have a term for ostentatious design that fails to serve a larger core concept: gimmick.

Time for some more Ilomilo. Ooooh, I just want to squeeze that little dome-head guy!

Michael Abbott writes and hosts the Brainy Gamer blog and podcast, and is a Professor of Theatre at Wabash College.

Republished with permission.

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