Toasters, pulleys, wheels and giant hats: the coolest Alt Ctrl games at GDC 2023
Nearly all of them were made by student dev teams, too
Alt.Ctrl.GDC is a regular fixture at the Game Developers Conference, and this year I spotted some properly incredible creations from its largely student-led group of exhibitors. There was a big focus on co-op games and time trial demos in this year's cohort, with nearly every stand having some sort of whiteboard pinned up that was constantly being scrubbed out with new fastest lap times and corresponding visitor names. There was also lots of friendly hooting emanating from them as well, as mates and strangers attempted to co-ordinate their gaggles of limbs to steer various game characters in the right direction.
It was excellent fun, and I sampled a bunch of games that used toasters, intricate pulley systems, papier-mache tree stumps, bike wheels and more in place of your typical controllers and mice and keyboard. There were also plenty more I didn't get to try out, mainly due to time, and you can see the full list over on GDC's website. For now, though, here are some personal highlights of what I saw, including the largest bowler hat I think I've ever seen in my life.
Gilliams Great Escape
Don't ask me why this toaster only fires fish out of its bread rack, but this cute toaster-fishing-golfing game is a real delight. You use the timer dial to aim your toaster down its series of abstract obstacle courses, hold down the spring to charge your shot, and then release to propel your fish (who I'm assuming is the Gilliam of the game's title) towards the kitchen sink at the end of the road. There are slopes, wind blasts and rotating turbines to navigate, as well as sheer drops into the void and out of bounds gaps in the scenery you'll want to steer clear of, too. It has big What The Golf energy, and I'd have happily played another dozen courses of this, easy peasy. All gamepads should have a clicky toaster dial from now on, please.
If you can believe it, Paper Glider was not the most complicated Atl Ctrl game I saw at GDC this year. It certainly comes close, with its intricate set of pulleys, ropes, weights and modular frame, but playing this lovely little hang-glider game felt more like a mere warm-up for some of the other games on show here. In it, you control a cute, tiny box boy hanging precariously from a paper aeroplane, pulling down on the ropes to alter the flight trajectory of your fragile aircraft. The aim is to make it to the end in the fastest time, flying through golden rings that give you a speed boost while also dodging pesky tree branches, barrels, fences and obstructed open windows, pulling down to raise the plane, and raising them to divebomb below. It's wonderfully tactile and responsive, and the sense of immersion was exceedingly good for a busy showfloor. A (paper) cut above the rest.
Part papier-mache, part wooden foot pump, Stump'd sees you inhabit your inner lumberjack as you chop wood while giving your troublesome raccoon pal the boot when he wanders onto your chop stump. It's one of those classic pat your head and rub your tummy sort of games, where you need to refrain from accidentally chopping your trash panda in two and use the foot pedal to toss him off to the side instead. If you do the wrong thing, he'll lash out and savage your face with his claws. You can only take so many of these hits, and it's game over when you've been shredded to high heaven by your fluffy companion. Or at least I assume he's your friend. That's what the developers told me when I stepped up to the stump, although I'm starting to believe they told me a porky. That raccoon's a crafty one, you see, as occasionally he'll come armed with a plunger to help him stick to the stump, requiring a second foot push, or cheese grater armour that you'll need to chop off first before pedalling. I'm not very good at rubbing my head and patting my tummy (see, I can't even get it right spelling it out), so I think you can probably imagine how I fared with this one.
Why use a analogue stick to guide your suited businessman to his day job when you can suspend a giant bowler hat from the ceiling (yes, really) and have two people tilt it up and down with their head and hands to guide him down the street? A similar concept to Paper Glider, certainly, but made all the more chaotic by ballooning the size of the controller and chucking a second person into the mix. You have to get a cup of coffee, not spill it, and pretend you're definitely not an alien wearing a suit being controlled by two other aliens (that is, you, the two human players) from afar. It's definitely got a whiff of 'several kids stuffed inside a trenchcoat passing themselves off as an adult', this game, but at least everyone was wearing hair nets while playing. Otherwise there might have been an unsightly sheen developing by the time I saw this at the end of the week...
Cosmic Crew: The Game
By far one of the neatest asymmetric co-op games on the showfloor, Cosmic Crew: The Game channels the same vibes as Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime into a top-down sh'mup / repair 'em up. One person takes control of the cockpit, firing at spaceships with their beautifully recreated space cannon controller, while the other is looking at a different screen, frantically swapping comically large floppy discs into a drive-like contraption to change the type of gun being firing by their mate. This mechanic player also had a little hammer to whack on different-sized plates representing parts of the ship in need of repair. It's a brilliant concept, and was the cause of many, intense concentrated faces whenever I walked passed it. To get a better idea of it in action, have a watch of Space Cow Games' submission video.
Two By 4 Racing
Who knew driving a rotating car away from a mad bull across a wacky race course using two bicycle wheels would be so much fun? Two By 4 Racing is another asymmetric co-op game that shot straight to the top of my favourites list when I had a go with one of the developers. There are two players - one positioned at the front of the car, steering your way around the course, and another in the back facing the opposite direction powering the engine. Each only has a spinning bike wheel to power their side of the car, but you'll also switch roles each time you collect fuel, causing a mad moment of switcheroo panic that's made all the more hair-raising by the presence of a very angry bull chasing you down the track. The bull only appears when you've accidentally knocked over too many cows, mind, which are tracked by a spoon (but of course) gradually ticking up on your cow-o-meter beneath your wheel. When you hit max cow carnage (as I did within about five seconds, it seems), the spoon goes haywire, spinning from side to side as the bull emerges to give you a taste of your own medicine. It certainly got the heart racing, but it was brilliant fun. Moooooo-re of this, please.
YettiBebbis: Puppet In A Cult
The level of craftsmanship on this year's Alt Ctrl games was just phenomenal, and nowhere was this more evident than in YettiBebbis' puppeteer controller. Here, players had to use both their hands to control a virtual puppet, much like you would do a physical one - that is, moving their fingers to lift the puppet's arms and legs, and the other hand to control their body movement and lift them up and down. In the game, you've got to use your puppet to mimic the movements of the devilish YettiBebbis, who are performing a ritual dance for their lord and master. Again, lots of intense 'concentrate' faces on this one, and no wonder. It was like suddenly being mistaken for somebody famous and having to adlib awkwardly in front of a crowd to maintain the illusion because you're too embarrassed to say otherwise, and cor, I was glad to go back to crashing into cows with a rotating car when I was done. My creaking joints ain't what they used to be.