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.


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.


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, colored lighting, and long draw distance necessary to pull it off.

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 Theater at Wabash College.

Republished with permission.

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