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Attack of the Bric-a-Brac inspires people to create unique controllers

Attack of the Bric-a-Brac is a series of games that ask players to turn everyday peripherals into their own alternative controllers.

Joel Couture, Contributor

March 8, 2023

10 Min Read
a person sitting on a table holding the reigns of a cardboard horse head
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The 2023 Game Developers Conference will once again feature Alt.Ctrl.GDC, an exhibition dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions in new, exciting, and clever ways. Ahead of GDC 2023, Game Developer will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase.

Attack of the Bric-a-Brac is a series of games that ask players to turn everyday peripherals into their own alternative controllers, hopefully inspiring a whole new generation of Alt.Ctrl.GDC entrants.

Game Developer sat down with Tatiana Vilela dos Santos, designer and developer for the project, to talk about using basic household materials in hopes that most players could build their controller from things that are commonly lying around the home, the thoughts that went into designing the games so that they would encourage players to get creative with what they build, and what draws them to work to inspire players to make their own alternative controllers.

What’s your name, and what was your role on this project?

My name is Tatiana Vilela dos Santos and I served as the designer and developer for Attack of the Bric-a-Brac along with my partner in crime, Olivier Drouet. Together, we make games as MechBird. Think of us as Batman and Robin, but instead of fighting crime, we're making alternative controller games. We've been doing so for over a decade.

My role in the process is to dream up wild and wacky ideas, then we team up for some collaborative design magic. Olivier takes care of the serious programming while I take charge of things like graphics and sound design.

How do you describe your innovative controller to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with it?

Attack of the Bric-a-Brac is not just a game with an alternative controller. It's what I call a "Make & Play" video game. In this game, you are challenged to be creative and construct your own custom controller using everyday peripherals such as gamepads, keyboards, mice, microphones, or plug & play arcade kits.

Once players have built their masterpiece, they can indulge in a wild ride through a range of entertaining party games that'll put their controller to the test. There’s a surreal horse-riding race that'll make you feel like a kid again, a bird courtship rhythm game that'll get your feathers ruffled, a tortoise piloting hook-a-duck runner that'll have you racing against the clock (and a hare), and a cow-milking simulation where you get to shoot milk at planets to create the Milky Way.

a colorful donkey racing game with life size donkey controller

What's your background in making games?

Olivier and I both have a background in game design and development, having earned degrees in the field from the same school where we completed our final year project together. After graduation, Olivier worked as a game designer for Dontnod for several years, while I went on a wild adventure exploring game design for new technologies. I've dabbled in everything from iPad games to AR, VR, humanoid robots, and even ARGs. I eventually found my calling in creating alternative controller games, and have been showcasing my work at various venues and art festivals all over the world since 2013.

In 2016, Olivier joined forces with me, and since then, we've been unstoppable in our mission to create innovative, playful experiences.

What development tools did you use to build Attack of the Bric-a-Brac?

We rode off into the game development sunset with Unity as our trusty companion. It's a tool we're well-versed in and it has allowed us to bring our wildest game ideas to life so far. We had little time to develop the game, so we chose not to change a winning team.

What physical materials did you use to make it?

The original prototypes for Attack of the Bric-a-Brac were crafted using a combination of recycled and upcycled materials such as cardboard boxes, milk bottles, and even repurposed dishwashing gloves—whatever we found by scavenging our homes for things to use. We wanted to make the game accessible for all, so we made sure anyone could gather the materials with a quick scavenger hunt around the house.

As we continued to develop the game, we didn't shy away from trying new things, from foam board and wood to textile and 3D printing. It's all part of the adventure!

two birds dance together

What inspired the creation of Attack of the Bric-a-Brac, a game where you will be making your own controller to interact with it?

I've been living, breathing, and dreaming alternative controllers for a while now, and I'm lucky enough to call it my career! For me, the real magic happens when I take everyday objects and turn them into game controllers that break the mold of typical gaming experiences. Sure, the controllers we normally use in games serve their purpose, but they're often just an afterthought. The goal is for players to not even notice them—to fully immerse themselves in the digital world.

But where's the fun in that? I love shaking things up by experimenting with new and quirky physical interfaces. For years, I've been sharing my excitement by teaching workshops and classes. Unfortunately, the pandemic put a stop to those. But I wasn't about to let that stop me from sharing the joy of alternative controllers with the world. So, I came up with alt.ctrl@home jam in 2020 (which is still running three years later), to bring the alternative controller experience right into people's homes!

As I progressed in my doctoral studies in 2021, I developed the concept of "Make & Play" video games. I evaluated existing examples such as Nintendo Labo, Gambi_abo, Tinycade, and Makey Makey tutorials, but wanted to offer more than just a step-by-step experience. My aim was to empower players with the opportunity to create their own controllers through a hands-on, DIY approach. I did not want the process to feel like simply assembling furniture from instructions. I explored various concepts, including a 3D-printable kit, but limiting the fun to only those with access to fancy tech? Nah. I wanted to make sure everyone could get in on the DIY action, so I went for a more flexible and accessible approach that would inspire creativity at every turn!

What challenges did you face in creating tools for players to make their own controllers? In making controller-making into something approachable for audiences with different skill levels?

Challenging players with a diverse range of skills and abilities to get creative and make their own controllers was both a struggle and a blast! The aim was to create an accessible and empowering experience where players could apply and value their prior experiences in making anything in the controller-making process. This not only upped the accessibility ante but also created opportunities for intergenerational play—because let's face it, your "boring and outdated" parent probably knows how to do stuff you don't.

I designed the in-game tutorials to focus on the basics of controller operation rather than spoon-feeding players every step. That's where the real magic happened! This approach encouraged players to use their creativity and allowed for re-appropriation potential by challenging them to use their previously acquired skills to solve these "building puzzles." For instance, the horse can be controlled by pulling reins, which are simply ropes or threads attached to the joysticks of a gamepad. Moving forward with the horse is done by pressing a button on another gamepad that can be placed under the player's butt or feet, turning it into a straddle or a stirrup. The tortoise can be controlled by moving a mouse horizontally, allowing players to attach it to a fishing rod or rotate a tube beneath it like a driving wheel.

With my teaching background and experience working with students from all kinds of fields—art, design, engineering, and mechanics—I had a pretty good understanding of how different people approach the controller-making process. But, we didn't rely solely on my gut feeling. We validated it by running playtests with high school and Bachelor students in arts and design.

The results were nothing short of inspiring! Students brought their A-game, using their creativity and problem-solving skills to design custom controllers that blew us away. Based on that feedback, we made some tweaks here and there. We continue to run workshops and add new features to enhance the overall experience. It's all about having fun and pushing boundaries!

a fishing rod, tortoise, and fish on a simple racetrack

What thoughts went into the games you made for it? As players can make many different controllers with your setup, how did you design games around creating so many possibilities?

The design of our games was centered around creating a wealth of possibilities for players to project themselves into the experience. To achieve this, we incorporated a diverse range of references, not only from video games, but from various backgrounds including classic arcade games, outdoor and playground toys, farm animals, pets, classic vehicles and more.

Take our horse-riding game for example. We started with a classic racing gameplay, but players move forward by bouncing up and down like they're on a spring-rider toy from a playground. However, since the horse serves as a means of transportation, some makers-players got creative and turned the reins into motorcycle handlebars. It was amazing to see what they came up with.

We wanted players to come up with their own unique creations and not just copy our designs, so we added contextual variations that change the gameplay based on where your avatar is in the game world. We hoped players would be inspired to create unique controllers based on these surprise elements, like letting the horse swim or fly. We also made sure the environment would clash with the avatar though things like putting a tortoise on a race track. That helps makers get really creative. One team turned the tortoise into a racing car-driving wheel! We designed the games so players would say "Who needs boring buttons? Let's get crazy and make something wacky!"

What ideas went into the tutorials to also inspire players to get more creative?

Our tutorials are designed to ignite a creative spark in players by showcasing different possibilities. We emphasized the functional aspect of the controllers, which encouraged makers to think beyond just the appearance and focus on the gameplay experience. We put the focus on making the controller a crucial part of the gameplay experience and made sure to point out that the fun factor is all about physical involvement.

For those who like a little guidance, we've got step-by-step tutorials waiting for them on platforms like Instructables and YouTube. We put them outside the game on purpose, though! We wanted to add a little friction so following a manual wouldn’t be the obvious easy solution. These tutorials provide clear instructions while also encouraging other makers to share their creative process and designs with the online community by making their own tutorials. This cultivates a participatory culture and allows the game to continue to evolve beyond our involvement. Our ultimate goal is to foster a self-sustaining community of imaginative players who continuously push the boundaries of controller design.

What has you interested in inspiring people to get creative with controllers through your game? What do you want to draw out of the player with your work?

What draws me to inspire creativity with controllers through my game? Well, I have a devilish plan: I want to shake up players' perceptions of what video games can be. I want to challenge their preconceived notions and make them ask questions like: Is the real game happening solely on the screen? Does it always have to be about digital immersion? Can a game controller be something other than a twin-stick gamepad or keyboard and mouse set? Does playing a video game always mean sitting still for hours on your rear end? Mwahaha!

More seriously, I want players to be blown away by their own creativity and the surprising things they can do with alternative controllers. My ultimate goal is to spark a sense of wonder and excitement, and get players to share this experience with others. And, if I'm being totally honest, my ultimate goal is to get more people to dive into the world of alternative controllers and create something truly unique and unexpected!

So, come on and join the fun., let's break free from the boring buttons and traditional controllers and discover a whole new world of gaming possibilities.

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