InteractionArtist: My 219 Tiny Experimental Projects

Apr 2, 2010

Update: I’ve also recorded a video tour with additional background.

I was a guest speaker in Fall 2009 for the Videogames as Art class at UC Berkeley. The topic: my experimental interaction projects at

InteractionArtist was the name I eventually settled on for a series of tiny projects that I developed daily from November 18, 2007 until June 23, 2008. That’s 219 days in all, or about 7 months. I did the work outside of holding a full-time job at a start-up; i.e. this was not the only thing that I was doing. The meta project was initially titled Game-a-Day, but as many of my tiny daily projects soon strayed (purposefully) from what anyone would or should call a game, I switched to the new, more broad label emphasizing only the interactivity and the forgive-the-conceptual-mess catchall word, art.

Audio from my talk is streamed further down in this entry, along with plenty of additional notes. The projects are all available to play in-browser, so you can follow along if you’d like, or explore them on your own. Because there are hundreds of projects and I only had a limited amount of time to present, the talk only covers a very small subset.

I developed this series just before smartphones became common. These require Flash and won’t work on iOS – and since many require a keyboard or a mouse cursor, Android even with Flash support may not work right either. Pretty much any laptop or desktop should do the trick. (full listing)

Or, check out the highlights page to see a subset that came out better than the others: (highlights page)

During development I had only a few people following or commenting on my daily new releases. Generally that consisted of my coworker and roommate at the time John Nesky (who, unrelated, later worked on Journey for PS3, which he gave this excellent talk on), some Facebook friends who saw my most recent postings, and a random stranger overseas, Bezman.

In other words, when I started making these I had no established audience nor public reputation. This was before I made my early iOS releases. (It was before anyone made any iOS releases.)

For context though, to avoid giving the wrong idea to beginning developers or leading anyone into taking on too much unprepared, I had already been finishing about four freeware conventional games every year for a decade leading up to this point – this was not what I did to first start making games. Nor is this what I did to become a professional. But the process did help me find an identity of my own, and at least a handful of results that I’m still happy with. I’d absolutely encourage others who are suitably experienced to engage in their (your?) own personal version of this mission.

Though the whole thing may look in hindsight like a madman’s publicity stunt, at the time I really didn’t care about that. I persevered because I had questions that I didn’t believe anyone else had decent answers to, conviction that I could help explore some of those questions, and a commitment to learning (and thinking) by doing.

I’ll be the first, and definitely not the last, to say that many of these are junk. Garbage. Incoherent nonsense, the software equivalent of ill rambling. At least considered individually, some of them are even a little embarrassing to me now.

However I believed then as I do now that getting experience requires making and working through lots of mistakes. I also believed, then as now, that accomplishing anything original requires enduring a lot more failures early on than we’d expect from following a known formula. I of course wasn’t directly going after mistakes and failures though, I was going after answers to my questions. I accepted that finding novel results worth keeping would require generating an awful lot of stuff that wasn’t.

Sure enough, all that failing eventually paid off. At first, in little ways: I was figuring some things out, feeling good about a few patterns I was exploring, and gaining confidence from keeping at it. The big ways it proved worthwhile only began to take shape months later, after the series ended. One of my very last projects, #201, titled FireWriter, transformed into my first self-published iOS app burnit (and a couple of my later iOS apps, feelforit and Tumult, also came about as adaptations of InteractionArtist projects). That kicked off my public identity as an independent commercial game/app developer. It also helped spread word of the InteractionArtist project… slowly.

For nearly a year after I finished the projects, InteractionArtist remained mostly a ghost town, except for a slow trickle of new traffic coming from the “about” screen in burnit. Then in March 2009 word of the series reached a writer on a well-established channel, and she wrote a short article about InteractionArtist on the casual games site

That article changed the series from something that only a few friends knew about into something that has since reached nearly a million uniques. Check out that article if you’d like some outside perspective on the projects. Aside from the author’s headline including the word “games” – I stick to the word “projects” because many InteractionArtist examples are definitely not games – I think it’s a swell introduction and summary.

(Since, as mentioned earlier, this was before smartphones took over, the generic alternative term “app” was not in common use yet, and the generic words we used instead of game, including “program,” “software,” and “application” had technical and business connotations. The sort of strange non-game apps now found in the Entertainment category didn’t have much of a channel outside of screen savers and digital media museum exhibitions. As an additional factor for historical context, game jams were much smaller and less frequent than they have become in the years since, as some of the major ones well-known today were just getting started around this time.)

The process led me down paths I wouldn’t have tried otherwise. It became a way to rapidly unclog theories that I’d had stuck in my mind for months or even years, as after fumbling through a few implementation attempts I could often dismiss them as not nearly as firm as they seemed in my mind, or reshape them to better fit grounded findings. By the end I had arrived at project types that for various reasons I couldn’t or wouldn’t have made before I started.

And the result is definitely a mess. In the final months my mind was clearly collapsing, my work taking weird, formless directions as I ran out of ideas and kept digging deeper anyway, creating even well after I had clearly exhausted my supply of any ideas that made sense or sounded worthwhile. That’s, of course, when the most interesting things began to happen.

Without further ado, here’s the audio from my UC Berkeley talk for the Videogames as Art class…

Links to the projects (not all of which are “games”!) that I mention in my talk, along with some additional notes:

Time Project, in the order mentioned Notes

0:04 Alice in Bomberland Available for iPhone and iPod Touch (not part of InteractionArtist)
Also relevant: On the Meaning of Alice in Bomberland

0:18 Games I made while growing up Mostly for PC/Windows.

0:26 Game Creation Society Game development club at Carnegie Mellon.

1:02 Experimental interaction project every day for seven months Expanded view of

1:25 WindyDay Escaping from Missouri in the wind.

1:50 Steak Short but probably a bit over the top. Public domain cow, animated in code.

2:40 NinjaDreams More “videogamey” than most of the I.A. projects; about how difficulty is important in creating the sensation of being a ninja (skill mastery, focus, timing, patience, etc.), and the role of videogame difficulty in provoking player thinking.

3:50 Candy My response to players that complain about difficult games. All reward, no challenge.

4:22 TopograTouch Among the interactive digital media in the collection that clearly isn’t a videogame. Inspired by the subject of proprioception, which is how the body knows which position its limbs are in relation to one another. In particular, the rare condition in which a person lacks proprioception requires a person to gain bearing of their body visually, through seeing how their hands interact with surfaces. In this way, visual feedback is used to produce a type of cognitive “force feedback” with a standard input device to convey uneven topography. (Certain browser/Flash combinations show a doubled, flickering cursor. If so try a different browser. This also applies to MirrorMaze.)

5:20 TrinaryLife I implemented a rule design Chris Crawford mentioned on his website. His legendary 1992 GDC Dragon Speech is on YouTube. Before I made the InteractionArtist series, I would have found that speech crazy. And, to be sure, there are plenty of modern game designers that still don’t get what Chris was talking about. During and after the InteractionArtist series, when my interests derailed from entertainment toward art and communication of mental models, to fill a purpose different than videogames for an audience other than those currently playing videogames, I felt like I finally “got” something more about this speech. These days I listen to it when I need a burst of inspiration.

Write a few letters or draw a small smiley on this grid, then cycle the processing state forward, and note how information is preserved while it spreads outward, retaining both color and structure through mutually canceling signals every 3 steps. The trick to this is that the rules Crawford selected are symmetric, and turn the grid into a field of overlapping/adjacency XOR masks. XOR preserves information. A further understanding of why this works can’t be covered here, but is left as an exercise for the reader.

6:49 StellaBreakout Doubles (Game Mode 3) of Super Breakout from 1981, as it looked and played on the Atari 2600. Note the somewhat bizarre brick-ball physics, which work better for gameplay than a more literal physics simulation, but by modern standards appear “glitchy”.

7:16 Timeless Doubles (again, Game Mode 3) of Super Breakout from 1981, though with a time manipulation mechanic added. The goal is no longer to maximize score, but instead to clear all bricks as quickly as possible. This made it possible for players to better probe the rules of the system to more clearly understand the weird non-physics in how the game system is programmed, but of course many modern players who didn’t understand the old Breakout games perceived this was a bug.

7:44 LaserLock Inspired by (but very different from) Lazer Maze for Apple IIe.

8:13 DarkPlace A videogame illustrating through minimalist visuals and mechanics what gameplay features make for a convincing zombie videogame.

9:22 GotFleas It’s a game about picking fleas out of hair. Sort of. The key experimental mechanic is making the players declare when they think they are done – and the only way to lose is to declare being done when not yet done. Although excision of a cancerous tumor is perhaps the most dramatic example of when this dynamic applies, it’s a form of challenge that appears in most school or work assignments (especially those involving creativity), in which it’s up to the person assigned to determine when as much as can or needs to be done has been done.

10:24 Parallaceur The act of playing creates a visual journal plotting how intense and successful the experience was from start up until the player lost. Someone that has played this game can look at the resulting illustration of someone else’s play, and instantly internalize a “replay” of the most significant events from the round, as well as the player’s play style and overall approximate play time. In the same way that the challenges in this game push the player to leave behind a trail determined by the challenges they dodged and opportunities they steered for, so the artifacts and architectures of cultures are storytelling byproducts of passing events and challenges by people of that culture.

One way to think about this is as another form of high score – rather than just showing a number in a table, a unique snapshot of the player’s run can be instantly conveyed, revealing their strategy and how impressive their maneuvers were.

11:04 DeadTattoo Bezman/acidDICA, a fellow in Glasgow, Scotland in who was a regular commenter on the blog for InteractionArtist, did not like DeadTattoo. At first this made me sad… then one of my favorite living artists, Ali Spagnola, came to my defense in the blog post after I posted a link to DeadTattoo on Facebook. At a time when I was running out of steam and vulnerable, that picked me right back up and I kept on going. This helped me realize that if part of my mission was to make things for people who were not part of the standard videogame audience, then perhaps I needed to not put too much emphasis on the feedback coming from players of standard videogames.

I recall my then-coworker/roommate and fellow indie John Nesky commenting on this situation that (despite my crazy binge of experimental gameplay giving the appearance of independent direction) apparently I was still seeking and needing validation. Touché.

11:30 MirrorMaze Try to beat it. The first level or two seem pretty simple, but things get crazy. This game is made to emphasize, especially for traditional game players, the feeling of awkward, hopeless disconnect that occurs with standard game controls for people that don’t have practice playing videogames.

14:11 RoboDefuser This is one of my favorite InteractionArtist projects, and eventually evolved into feelforit for iPhone.

14:52 GoodNotGood A way of reconditioning (or at least highlighting differences for) one player to another person’s gut reflexes to concepts.

15:42 Contract This game’s title is a hint about how it’s played. It isn’t “contract” like document, but rather in the sense of shrinking. Hint/clarification: for Mac Safari, which has a minimum window size, the bookmarks tab may need to be opened.

16:11 WindowBall Clicking to randomize the ball position totally spoils this game – I wish I hadn’t left that in. To get the intended effect, play only by resizing the window.

16:18 ArmisticeKey When I made this it made a few people angry. I had been doing this for over 100 days, and frankly at this point I took that anger as a sign that I was really on to something.

16:48 BeeDifferent AI demonstration. I consider this particular project very successful in what I was trying to do at this point – making projects to communicate a point, rather than to be played/won for their own sake. This game is arbitrarily easy if the enemy AI are all set to full aggression, but that the midpoint on the slider is the most challenging – and seeing why – is what the “game” (a term that breaks down slightly here, due to playing to understand rather than playing to win) is really all about.

18:04 VotingRight And attempt to highlight an emergent problem, and to then explain through what’s absent how the problem is overcome. In particular, it points out that if, as a voter, you simply cast your vote, then at each level of candidate selection your vote only counts if you’re voting with the majority anyway. What’s missing from this (very abstract) model is any way to influence other voters, which is democracy is how a person’s effort, reason, and passion can amplify their political significance beyond their single vote.

18:49 Number28 My first “spaqoid”, or spatial-particles mapping. This one does not account for momentum, so it is a mapping in the simplest sense, with each mouse position corresponding to a specific layout and color of the dots. Later spaqoids typically used relative positions and angles between the mouse cursor and the particles to influence velocity, keeping some amount of momentum, which resulted in much more complicated pattern generation, and a much larger domain of possible outcomes.

19:14 Tumult A spaqoid of the sort described in the notes immediately above – relative position, distance from, and angle to the mouse cursor is being used to influence the velocity of each particle. Easily my favorite spaqoid.

19:40 BeerVomit The solar panel game that this microproject helped me land is SolarSFUN.

20:03 Burlesque The goal here is to place the cursor in the center of the girl on the left, which prompts a short “cinematic” sequence. On certain browsers (Chrome?) the mouse appears in both the intended position and the normal position, taking the difficulty out of this one and making it look strange, but for what it’s worth this wasn’t really a game of skill anyhow.

20:54 BreakUp I briefly joked during the talk about this project as though it documented the end of the relationship that started with Burlesque, but in hindsight seeing as BreakUp was made two weeks earlier that clearly was not the case. BreakUp is a disturbing representation of a disturbing way of thinking about an event that, to be fair, is extremely unpleasant. It was intended to convey the strain of a relationship ending, in the weird period near the end when both involved recognize that it probably won’t work, but are torn between not wanting to be the first to act (“winning” at this is positively horrible) and not wanting to be acted upon by surprise, either (“losing” at it is just as horrible). I don’t feel good about the way this one came out, but one effect of churning these things out daily each evening after work was that I couldn’t afford time to second guess, go back, or iterate much once I got past a certain point in implementation.

20:59 Amor This is one of the more popular InteractionArtist projects. It’s intended to be expressive of the thrashing, melting feeling that goes on coming out of a relationship, as opposed to the lofty, airy sensation of coming into a new one.

One of the things that I liked about the “spaqoids” (coordinate-steered particle systems) was that with the ones that came out well, rather than simply turning on and off some effect or shifting chaos randomly, with a bit of practice and fine movements near thresholds it’s possible to perform with one like some kind of purely visual instrument. [2011 edit: I recorded a demonstration of doing this with Amor:]

[I later even worked that concept into my trailer video for the iOS port of Tumult:]

21:36 AskSquirrel Don’t swear at him. Otherwise, this is pretty much what one should expect from conversation with a squirrel. The joke here sort of evolved into, which also has a Twitter feed, @TypingKitty, where I post things that Toshi types whenever she walks/sits/sleeps on my laptop keyboard. (I presume cats do this because of the warmth coming from between the keys?)

22:02 PowerSwing As is mentioned on the blog entry for PowerSwing, this was inspired by the Mega64: GDC 2008 IGF Awards Intro that I had seen a few weeks prior at the Game Developers Conference here in San Francisco.

22:49   The website where you can find all 219 experimental gameplay projects. The first thing shown is my recommended Top 42, but they can all be found through the calendar options along the bottom, including the All View.

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