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Ghostboi in the Land of the Dead


The player is the first person to play the game in several decades. Ghostboi has been stuck in limbo, awaiting to find purpose in the afterlife for what feels like eons. He is super relieved to feel the player’s presence as they pick up the controller with their hands. He has been deprived of earthly experiences for so long, he is desperate to feel them again. Upon starting the game, the player controls Ghostboi on the screen with his earthly vestiges by moving his arms to float across the screen and pressing on his teeth to eat the Ghostburgers floating in the air. Ghostboi bursts into euphoric tears as he eats each burger. Cryptic text on the bottom of the screen provides hints as to what is going through Ghostboi’s mind. This is how it feels to be alive again.  

produced by: Julia Makivic


“Ghostboi in the Land of the Dead” is a physical, alternative controller narrative game. It explores themes of nostalgia, mortality and haunting using colorful design and cute characters. The gameplay centers on controlling Ghostboi’s earthly vestiges, allowing him to once again feel the various highs and lows of mortal experiences as he tries to understand his new place in the afterlife. The game consists of a controller that represents Ghostboi’s remains and a display that depicts Ghostboi in the afterlife. The controller contains a variety of touch sensors and materials that are meant to evoke certain emotions. The user’s interaction with the vestiges will affect how Ghostboi feels in the afterlife and will be represented on the display.


The development process of this game reveals how alternative controllers, touch, materials and tactility can be used to create mechanics and emotionally engaging and embodied narrative experiences in gaming. The development of tactile machine interfaces approached touch interactions from a clinical standpoint and misused the touch organ as a site of remediating audio and visual data. As a result, the developers of these technologies overlooked how the skin organ could be activated as a site of transferring affective and emotional information with a computational system. Alternative game controllers which employ tactility as a core mechanic show how the affective qualities of the touch sense can be used to interface with a computational system and to communicate feelings and emotional information.

Concept and Background Research


As I was developing Ghostboi, I looked at other alternative controller games for inspiration in order to see how materiality and tactility could be used as mechanics. A few of the games that I looked are Hotaru by Kaho Abe, Knife to Meet You by Robin Baumgarten, and Bot Party by Phoenix Perry.    


Hotaru by Kaho Abe is a two player, cooperative, alternative controller game which illustrates how the controller becomes the mechanics. The players assume the role of two lightning bugs from a fantasy universe, fighting against an invisible enemy. One player uses their gloves to generate lightning, while the other player uses their gloves to shoot lightning at the enemy. By making players wear and perform the same actions as the characters they are playing, ​Hotaru integrates the game mechanics within the controller. The players’ mimicry of the motions to shoot and generate lightning causes them to embody the character roles that they are assuming.  


Robin Baumgarten’s ​Knife to Meet You is a game with a rotating knife blade where players press on buttons and try to move their fingers in time to avoid the knife. In this case, the material qualities of the knife like sharpness create a feeling of nervousness and fear when playing the game. 


In Bot Party, a game where each player holds a square “bot” which lights up. There are a total of three bots, but the number of people that can play is unlimited. If the bots light up, the respective players need to hold hands. If all of the bots light up, all of the players need to hold hands. If they do not, they lose points in the game. Many people can join the game and use their hands to connect the players. By making the act of holding hands one of the key mechanics, the game pushes our understanding of boundaries,and the role that touch plays in how we relate to others. Bot Party also provides a valuable case study of how players choose to incorporate touch into gameplay, whether it is incorporated through holding hands, hugging, kissing, high-fiving, fist-bumping and in some cases even punching. 


Although, I envision Ghostboi as a single-player game for now, I wanted to explore the role of tactility and how it can frame a player’s connection to the game. I created a fleshy controller, in the shape of a ghost that players have to contort, move and bend in order to control the ghost character on the screen. By twisting his body, the player serves as a human, living conduit, through the act of holding his earthly remains, they allow him to feel what it was like to be alive.

Technical Details

The installation for “Ghostboi in the Land of the Dead” consists of a raspberry pi, an LCD screen, and a controller made out of silicone rubber which contains two tilt switches. The game itself is written in python using the PyGame library. The sensors are also programmed using python and the RPI.GPIO library.

Future Development

During the work in progress show in June, I received very interesting feedback in terms of the materiality of the controller and the interaction as a whole. One visiting lecturer commented on how the interaction was too reminiscent of a joystick and push controller. She asked “As someone who is making an alternative controller game, you have an infinite amount of possibilities, why have you chosen to stick to an input that is so reminiscent of a traditional controller?”. Another lecturer mentioned that he liked that the interactions resembled a traditional input such as a joystick. The shape of the controller is so alien, therefore he believed it was helpful if the interaction was familiar. The above reactions have shaped how I would like to think about the Ghostboi controller as I develop it after completing the master’s. For the final show, I chose to keep the current inputs. The inputs are closely tied to the arcade-style game and I do not have enough time to revise the whole game. However, I chose to place the inputs in a way that encourages the player to stretch and contort the controller, thus maximizing the experience of interacting with the silicone rubber.

In future iterations that go beyond the final degree show, I would like to introduce mechanics that focus on the elasticity of the controller and that are tied to contorting it and moving it around. I would also like to move away from the screen as a visual output on focus on bringing audio-visual outputs into the larger environment.