You can't win and you can't lose, so is Electroplankton, Nintendo's latest release pioneered by graphic-art virtuoso Toshio Iwai, a game? Game theoreticians would tell you that it certainly is not, but what it is, is a glimpse into the future.
Recently released for the Nintendo DS, Electroplankton features a digital fish tank filled with tiny artificial creatures evolved to create sound when provided with stimuli from a touchpad, built-in microphone, or control buttons. Cool blues and soothing greens suffuse the dual-screen interface, punctuated by carefully tuned pale reds and yellows. There are ten different "species" of translucent electroplankton, each providing a different "performance" experience, notably: Hanenbow, tadpolelike projectile plankton that bounce off leaves to bell tones (arguably the most gamelike, these plankton even provide a reward for visually indicated success, and the minigame is arranged into separate "level" layouts, unlike the others); Luminaria, which follow a regular grid of arrows (giving them an inherently syncopatic behavior as they make a sound when each arrow is touched); Rec-Rec, the electroplankton "flagships," which record sound using the microphone and play it back in sequence to a series of alternating beats; psychedelic Lumiloop, which emit waves of sound as you spin them like records; and Beatnes, each providing a chain of sound taken from classic games for the NES (Super Mario Brothers, Kid Icarus), triggered as you touch them and with a brief memory for sequence of touches—providing a surprising variety of musical themes.
The overall experience is incredibly Zen-like; a possible ideological predecessor is The Journey to the Wild Divine, a biofeedback game requiring players to tame their brain waves to advance. Most impressive about Electroplankton is not its versatility, its amazing synthesis of visual and auditory art, or its intuitive interface, but its remarkable tuning. The designers have structured this game such that within moments of manipulation any electroplankton group can provide a totally unique, startlingly tranquil musical sequence intricate enough to stand up to long-term listening. This kind of refined environment, where it is nearly impossible to go wrong, is a staggering undertaking from a design perspective, and I have to postulate that nearly all of the development time was spent on honing the edges of this experience, called "tuning," purely because each possible experience is so refined, and because of the near impossibility of making a "mistake." This is another aspect in which Electroplankton represents the future; like Will Wright's forthcoming Spore, it relies on a basic programmed foundation starting from the atomic sound level—irresistibly suggesting Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science—that blooms upward into a near-infinite array of potential experiences. And the result, so simple and yet suggesting such powerful mastery of artistic "atoms," is beautiful. As soon as I started playing the game I felt compelled to set up a musical sequence and leave it repeating, with its tiny progressive variations, while I was working in the office. Games are so often focused on the competitive, which is inherently stressful—Electroplankton is anything but.
Rather than setting any concrete goals or objectives, Electroplankton leaves the endgame in the hands of the player. This may be perilously close to having no "endgame" at all, but the challenge, the objective, is to create a musical sequence that pleases you. This differs for every person, and differs for the same person at different times, resulting in endless possibility. Hand the game to a stranger and watch as their expression turns from curiosity to confusion to intrigue to rapture, and that's another level of entertainment all on its own. Watch which plankton they like best and you may even learn something about their personality.
The game's one downfall is that its experience is completely ethereal—you can't save your musical minimasterpieces. This lack-of-feature is so obvious that I have to conclude it was intentional, though the reasons elude me. With the simple nature of the games, the lack of a save feature gives the impression of a product that could have used a bit more time before reaching store shelves—but I would be interested to know (and not wholly surprised) if Toshio Iwai had a deliberate reason for it. Perhaps the experience was always intended to be temporary, ethereal—like a dream.
The clarity of vision and smoothness of execution of Electroplankton can't help but conjure up dreams of a utopian future. I can imagine a room, bathed in colored lights, where a person draws a curving line across the wall to adjust the pattern and hue of the lighting, simultaneously conjuring up soothing music in tones aligned to the warmth or coolness of the colorful visualization. From our modern vantage, Electroplankton is a tiny, momentary escape into another world, one filled with tranquility and a mathematical harmony—technology at its very finest.
Erin Hoffman is a writer and game designer currently living in upstate New York with her husband and a small menagerie. She works for 1st Playable Productions and can be found online at http://www.gryphonflight.com. You can read more of her work in Fantasy Readers Wanted—Apply Within, Enchanted Realms II, and The Best Software Writing I: Selected and Introduced by Joel Spolsky.