GDC 2013: A tour of Aaahcade's experimental games at the SF Museum of Modern Art

Transcendent is a word that I don't usually like using in association with video games. It's not that it's a bad word, it's just that it always felt a little too pretentious, a little too forced to wave around. At least, that's what I thought. When I finally got to put on a pair of headphones so I could listen to Panoramical , the experience was revelatory. “Oh, so this is the kind of thing you call transcendent.”

If you've ever played Ed Key's Proteus , Panoramical is a little like that. Like Proteus, it's not so much of a game as it is an exploration of an idea: one person controls the procedurally-generated 'music' landscape on screen with the help of MIDI controller. The emergent symphony isn't always beautiful—sometimes, it can be just plain jarring—but when it's done just right, it's, well, transcendent.

Panoramical was part of one-day arcade Aaahcade which was held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a hair's breadth away from Moscone Center where GDC takes place. Presented by BabyCastles, Glitchlab, and SFMOMA, the theme behind the event was the promotion of relaxation, cooperation, and open-world exploration.

Of the six games featured at the exhibit, Marvelous Melodies of Mutazione probably had the most cryptic and the most elaborate set-up. Contained within a large, beanbag-filled tent somewhere in the middle of the room, Marvelous Melodies of Mutazione didn't explain itself. You were just told to walk into the tent. Once inside, players were confronted by a constellation of hanging PS Move controllers, each alit with a different color, and ambient music. I remember sitting down and staring awkwardly at the other participants. What now? One person raised a hand to bat at a controller, triggering a collection of sounds. Another followed suit. It took a while, but by the time I exited the dim interior, people were touching controller to controller, laughing and talking—it was like a camp-out made out of friends rather than coincidental acquaintances.

Ian Bogost's Guru Meditation was about one thing: stillness. Sit on the balancing board. Don't move. Watch the counter go up. Fail, and, be sent back to zero. As anyone who has ever attempted meditation can tell you, it's extremely hard. Distractions are everywhere and it's even more difficult to maintain quiet focus when you're flanked by a dozen curious onlookers. Some would-be yogis were good; the first guy I saw sat gargoyle-like on the board for a good ten minutes. The others? They were more enthralled by the archaic equipment, the fat-pixeled practitioner on the screen.

If you were to turn on your heel and move in the opposite direction, you'd find Ted Martens' Pixel Fireplace . In the dim, intimate lighting of SFMOMA's Schwab Room, it was surreal to see people clustered around a pixelated hearth, intent on even the faintest crackle of the flame. There was always someone in the middle, a keyboard in their hands. Words would fly up onto the screen. A quick drizzle of fingers on keys would follow, and then something would happen. Or was it the other way around? Regardless of what the actual order was, Fireplace never failed to sport a small, attentive crowd.

It was the same with Robin Arnott's SoundSelf, yet another psychedelic exploration title that uses your voice to weave the on-screen visual effects into something new. Consuming a corner of the Schwab Room, SoundSelf's participants and observers were somewhat quieter in their appreciation—only one person at a time would command the shifting patterns on the projector screen. I sat, watched, and occasionally contributed a covert, rebellious note.

Calling Aaahcade an oasis of calm would be somewhat inaccurate. People were still milling about in urgent circles. Though the volume of conversations was more modulated, they still existed in abundance. If there is any one thing that can be said about the event, it's probably that Aaahcade further shows that gargantuan guns, high tension, and familiar tropes are not essential in the creation of worthwhile experiences.