Zurich-based game designer Mario von Rickenbach uses technology to create playful experiences that delight the senses and invite audience members to observe and participate at once. With filmmaker Michael Frei, He co-founded the media company Playables, which has produced such award-winning projects as Plug and Play and KIDS. As an instructor at ECAL MID, von Rickenbach also groks the ways in which interactivity and play intersect with the acquisition of that thing we call knowledge.
We spoke with Mario about architecture, puppets, and how to make a game even your grandmother will love.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background in coding and game development?
I started making games when I started studying making games. I was curious about how things are made, but I’d never actually tried to do it. I started studying architecture first and then, at some point, I just understood that it’s not the thing I wanted to do. So I found this other thing I could study at design school, game design.
It was more like a second choice, so to speak, to find something with more interactivity or, in a sense, something where I could really work on a product and not just plan something. That’s how I started.
And so I studied game design at the Zurich University of the Arts, did some projects during that time, and then started doing my own projects. I also worked together with other people on different things. That was almost ten years ago.
What kinds of game development projects most appeal to you typically?
I often work on projects where how it feels to play is more important than what you actually do. One of the main interests, I would say, is to really find compelling interactions and put them together in a thing that is easy to understand and which can be explored by anyone, even someone without any real interest in or previous knowledge of games.
I wanted to ask, how did you originally get in touch with (film director) Michael Frei?
In 2013 I think it was, he contacted me. He had Plug and Play, a short film that he was trying to make interactive. He wanted it to be possible to play with it and not just watch it, so it could reach a different audience.
So we discussed what are our interests, like what kind of things do you like, and we understood that we both liked very similar types of projects, like games or toys that the other liked, like the projects by Vectorpark. One project was BLA BLA by Vincent Morisset, which we both really liked. And this was a starting point of our collaboration, that we had some very similar interests.
We started to work on Plug and Play the game. We started to take the content we had from the short film and find ways to make it playable. And this was really an interesting period at the beginning of our collaboration because we had to really figure out how we could work together, especially from our different perspectives. Like how could we make something that worked for me as a game designer and Michael as a filmmaker.
Later, we kept working together on some smaller experiments and then also, during the last few years, we worked on the more recent project, KIDS, which we really planned from the beginning to have a game but also a short film as a product.
I know that KIDS takes the form of an animation, a playable experience, a physical installation in art galleries. Was that something that you had gone into the project knowing that you’d wanted to do? Were you aware that it was going to take so many different forms when you started working on it?
Yeah, I think our goal from the beginning was really to have a project that could be shown in different ways. So the game and the film were the main part. But the idea to also have some physical installation, to show it, was somehow very close to the project since the beginning.
I think it was just that our work was spread out over all these different formats. So it was really different in the sense that we didn’t finish one thing and then do the next. It was more like we did everything at the same time and didn’t define what it was until we’d finished everything, which made it a bit hard. Compared to Plug and Play, we didn’t have the film, which was just fixed, finished, and a complete project. And with the KIDS, you had all these different directions to go at the same time, which probably in the end made it take longer to find what worked.
Why did you want the experience to take so many different forms?
Partly it’s because of how we work together. We have our format, like I know how to make a game, Michael knows how to make a film. So this was a very practical reason. But also in terms of what it is about, I think, because it’s a topic that could work not just in a linear format but as an interactive format and also in a physical space.
We thought if we could do it, it would be interesting because we could have very different people interacting with the project. This is just a very interesting part of it. So you have, really, these people who just like to watch a film at the short film festival and people online who just want to play a game and they don’t care about the other formats.
I think there are many practical reasons why we did that. Also, it’s interesting to find what’s the core of the project if you have to show it in different ways; at some point you have to kind of agree on some kind of minimal thing, what it is, so you can say, “this has to stay and the rest can change.”
For example, for the physical installation, it doesn’t really matter if the figures don’t do anything or if they work differently or look a bit different. It was more about having them as the main characters in the installation and that they have the same qualities as in the game or in the film. That they are heavy, for example. This was one of the things that we tried to keep while, for example. What happens in the scenes is a bit different in the film and in the game and also in this installation.
When you design these experiences for smartphones, sort of keeping in mind that this could be a mobile experience for people, who are you imagining as your audience? Who do you think are the kinds of people that would be interested in picking up something like KIDS and playing with it?
Generally, we tested with some people who don’t really download apps or who think that they would never like something like that. Especially in the film, let’s say, when you talk to animation filmmakers, many of them they just don’t play games that much, which is a great target audience, I think, because they care about interesting things, but they maybe don’t have a connection to games. And generally, Michael always did this test with his grandmother, which was always a nice one. If his grandmother could play it, then it was probably working.
We also showed it to children who really don’t even know how to play games well. It was interesting to see what they would do. It was more like as a visual to test, to see if you were looking at the right things when you played it. At the end, we didn’t define it really well, like who should play it, but it should not require any knowledge about how to play a game.
Do you sense that the work elicits different reactions from people depending on whether they’re watching it as an animation or whether they’re playing it as a game?
Yeah. It depends, really, on the context. If it’s a serious cultural context, in the sense that you go somewhere to watch some interesting films and maybe get a bit experimental, then people will look at it very differently. Of course they’re going to have more elaborate thoughts about it. But in the end, when somebody just plays the game or watches somebody play the game, you have very simple feedback sometimes, which is also very interesting. I think it really changes a lot, not just depending on if it’s a film or the game, but depending on who is interacting with it. If it’s people acting as consumers of a product, or if somebody is really looking at or playing the game… you would rather have very different feedback, you know what I mean?
But I think both directions are interesting. And of course there are also people who just really can’t understand, or really are not interested in this kind of project, which is also interesting to hear about. We had these feedbacks, people who would really say, “yes, I know what you want to do, but I really don’t like it,” or people who somehow didn’t like the basic idea of this project.
What were some of the challenges you faced in designing the experience for a physical location? Especially a gallery space where you have to consider so many physical aspects of experience?
The first time we showed the project was at the Museum of Digital Art in Zurich. We didn’t yet have the game finished or the film. So we had this month and we showed the project. We were not completely sure how best to show the project yet, so we had it in this case, like a projected installation of an interactive film. And we had these puppets and the game to play. So there it was about filling the space with this project in different ways. You could spend more or less time depending on your mood, you could play the game, you go into the room with the projections, or you could just carry around some of these physical puppets. And this is interesting because people connected with different things first. Some were really interested in the game, some were more interested in this projection room.
Other people, they just carried around these puppets as a starting point, but then they started to also explore the other parts of the exhibition, which was interesting. So it was not completely done; we didn’t design it in a way that defined what you should do first. It was more about figuring out how people could connect to this experience through the thing they’re most interested in first. Then they could explore the other parts later.
Were people given instruction at all? For instance, were people told that they could pick up the puppets?
It depends a bit. I think most people intuit the instruction; they just get a puppet. So somebody gives them a puppet and says, “you can keep this puppet or not,” just so it’s clear that the puppets are meant to be interacted with. They are not a decoration. They’re really there to hold or to be moved, or you can also just leave them somewhere. And this was interesting because it already, at the beginning, somehow made it clear that the visitors should just try to figure out what to do themselves. Even in this space, it was not like there wasn’t a clear order of things. So they just had this puppet and they walked around.
I think this works very well. We were not sure about it at the beginning—if it worked, if people were interested in that or not. But, in the end, I think the fact that it is something very physical and heavy makes it easier to look at the digital parts. You still have some kind of object that is not just the screen, but is a part of the same world.
Did you notice that people reacted a certain way because the piece was presented in a serious art gallery context?
They took much more time than other people. If you see the same thing online, you’ll take much less time. Being in the art gallery, you expect more or you expect that there is something to think about. So there was for sure this expectation, but we didn’t know who actually would go there, like who would come to such an exhibition. And it was interesting to hear the people’s feedback about it because they did perceive it in a very different way than somebody who had just played the game. Interestingly, the overall experience was much more important than, let’s say, playing the game. The game was really a very small part, but it was not this thing they probably remembered after.
Were there any memorable moments that you experienced while observing people interact with the installation in the gallery setting?
We had this space where the puppets were arranged mostly, so the ones that people didn’t carry around. And often there were a few children there and they just played with the puppets. So it felt more like a place to hang out than an art gallery because we had some benches where you could just sit there. People just stayed there, not really looking at something, maybe talking to each other because it was a nice space to just be in. And there were all these puppets, people just held them in their hands while talking to each other about something completely unrelated, which is nice to see. So it was more like a space than just a serious project. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t expect that. I expected people would look at it and then, when they thought they’d seen everything, they would probably leave, but they often stayed surprisingly long.
Why do you think people were compelled to stay?
I don’t know. Maybe it was that nothing was expected from them, so they felt okay to just be there holding these puppets or doing something with them, building piles or arranging them. I think people probably have a very simple connection. So it is a bit less about the intellectual connection to the project and more about it being nice to touch and physically move things around there. I don’t know, for me it’s very hard to understand how, for example, I would perceive this space if I hadn’t known the project before. I think I can just say it was nice to see that, but I don’t completely understand why it was like that.