At Somewhat Unsettling, we have a strong desire to explore the potential of novel input methods and peripherals, but the opportunity for us to develop such an experience rarely presents itself.
Our co-founder Andrew Lindsay has experimented in the past with the use of a Wii Balance Board as an input method for a literal walking simulator titled "One Past Midnight". This prototype was submitted for his Honours Project at Abertay University. Whilst the technology for hooking this system up was less than ideal (a third party Bluetooth controller input connected to UDK Kismet), he was still able to implement this unique intended experience for the player.
It was in 2020, 5 years after our graduation that the opportunity to make another alternate controller game presented itself. Whilst squirreling away on admin duties, I stumbled across an email from one of my colleagues - Niall Moody - about an Alt Controller Jam that he was hosting at Abertay from 24/02/2020-28/02/2020. Originally, I only shared the opportunity with my students as both Andrew and myself were rather busy at the time, however the more I thought about it, the more it was the perfect chance for us to experiment! We couldn't commit to the full 4-day jam due to teaching and work commitments, so we decided to set aside a few hours over two evenings to create a proof-of-concept idea. Typically our ideation phase for jams can last upward of an hour but in this case our minds immediately went to Teletext.
Teletext and the BBC's Ceefax system left a lasting impression on us. After its invention in the early 1970s, it was soon adopted by major broadcasters in the UK, starting with the BBC's Ceefax service in 1974. The original Teletext service pages comprised of 24 rows displaying 40 characters each. A user would navigate these pages through inputting a 3 digit code and waiting for the correct page to be decoded to their screen.
Back when we were restricted to lives of rural dial-up internet, the Teletext system was a great way to attain information - like news, weather, tv schedules etc. - on-demand. The blocky visuals, limited colour palette and glow from the CRT screen were seared into our childhood memories. Unfortunately, as the country switched from analogue to digital television, Ceefax ceased its operation in 2012. We wanted to preserve the spirit of the Teletext service by bringing it into the modern, digital era as an interactive game (albeit with a twist!) and make it accessible to a younger generation who may not have the opportunity to experience it first-hand.
We decided for this jam that we would develop a haunted Teletext prototype. With the resurgence in retro/nostalgic aesthetics we were confident that this concept would find an audience (even if the current generation of students may not have been aware of the original Teletext system). To set out on our development journey, we needed to build an input system that would allow for the use of a typical IR television remote. This would not only allow for natural, authentic player input, but also bring with it the quirks of the input not registering first time and the need to directly point the remote at the IR receiver.
As neither of us had experimented with Arduino-based projects before, we picked up a cheap, basic starter kit from Amazon to help us understand the fundamentals of building such a project. After experimenting with a few of the simple tutorials we began exploring how to capture IR input and use it as a control signal for a game. Unfortunately, with the Elegoo Uno R3 that we originally purchased we were unable to take the command output from our Arduino and use it as a game input. After working with the amazing Paul Robertson (and swapping to an Arduino Nano) we finally had a system for capturing IR input and using it to control our HUD and character in UE4.
In order to create an authentic Teletext experience for our users we strived to create the bulk of our static pages using the online Teletext Page Editor available on zxnet.co.uk. This tool allowed us to build content for our pages using a similar method to what was used at the time (although on older hardware). This was a time-consuming process and caused many a headache whilst learning the system and accidentally overwriting our own work! However, even in the limited timeframe for the jam we managed to create a reasonable number of placeholder pages (which we bulked up with a selection made in Photoshop). By the jam deadline, we had managed to create 24 pages in total, 17 of which were made using the Teletext Page Editor tool.
The Teletext portion of the game was to get progressively more corrupted as the player stumbles across information about the disappearance of the TText creators. A mysterious character (we used Bamber Bamboozler as a placeholder) would appear on these screens as you were surfing and would eventually cause the system to glitch out and transport you from the user interface-based game into an explorable first-person world.
The first-person explorable segment would begin with simple fetch quests for the Bamboozler (using the up, down, left, right and select buttons on the television remote to navigate and interact with the world), until the player discovers the remains of the TText creators. At this stage, the player would have to attempt to escape the Bamboozler's grasp in a Slenderman-esque experience. Unfortunately, their attempts will be futile. The game is intended to be experienced in a short 10 minute playtime, so further work is needed to refine the experience and ensure that playtime does not exceed this. This would be crucial as when exhibiting at playparty events we would wish for multiple players (as well as observers) over the course of an evening playparty.
Whilst COVID-19 is still very much a barrier at the moment for non fully digital games, we look forward to developing this concept further as a touring, nostalgia-driven installation game/artwork.