When I play my Nintendo DS, I expect that I'll be pressing buttons or dragging my stylus along the screen to accomplish something in a game. It could be flipping blocks around to increase my score, steering a cart to reach the finish line first, or jumping up and down to save the damsel in distress. Whenever I play a game, there is, for the most part, a point to what I'm doing. With Electroplankton, I press buttons and use the stylus in a variety of ways to create music—but does that make it a game?
What is Electroplankton?
Described by artist-creator Tosho Iwai as a mixture of a microscope, a tape recorder, a synthesizer and a Nintendo Entertainment System, the program (which is the safest thing I can call it) makes as much sense as that mission statement seems to. The best way to approach it is to think that it's an experience to be felt with the senses the DS is able to cater to, by its use of touchscreen and button interaction with graphical elements to create sound.
Electroplankton is made up of a set of ten modes that allow the user to construct soundscapes of different types by using the DS in ways that are idiomatic to the DS only. Some modes use the microphone to record the user's voice or ambient sounds, but most of the time the crafting is done by use of the touchscreen. Usually, the user is either tapping out rhythms, selecting objects that interact with the plankton native to the mode, or rubbing or drawing. That's about it, really. Whether or not that's enough to warrant a purchase depends on what the user is willing to put into it. Seeing as the program makes everything available at the outset, there is no real sense of progression. Therefore, one cannot designate it as a game in the traditional sense.
Or can they? A number of modes appear to have certain achievements in mind. One mode, called Hanenbow, tasks the player to launch plankton at a plant in a pond, ultimately creating a flower by striking the plant's leaves to make them all change color. The user changes the angle of the leaves using the stylus. The approach is very scientific in nature; it's Newtonian law, digitized. The mode provides a typical game structure: challenge, means of controlling the environment and/or characters, and having a definite, tangible reward. In a way, it's the simplest mode to understand. The audio itself is a reward for changing the colors of the plant, since the sounds become more varied and dynamic with each passing plankton strike.
Other times, there is a goal, but the reward is less obvious, and more within the mind of the user. Take, for example, the Nanocarp mode. In an odd way, it mimics Nintendogs, in that I have creatures at my control, responding to sounds inputted through the DS' microphone. But rather than seeing Fido perform the latest trick when I yell "sit," plankton are making an "X" formation when I clap. Other formations can be made by singing, clapping or a combination of other sounds. The player is as much a performer of the sound as the DS. The sound/music produced by the plankton themselves is ancillary, mostly occurring either by chance collisions by the plankton when they move into or out of formation, or by the user making a wave appear in the water by pressing the D-pad, thus shuffling the plankton onscreen. It's a fun diversion, but it's not enough to make Electroplankton, as a whole, a game.
For most of the time, Electroplankton is about creation and self-discovery. My favorite mode, far and away, is Luminaria. There's nothing to do here but create controlled chaos and listen to the results. The timbres of the instruments compliment each other well, and the syncopation of the different plankton creates huge rhythmic, harmonic and melodic interest. Like a child sitting at a keyboard pressing random notes to hear what combination sounds good in his ear, Luminaria is all about seeing what happens with random experimentation. It's quite an experience. Electroplankton manages to ensure that things never sound nasty by virtue of the scales chosen for each mode. Dissonance is never a factor, regardless of any user action.
In fact, the whole experience is very peaceful. There are no raised pulses, and no FAQ is required. The instruction manual is a hindrance in certain ways, as it takes away some of the discovery of simply sitting down and seeing what can be created.
This begs the question of what is creation in terms of Electroplankton's capabilities and potential. The act of creation here is a combination of three things: the sounds being emitted by the surprisingly-robust DS sound processor; the physical creation by the human user using the input methods of the DS, and the interaction between the user and the mode, with the DS acting as the canvas, the instrument and post-production facility all rolled into one. The best mode designs (and user creations) are those where all three ideals have equal weight.
Unfortunately, when an element is missing, the program falls flat. The Volvoice mode, for instance, just records sounds using the microphone, then warps them using different filters that the program provides. There's no way to create, modify or combine filters. Is this artistic? Debatable, but it isn't nearly as enjoyable or interactive as the other modes. Control over the creation is totally given over to the computer; the user ceases to be a meaningful part of the process. With the ability to directly control the results ripped away from the user, a crucial element of the creation is sorely (and noticeably) missed, reducing the mode to something that most people do with shareware and a cheap computer mic. However, another mode (called Rec-Rec) using a similar principle—recording something with the mic, then overlaying four different recordings like a sequencer or looping machine over a backbeat—has that "something" that Volvoice doesn't. Crafting one's own work is key to the enjoyment of Electroplankton.
Visually, the game has an eclectic style that hasn't been done before—mostly because nobody's had to. Considering creator Iwai's background (a well-known media artist), it's not hard to see why. If Electroplankton were running as an installation piece in a New York gallery, nobody would question its artistic value.
But Electroplankton is not in a gallery; it's on the DS. Does that fact change what it is, or can potentially be? It depends on what the objective is that users have in mind, both when playing with certain plankton and their attitude towards what they're doing with the program in the first place. If they love to create, then they'll find their way, even if it means going for an odd trip here and there.
There are limitations, though. Not being able to save is one of them, but considering the experience is all about creation, it's somewhat understandable—though still lamentable — that this feature wasn't included. The biggest drawback, however, is not being able to combine different modes. The instruction manual frequently suggests using multiple DSes for performance. While impractical, it's the only way to experience the fullest range of Electroplankton's possibilities.
There are definite nods to Nintendo's heritage (one mode has the user layering sound effects over well-known 8-bit track loops), but capital "N" Nintendo this ain't. Videogames this ain't. Art it might be. But what is it?
Electroplankton is. And that's all it sets out to be.
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