"Anyway, two cats on a table, laying on their backs with eight nipples each, and by manipulating these nipples, like, pushing them in different directions, you sort of, spray milk from the digital cats that are on the screen in front of you."
Australian indie developer and controller innovator Louis Roots, who set up SK Games in Perth back in 2013, is explaining the core concept of his cat-milking multiplayer game, CatNips. I'm sniggering, the result of several ciders before we retreated to the bedroom in this Brooklyn apartment to talk through his games, but Roots is serious, besides the giant grin splitting up his face. Last night I fiddled with CatNips during a night held at Babycastles' Manhattan space that saw attendees clamoring to play, with as many as four people groping at each cat.
It's a game that only works in a physical space. An event game that requires the furry pretend cats in front of you for the game to even be playable. What made Roots decide to focus on developing for spaces rather than storefronts?
"I was working on that game Subway Surfers that recently hit a billion downloads. It means nothing to me. I don't care at all. But seeing even a handful of people play a game and, you know, love it, in a social physical space, like, that is way more satisfying to me."
By bringing his games to a physical space, Roots gets to show off his work to people directly, being there while players fool around with them. While there are several of Roots' games tonight, with inputs including pizza boxes and giant ears, CatNips is the most obvious success of the show, sat in a pride-of-place position in the center of the room, its display projected onto a wall in the unusual gallery space.
"What I like about CatNips is that it's not really two player, it's two team," Roots says. "It doesn't need explanation. It contains all the things that you can do in the physical hardware. So you don't need to know any extra rules, but you can play with it a little."
"I've been walking past when people play it, and someone keeps losing, and I'm like, 'Well, get your friend to help you out,'" Roots continues. "You know, pull over a mate, get them to man a nip, and you know, spray away. I like it because it doesn't have to be fair. It's whatever is fun for the people playing it."
October's Babycastles was a special one-night-only event for Roots and SK Games. The next day they packed up the kitties and took them across the States for IndieCade in Los Angeles. Roots has been traveling for three months now, bouncing around the Western world touring games events big and small with a backpack full of electronics.
"If I can get more people who don't like video games to like the things that I'm doing, that's a win for me."—Louis Roots
"My backpack was about 30 kilos, I think maybe ten percent of that was clothes," Roots mutters, derailing into a story about desperately asking a colleague meeting him in New York for was some extra T-shirts, after he had to wear the same five through Europe and the UK.
"The rest of it was tools, arcade components, buttons, joysticks, encoders, wires, and cabling. I even took three little mini computers and a little mini projector. It's all been useful, but a year ago we were driving around Australia in a van full of shit, and now I've culled it down to just the backpack."
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I first ran into Roots in London, while he was creating custom controllers for London games event Now Play This, and while I'd heard of SK games, I'd never before met Roots in person. We sat down together at a fountain in London and ate pizza, and I was easily seduced by the idea of someone flying around the world with a backpack full of electronics, making games for social spaces.
Aside from the furry cats, which stayed in Australia until the American leg of his trip, Roots has to ditch all the hardware whenever he flies. In his own words: "After an event, I take it all apart, keep the screws, and leave everything else behind." He's relaxed about the temporary nature of the games he's making, and even the CatNips cats are discoloring over time, slowly shedding nipples under the eager hands of the Babycastles attendees.
Some games, like a tooth-brushing simulator played with a skull showcased in Edinburgh, barely last a night. In response to which, there's one key question: why the hell would someone make a tooth-brushing simulator using a skull as a controller?
On a plane to Denmark, Roots was given an extra toothbrush. "I was sitting there on the plane thinking, 'What can I do with a spare toothbrush?' and I thought: 'Well, you brush teeth with it.'"
Landing in Denmark, where he used to live, he took advantage of some spare time to go to a shop he knew and buy air-dry clay, which he fashioned into a tiny skull with washers embedded in the teeth, to make them conductive.
The finished skull remained in his backpack until he arrived at the first edition of Edinburgh's Games Are For Everyone, held back in May 2015. It was set in a tiny space spare. With nothing prepared but the skull, he hacked something together in a few hours on Unity with code and assets pulled from free 3D object libraries online.
Soon, Roots had a game where you could brush the skull's teeth for points, with a few twists. "I do this glitch art thing, where you download an .OBJ file, you can open it up in a text editor and delete random chunks, and then it loses vertices of the object, and it gets rough and hacky and weird. People were sort of playing it, and as they were brushing the teeth there was this, I suppose, smoke of clay dust going through the projector, and then I remember the first tooth broke."
Roots waved off the damage. "I knew it wasn't going to survive the night, it's not a sturdy, repeatable controller, but I kind of dug that."
The full bar started to make short work of the clay skull, and as the teeth started to erode and fall away from its dentures, the game got harder to play. When the event closed, Roots took the skull outside and smashed it on the ground—"It probably could have just gone in the bin really, but I smashed it for the dramatic effect," he says, sheepishly—before going home and deleting everything associated with the game.
This temporary nature stretches to everything Roots has made. Even CatNips isn't safe with its creator admitting that he can't be bothered to fix it. It's somewhat interesting, especially after a recent piece I wrote for VICE on a potential lost age of gaming, to consider that here is a developer who's eradicating every last trace of his games as he travels.
After IndieCade comprised a climax to several months on the road, Roots returned home to face another challenge: keeping SK games sustainable. While he has had fun and earned a reputation for himself, his name out there in indie circles, he's not bringing in a stable income yet.
It's interesting to consider, but the temporary nature of his games means there's rarely anything left to market or sell after any single event is finished. He's giving people unique experiences as he flits around the world, but each is broken down after play. Every game has a brief shelf light before being burnt to dust.
Fascinated with exploring the space around physical games, Roots is still searching for the sweet spot between doing what he loves and staying afloat. "If there's a way I can work with spaces and physical stuff I think that's going to be the key to finally getting a job I can be really, really happy about," he tells me.
"We want to create a bunch of games based around different parts of the human body, like a genital one, a vomiting one, pimple popping, that kind of thing."—Louis Roots
One goal on his career horizon is a space in Melbourne, a permanent venue that can house an alternating array of Roots' temporary experiences. People can visit him—he won't need to get on a plane and come to them. And people can come from near or far, even if it's just for a beer or coffee. The space will also be set up to make money from its playable exhibitions—but there's no reason people trying to earn enough to survive should be frowned upon for doing so. This is Roots' life, and if people are loving his creations, he deserves to take something from that.
But that's a long way off. In the meantime, there's another exhibition on his mind, and it sounds like a head turner—or, more appropriately, a stomach trembler.
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"We want to create a bunch of physical-slash-digital games based around different parts of the human body," Roots explains. "Like, a genital one, a vomiting one, pimple popping, that kind of thing. We also want to make the entire venue wet and disgusting, probably giving out coveralls to people as they enter, because they're going to get fluids on them. We'd probably tour this alongside a curated selection of other people's games that also deal with the body, like Realistic Kissing Simulator and C*nt Touch This."
Until that's finished? "Hell, there are plenty of places in Australia I still want to host a party."
As we're laughing together in Brooklyn, Roots now almost at the end of his trip, I ask him what advice he would give to others looking to do the same thing?
"Don't drink too much on an airplane (he won't elaborate). Make really dumb games. Make really dumb things. I would say doing dumb things is really fun, and it also brings people together. If I can get more people who don't like video games to like the things that I'm doing, that's a win for me."
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