From Feedback to Sensation
There is at least one example of a game that uses rumble to provide direct, tactile sensation instead of feedback. And surprisingly, this title relies on a musical rather than physical texture as its primary tactile inspiration.
Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez is a psychadelic, abstract rail shooter first released for Sega Dreamcast in 2001.
The game is set in the data flow of a computer network, where the player takes on the role of a hacker trying to reboot the system while destroying enemies like viruses.
Mizuguchi cited synesthaesia, the unity of the senses, as an inspiration for the game. It combines striking visual, musical, and manipulative experiences all at once.
As a part of this goal, the Japanese special edition of the PlayStation 2 version of the game included a "trance vibrator," a large plastic dongle that plugs into the console via USB. The device has no inputs, but houses a rumble motor within.
When Rez is played with the trance vibrator active, the device pulses in time with the trance eletronica music that plays during the game. The music, in turn, signals the position of enemies in time with the beat.
The player already has a tactile relationship with the music via timed button presses on the controller, but the trance vibrator allows him to experience the texture of the music, translated into continuous tactile sensations, at the same time as the musical texture is also translated visually into neon abstractions.
Although Mizuguchi denies that the trance vibrator was intended to be a sexual add-on for Rez, that obvious use has been well documented. The potential for sexual pleasure only underscores the way Rez's use of rumble focuses on a different kind of tactility than does Halo or Gran Turismo: in Rez, the player touches the surface of the game itself. The texture of neon light and synth phrases produce a surface one can literally feel.
Video Games that Touch
The abstraction and immoderation of sensation in Rez offers an extreme example of videogame texture, one few games could or should replicate. But Rez sends a signal that other games might wish to tune in.
Just as the texture of a tufted wool rug can please the toes, or the texture of a piece of unagi atop nigiri sushi can please the tongue, so similar tactility can please the body of the gamer. These are pleasures far more subtle and confounding than the anonymous fun of solving a problem in a game.
It might be possible to simulate the tactile pleasures of Go in a videogame. Removing the snap-to-grid stone placement would be a start. A physics simulation could allow perturbation of the stones when they touch, just as so many games do with crates and with barrels. A videogame adaptation could depict the bowls of stones and use a fluid dynamics model to allow the player to stir it while he considered a move, or to spin it in a virtual hand.
Such simulation might successfully refer to the tactility of the original, but that appreciation would quickly become conceptual, lost in the limitations of mouse or analog stick compared to fingers.
Still, the potential is great. We craft every aspect of videogame worlds in excruciating detail: the marbled, diffracted surfaces of water, the filthy grit of alleyways, the splintered grain of bombed-out church rafters.
We render the visual and aural aspects of these worlds in startling vividness and at great expense. But those worlds remain imprisoned behind the glass of our televisions and our monitors. Rez shows us that as far as texture is concerned, games can be as much like food as they are like film.