Familiarity enables access. As a millennial, I’ve grown up online — computers aren’t difficult for me to parse and use for basic tasks. An older audience, however, is accustomed to different tools. How do we reconcile this gap in experience where it concerns digital interfaces? Software developers of the late 2010s had a bizarre answer to this question: skeuomorphs.
In real life, a skeuomorph is an object that imitates the design of an artifact made with different materials. Applying this design philosophy to architecture has birthed my favorite instance (and great example) of skeuomorphism, something I like to call the Candelampra. Behold!
“Luxurious Style Gold Wall Sconce Candle 3 Lights Metal Sconce Light with Crystal for Villa” via BeautifulHalo, whose SEO-maximizing item descriptions are just as extravagant as their products.
In a digital context, a skeuomorph is an element of a graphical user interface which mimics a physical object. The Candelampra does this, albeit physically: it mimics the appearance of a candelabra (full of wax, heavy, impractical, very cool if you’re a medieval vampire) while streamlining its structure for efficiency (has a switch, makes a room brighter, significantly less fire involved). In the digital world, the type of mimicry depends upon the intent and purpose of the software utilizing it — the infamous iOS Notepad app, for one, is mostly focused on copying the aesthetic of those yellow-page notepads you might find in your parents’ house. It survived until iOS 7.
Due to a history of poor implementation, skeuomorphic UIs have drawn some fair criticisms: for one, they can come across as patronizing. Those of us who recall Microsoft Bob have experienced that agony in vivid detail. In attempts to make navigating a computer more “user-friendly”, Microsoft’s desktop “enhancement” involved playing through a cloying point and click adventure to find your files. While the goal was to make their product more accessible, they ended up creating something completely obtuse.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here…
The second and more obvious criticism is one of necessity. Why do we make skeuomorphs? What purpose do they serve? The iOS 6 Notepad app mentioned above has no reason to be reminiscent of physical notepaper, nor does it serve any tactile function that taking notes in real life would entail. It just looks that way, likely with the intent of being familiar and cozy to some users. Unfortunately, it comes across as tacky more than useful; a shallow, dated aesthetic serves little purpose in a digital format. Why do it?
In games, skeuomorphs can tell stories about the daily lives and quirks of different characters, especially through an interactive lens.
While David Cage’s Heavy Rain is not exactly the pinnacle of solid game design or narrative integrity, it does utilize a skeuomorph for an interesting purpose. There’s no logical reason for FBI Agent Norman Jayden to have a digital file cabinet where he organizes his thoughts — he has this for emotional and tactile reasons, instead. Something about the action of opening a drawer and picking out labeled files is familiar to him, and we get to live in that familiarity by performing the action ourselves.
Other games add personality to their characters and atmosphere with skeuomorphs, too. Disco Elysium displays an image of two dice onscreen to represent a player stat check; it’s a stylistic choice to tie an entirely digital random number calculation to a physical object, invoking the feeling of playing a tabletop role-playing game. While the protagonist Harry is himself old-fashioned (and has something of a gambling problem), this choice also illuminates a bit of the game’s origin story. The creator, Robert Kurvitz, had originally planned to make Disco Elysium into a novel — games were a foreign medium for him at the time, so he conceptualized his story as a digital tabletop campaign.
Bayonetta taps into this as well with the use of old film strips as a framing device in cutscenes, usually but not exclusively in flashbacks. “Playing back” a memory like a film evokes a skeuomorphic metaphor, and also contributes to the game’s atmosphere. Bayonetta’s stylish Marilyn Monroe flair alongside a bangin’ remix of Bart Howard’s “Fly Me To The Moon” captures the elegance of old Hollywood with her own colorful spin on it.
Some already-published games would greatly benefit from a skeuomorphic design approach. Accidental Queen’s indie audio drama Alt Frequencies involves the player turning the knob of an old-fashioned radio to solve a mystery across multiple stations — the concept is very unique, though ultimately felt somewhat disconnected from my actions. Some haptic feedback, perhaps making the controller “click” like a real knob in the user’s hand as they rotate the analog stick between channels, would go a long way in making the game feel more immersive and tactile.
When it comes to a game’s design and function, familiarity via tactile sensation is a powerful tool. Back in the day, if you wanted to play a racer inside a faux-Ferrari or spin discs for a virtual audience, you’d have to go to the arcade. While many home consoles did have standard light guns, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that more diverse skeuomorphic hardware became accessible. In 2004, for instance Mario Party 6 was released with a supplemental microphone controller that allowed players to play the game using their voice in certain minigames (it was also reused in Mario Party 7). Like Mario Party 6‘s microphone, other games like Sing It! attracted musicians via microphone-shaped controllers that record player vocals. Grab the mic and sing! It’s that easy.
The very next year, in 2005, a little game called Guitar Hero came out — skeuomorphic hardware saw a huge boom around this time, in part due to the title’s massive popularity. Guitar Hero places buttons along the fretboard of a plastic guitar controller, simulating the act of playing the instrument itself.
The idea of skeuomorphic hardware is the same whether at home or stuffing quarters into House of the Dead: it creates an easy in for players who are unfamiliar with video games. Picking up a light gun and pulling the trigger is simple enough that it requires little explanation. Aim, blow zombie heads off, repeat. Access and immediacy are necessary in the arcade. So why not at home, too?
Via Wikimedia Commons.
Well, the price tag might not help. In a world where custom hardware was not prohibitively niche and expensive, the audience for games could grow tenfold. Capcom’s Steel Battalion went full-tilt with skeuomorphic hardware design, going as far as making a massive, $200 controller that resembles the player’s onscreen control panel. Who doesn’t want to pilot a mech in real life?
Nintendo Labo would later attempt something similar at much more affordable prices, though it didn’t leave the cultural mark that custom hardware enthusiasts were hoping it would. For a while, it seemed that skeuomorphic play was simply not a viable design direction.
Then came along my favorite little boutique handheld: the Playdate!
The Playdate has a crank that pops out from its side, serving as a fully-functional controller. Uvula, a small studio helmed by Keita Takahashi of Katamari fame, has developed one of the 24 original titles slated for release on the console: Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure. The player helps the titular character Crankin make it to a date on time; if he doesn’t, his girlfriend Crankette won’t be happy. In this context, the crank is a literal time-controlling mechanism. Winding it forward lets players skip ahead further into Crankin’s future, while turning it backward lets the player rewind into Crankin’s past — not unlike winding up a mechanical watch.
Other developers have their own ways of conceptualizing the crank as a ludonarrative device. Lucas Pope, creator of Return of the Obra Dinn, will be publishing a new title called Mars After Midnight for the Playdate. In that game, the crank is more like turning those silver knobs that open windows, or a similar device for old-fashioned garage doors — the player opens and closes the blinds to catch glimpses of monsters lurking in the dark.
Via Mars After Midnight’s page on itch.io.
Experiencing an entirely digital world on a screen with the power of our imagination, a few buttons, and a whole lot of polygons is a pretty abstract idea. A skeuomorph might be “unnecessary” to those who are more plugged-in, but when it comes to drawing in new players, skeuomorphs work their magic. Playing Wii Sports Tennis with an uncle you haven’t heard from in a while, getting grandma off the couch to shred in Guitar Hero, teaching a toddler how to wind up the crank on the Playdate, all of these are irreplaceable moments of human connection. Skeuomorphs have incredible potential to make games as a medium more accessible — playing with familiarity in game design via aesthetic and functional choices may be the key to building an even bigger gaming community.