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Voyager

Designer Ken Amarit creates a different kind of video game from old-school materials, like wool and clay

by Natasha Tauber in Design on 03 February 2014

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As the NASA spacecraft Voyager I pierced the outer reaches of our solar system in its 36th year of travel (and became the farthest manmade craft from Earth), New York City designer Ken Amarit questioned "what it means to be on an endless mission." In Voyager—Amarit's first video game—players dodge the creatures that inhabit the most distant realms of the galaxy. The digital world he's made, one which "most people assume was created with textured 3D animation," is in fact crafted from quaintly earthbound materials: wool and clay.

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Amarit is an explorer for whom self-taught handwork "sets the mind free." Twigs found on hikes are brewed alongside marigold and indigo cultivated in his Brooklyn garden, which he also turns into dye. "Everything has the potential to yield color," he notes. Materials are pervasively local; Amarit dyes wool obtained from the Queens County Farm, and even from hair shed by dogs. He then needle felts the fibers onto shaped clay forms.

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Once sheathed in wool, finned and tentacled characters are photographed against a green-screen, then moved slightly before another frame is captured. Toothpicks that held the figures in place are Photoshopped out, and the images are sequenced. It is a meticulous and intensive animation, resulting in colorfully quixotic propulsion.

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As an artist-in-residence at the Museum of Arts and Design, Amarit delighted in changing "prejudices against games," play-testing among an audience that "had seen games as form of violent entertainment." A self-taught programmer who previously worked in both video production and web design, the arsenal of skill (old world and new) is deployed in the service of narrative. Voyager began as a film and grew into a game, a finite form in which players are invited to explore the infinite. It is a casual game, but if a player fails to clear satellite debris of a low earth orbit and the game delivers an encouraging lament: "Such wasted potential is truly a tragedy, Voyager."

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Amarit's ongoing experiment in materials continues now that Nest—not the smart thermostat but a local multiplayer game—has debuted at Death By Audio, a DIY Williamsburg performance venue playing host to an ongoing showcase in which independent game designers are invited to build gaming consoles. For Amarit, whose homespun case will offer players "a means of interacting with the game in a physical space," it is another foray into making the virtual real.

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Voyager will be available for free download from the App Store until 7 February 2014. Nest set up at Death By Audio on 1 February 2014. Death By Audio is located at 49 South 2nd Street in Brooklyn.

Photos by Natasha Tauber

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