Maker Profile: The Hand Drawn Video-Sans-Video Game

By Wesley Fenlon

Maker Michael Newman built a video game with arduinos, motors, an infrared sensor, and a marker.

A tiny starship climbs and dives, rockets forward and then slows as it winds its way through a black cave system with no end in sight. At least, it looks like a cave system in the abstract; the walls are really nothing more than thick black Sharpie marks on a rolled up sheet of paper, and there most definitely is an end, but at the moment it's hidden from from view. The paper slowly rolls past, revealing more of the Sharpie cave system. When the ship climbs to avoid a sharp incline and then dives under a low overhang, it's moved by belts and motors, not dancing pixels, and controlled with a classic red-knobbed joystick. It sure sounds like a video game. There's just no video.

"It's the Video-Sans-Video Game," said maker Michael Newman at the World Maker Faire in New York. "It uses an Arduino and infrared sensors. So the infrared sensors detect the hand-drawn game levels. It's really a lot like line-following robots, but it's kind of the opposite. Rather than following the line your goal is to navigate through and avoid."

Newman's Video-Sans-Video Game distills the basic motion of an R-Type or a Gradius down to its simplest form. There's no combat, just a craggly series of lines to fly between with a joystick controller. In the ways it compares to a real video game, it's boring. There are no enemies or time limits, no scores or power-ups. But in the ways it differs, it's delightfully imaginative. Creating new levels is as simple as pulling out a new roll of paper and going to town with a Sharpie. When the ship (which is also a small piece of paper) moves, it's driven by hardware salvaged from, of all things, a tossed-out multifunction printer/scanner/copier.

"When I was a kid I liked to draw video game levels, little spaceships on notebook paper," Newman said. "I always wanted to bring them to life, and I wanted to do that in a way that didn't require a lot of programming. So the logic behind this: There's no game mapping, no level mapping. The game itself is kind of 'dumb' in that it's just telling the stepper motors to spin until the tracker sensor hits dark, then you won, or if the ship sensor hits dark, you lost. So you can draw anything and put it on the scroll and play those levels."

Newman salvaged pulleys and gears from a trashed printer and built the rest of his hardware from simple off-the-web Sparkfun parts--small stepper motors and drivers, an Arduino, a small LCD. The whole thing only took about three weeks to put together, though Newman was planning out the project for about nine months prior to Maker Faire.

The Video-Sans-Video Game's physical form lends its simplest motions a certain charm and awes the kids who play it. It's one thing to touch a tablet's screen and watch something follow your finger around; it's wholly different to watch motors spring into action to carry out your commands, to see the game work to move its tiny ship up and down. Newman wanted the project to appeal to kids, and he has some ideas for how to build on it in the future. It seems inevitable that the paper-based game will eventually adopt more video game staples.

"I'd like to put another sensor in or figure out a good mechanism to trigger events in the game, so like halfway through you'd hit a little indicator which would trigger a sensor, and instead of trying to avoid black you'd be trying to hit black," he said. "With the stepper motors you can definitely change speed. Originally I had thought about doing speeding up, forward and reverse, but it didn't seem like the complexity was worth it for the game flow. So I'm really trying to figure out different game states...People have been saying things like 'oh you need scrolling vertical [obstacles], shooting something as you fly by, or you need somebody else drawing as you're playing.' So I think that a lot of people have really good ideas, and I'm definitely going to post the plans and see if other people take it and do cool things."

That last suggestion is kind of an amazing one. The game can already pull in kids who, like Newman, love the idea of designing their own levels. If those levels can be created and played simultaneously to create a neverending game? That would be something to see.