Developed by: Nintendo
Published by: Nintendo
Available on: Nintendo Switch

We don’t so much play video games as we allow them to inhabit us for a few hours or days. And it’s hard to find a better explanation than that for what I was doing in “1-2-Switch,” as I squeezed and moved a small controller the size of half a Kit Kat bar up and down through the air while staring, not at a screen, but into the eyes of a friend who was doing the same thing on his side of the sofa. The reason for this bizarre moment in time was a race to see who, in 30 seconds, could fill the most glasses with milk from a cow’s teat. I filled eight on my first try, and after a few more attempts I’d worked my way up to 13.

Twenty eight of these brief and bewildering oddities await players in “1-2-Switch,” and all feel like they might have been interstitial distractions lifted from some unidentified open world game in which farmers, wizards, joggers, and dancing gorillas might rub shoulders.

The game builds on the simple genius of Nintendo’s earlier motion control games — “Wii Sports,” “Wii Play,” and “Wii Fit” — by packing many different features into its Joy-Con controller. The gyroscope function is used in a game that has you uncoiling a long chain from around a treasure chest. More sensitive rumble motors help simulate the sensation of marbles rolling around in a wooden box. And an infrared camera that can detect shapes and motions is used for a game in which you hold the controller’s camera a few inches away from your face and quickly open and close your mouth while pretending to eat six or eight deli sandwiches before the timer runs out. Another game asks players to re-attach the controllers to the side of the Switch console, remove it from its television dock and cradle it like a crying baby, complete with a crudely animated infant tossing its head back and forth on the console’s portable screen. It was perhaps the most uncanny moment of all the experiences in the game — a human child used as a skeuomorphic wrapper for a software simulation.

Combining these moments of fantastic images and actions with tactile gadgets has always been central to Nintendo’s video game business. The wonder of “Wii Sports” was as much in the devious little controller as it was in the game. The mystery was the mechanism, and one played the game to better understand the properties of the controller. Before fusing the accelerometer’s limitations into muscle memory, players overcompensated for the technology’s limitations with expansive physical movements. The magical controller gave productive purpose to the ridiculous movements.

Since then, though, the mechanism has become mundane and motion controls have become as rote as button presses and analog sticks. To compensate for this, Nintendo has multiplied the number of controller positions and attachments, and almost every mini-game in “1-2-Switch” begins with short rituals of reconfiguration and preparation that players must enact before each.

In the aforementioned “Baby” the controllers and console are reattached to the console to form a whole. In “Joy-Con Rotation,” the controllers are detached and placed on a flat table like a kind of dial while players are given three turns to see who can pick up and twist their controller the farthest without shaking it. In “Beach Flag,” a separate wrist strap and plastic cover must be attached to the controllers, making them easier to hold, while players sprint in place until a controller vibration signals that the finish line has been reached. Players are administrators of the machine’s different modes as much as they are participants in the game.

In a 1963 essay on car culture for the magazine Réalités, Roland Barthes described how a focus on operability over functional experimentation led to the industry’s focus on driving as an aesthetic experience. “Since we can no longer tinker with the object itself,” he wrote, “we are reduced to tinkering with the way it is driven.” Nintendo has made a similarly subtle transition in “1-2-Switch,” which seems to insist that the innovation is in the playing of the game rather than in the game itself or its mechanisms. This idea is reinforced by the video tutorials that introduce each mini-game, almost all of which last longer than the game itself. These videos always concentrate on the body and behavior of the player and gloss over the controller.

Nintendo producer Kouichi Kawamoto described “1-2-Switch” as having been motivated by the hope that players would find more of an animating spirit by looking at one another rather than focusing on a screen. “’It’s been a long time since I’ve looked a person in the eyes like that,’ he told Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu, translated by website NipponGameLife,  “‘I’ve known this person for a while but it’s the first time I’ve looked them in the eyes.’”

This first time I played the game with a friend with whom I have built a relationship mostly around talking, not doing — going to bars or one another’s apartment instead of going to clubs or on weekend hiking trips — and I felt an energy I’d never felt from him. Playing with my girlfriend a few days later, though, the forced eye contact felt like artificial intimacy, as if we were we waiting for something never arrived. In both instances, I noticed that our gazes would always drift back to the screen as if to make sure we weren’t going through all these strange motions just for our own sake. Before we had time to answer the question for ourselves, the game would declare its winner and loser and then ask if we wanted to play again. Saying yes was usually easier than saying no.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Slate, the New Republic, the Daily Beast, the New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.

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