CTRL ALT PDX comes into view at the corner of SE 25th Ave. like a little piece of Vegas: 750 square-feet of window space converted to a glowing interactive gaming environment.
On the westward wall of 2502 SE Division, a four-projector array within the building fills the windows with white rain atop a nightfall of black. On the north-facing wall, passersby are invited to dial a number and start playing.
After calling in and using my phone’s keypad to enter a unique four-digit code, an operator instructs me to design a character—hair, shirt, pants, name—and begin my journey through an alternate Portland in which the evil Mr. Bossman has taken over the city and imposed normalcy on the masses.
“Ugh, what time is it? I must’ve fallen asleep,” says a female voice, setting up my mission. “My head is killing me, I can hardly see a thing in this rain. I just need to get home. Will you stay on the line with me while I figure this out?”
Before I can object or oblige, our unnamed protagonist is interrupted by a Micromanager—a character in Mr. Bossman’s fold who attempts to give our rain-blind homerunner a “mindless occupation, just like the rest of us.”
To avoid assimilation into “tame Portland,” I press 1 on my keypad to write the Micromanager a sonnet, disintegrating the foe’s squeaky little soul to darkness, and our lead lady slips away into the safety of the rain.
The game unfolds on a grid, each section of virtual Portland revealing the next, and various mini-objectives are unlocked: finding and returning an urban farmer’s chicken, battling Micromanagers and Bureaucats (kitties in white suits who uphold standards of normalcy), unlocking dumpsters to mine “chakra crystals.”
Along the way, the lead lady visits various staple retail outlets—those renamed “Hoodoo Donuts,” “Foster’s Books,” etc.—noting a lack of food carts and features which are commonly cited as elements to Portland’s “weird.” As the game wears on, a sort of hierarchy emerges: Voodoo, Powell’s, Stumptown, these are normalizing factors; smaller businesses, the ones that aren’t present in this alternate universe, those are upheld as the true cultural fabric of Portland.
Eventually, the main objective is revealed. You must collect bike parts scattered across the city in order to construct transportation to Mr. Bossman’s stronghold, the final obstacle before the protagonist can make her way home.
When Mr. Bossman is defeated, a naked cyclist is spotted, the Micromanagers and Bureaucats wither away, and Portland is saved from normalcy.
“Nature,” answers Gabe Paez, director and founder of WILD, the Portland-based digital storytelling firm responsible for CTRL ALT PDX. The agency specializes in site-specific, interactive technologies– meaning, they digitally enhance a particular place to impart a message. I’ve asked Paez about WILD’s dream project. “I would love to do something in [the outdoors] that’s both technical and utilizes the form of nature itself,” he explains.
While WILD hasn’t yet wired the wilderness, they’ve got a strong foothold on the knowledge and skills to make their most pie-in-the-sky dreams come true: Paez, with degrees in theater and computer science from NYU, has been in the digital storytelling industry for twelve years, and WILD’s five-member team met while working on interactive installations for museum exhibitions across North America.
“We did an exhibit for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights which was… this six-player game. Basically, you are exploring a town that’s living on this table,” explains Paez. “You’re playing one of the character’s perspectives… [For example], you’re a teacher and you’re trying to prevent one of your students from being bullied, and so you tell one of the bully’s parents about it. That doesn’t always have a good result. You can end up getting the kid more bullied. That was really exciting: to explore these different topics in that way.”
“Another one we have recently done is an installation on robotics for the tech museum in San Jose,” he adds. “We ended up with this form where [visitors] built a robot by plugging these modules into [one another and then a programming table]… We were creating kind of a tool set that, in the right hands, someone could use to create an amazing piece.”
After working as a team on various similar museum projects, WILD officially formed at the end of 2014. Since, they’ve busied themselves creating trade-show exhibits for commercial clients like AT&T and Synchronoss—essentially, illustrating how future technologies would work in the real world—while putting in regular hours on the creation of CTRL ALT PDX.
“The purpose of CTRL ALT PDX… is us coming out as a company,” Paez explains. “To say, ‘We can create a game on the side of a building, let your imagination go.'” The game’s outward message and form, essentially “Keep Portland Weird” set to arcade, is secondary to announcing a presence in the industry.
Though don’t be mistaken, CTRL ALT PDX wasn’t simply tossed together to drum up business—in fact, the building at 2502 SE Division was originally chosen for WILD’s offices because Paez had fantasized about creating an interactive experience on the expanse of windows wrapping the north and west walls of the building.
“I was coming by one day and [the building] was totally empty and I realized these windows are incredible, you know, they’re just asking for something to be done with them. And they’re pixels. It’s like a big pixel grid. So, that’s really why we got this space.”
Site specificity, it seems, has been the core of WILD from the start.
When I make my way to CTRL ALT PDX, the game is offline upon arrival, and I suggest to my date that we take a walk up Southeast Division.
We peek inside the brick-and-mortar Koi Fusion, read the horseshoe succession of menus in a cart pod, survey the logos and visual branding of new businesses.
Here a Salt & Straw, there a Little Big Burger. Weed shops and yoga studios. Each business a blueprint for or replica of one that exists out North or Downtown or wherever else.
Stepping into Whiskey Soda Lounge, Pok Pok’s encore Southeast Division location, my date notes that “they have a Pok Pok out North, too” and I mentally compare where I am to where I live in North Portland, the neighborhoods arriving in my head like the view of strip malls from airplanes—roughly identical band-aid shapes of commerce presenting the same options the same way, again and again, at intervals as regular as population allows.
I think about development companies parroting entrepreneurial innovators with layers of condos atop permeable membranes of retail space, authenticity translated into multinational investment, the previously unique becoming the ubiquitous option.
My experience of Division bleeds into that of CTRL ALT PDX, in which Portland’s identity is constructed as much through staple local retailers as whimsical acts of creativity.
Originality, oddness, “the weird,” these occur in spectral bands centered around well-established “alternative” activities like cycling, yoga, and non-traditional spirituality. The unique aspiration, the experimental practice, the action without category—those singular forces of individuality that originally defined Portland’s strangeness—are overlooked in favor of food carts and nudists.
Following the construction of identity presented in CTRL ALT PDX and the unignorable development trends that have recently transformed strips like Division, Portland seems to be understood through the successful brands and saleable elements of culture that were established during the city’s weird phase, but not so much through activities that deviate from the new normal.
It’s easy to get emotional about the co-opting of the unique and the normalization of the weird, but, in all reality, the most reliable way to create something fresh and new is through a stable base from which to experiment.
This recipe for creative freedom is evident in WILD’s business model—in which corporate projects fund passion pieces like CTRL ALT PDX—and it’s something to find hope in. As businesses like Pok Pok and Salt & Straw expand and the innovators responsible for these places gain capital and stability, it gives them room to stretch out and think about the next great experiment.
Let’s just hope that developers and tastemakers don’t hit Ctrl+P so many times that bright ideas get drowned out by the repetition.
Editor’s Note: CTRL ALT PDX, located at 2502 SE Division, is open every night through Sunday, April 19 from sundown to 11pm.