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THE SOCIAL TOUCH
Redefining ‘party games’, developers are putting their players in the same room and seeing what happens
By Phill Cameron
If you squint, it wouldn’t be so hard to imagine a bead of sweat trickling down the side of the faces of the two men. There’s so much concentration and focus held between their gaze that it wouldn’t be surprising. They move cautiously – almost gracefully – in a slow circle. No sudden moves and nothing aggressive. Not yet. One feints, his left hand moving forward in an attempt to put the other on the back foot. It almost works, but his opponent quickly recovers and makes a lunge of his own, only to be foiled by a quick parry. They retreat a step, and continue to circle one another, eyes locked, feet moving in step.
There’s a soundtrack: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, that plays in slow motion. Each note is drawn out to a sinister degree, the kind of sinister this abstract knife fight needs. It’s not just a soundtrack, though. It’s also a signal, and a warning; something to keep the two on their toes.
All of a sudden, the music speeds up, and so do the fencers, their movements matching the increased tempo. Desperate lunges and sudden feints become too fast to watch. One gets the upper hand, literally, fingers coming up underneath his opponent’s guard and knocking his grip. An explosion sounds. The LED on his Move controller goes dead. And, as far as the game engine powering Johann Sebastian Joust is concerned, so does he. Seven players are placed in an arena and given the task of jostling one another’s controllers, causing that explosion to sound and knocking them out of the game. That’s it. Which leaves a lot of space for interpretation.
Standing in the bitter cold of an early February evening at London’s Wild Rumpus, I see one player take off his scarf and use it like a whip to slap another player’s controller. Another adopts an unassuming pose, incongruous among the couched, paranoid attitudes of the other players, and just walks up behind a player and pushes their hand, eliminating them. One, particularly tall, just holds his controller high above his head, in a misguided attempt to keep it out of reach. Unfortunately accelerometers aren’t immune to height, and he’s quickly knocked, and knocked out.
This is a videogame that resolutely defies that term, taking the video out of the equation, and keeping the electronic element to a bare minimum. It’s a game that’s about the people that play it, rather than what they’re playing. The ambiguity in the rules and the space for players to come up with their own is absolutely intentional, and part of the beauty of JSJ. It’s an analogue game in an increasingly digital world.
Johann Sebastian Joust has been developed by Douglas Wilson, a member of both game developer Die Gut Fabrik and the Copenhagen Game Collective, a Danish institute that’s produced more than its fair share of these odd, motion-controlled physical games. As Wilson states: “Indie games can be more than just ‘products’ distributed over the internet. J.S. Joust is more of an ‘event-based’ game. It foregrounds context, not just content. There’s a lot of fertile ground to be explored at the intersection between games and more experience-based creative traditions like performance art, new media art, live-action role-playing, etc.”
Fertile as they are, these grounds are not virgin territory. Games like Buzz and Rock Band throw a bunch of players into the same room, feeding off the presence of each person to elevate the game beyond people hammering at bits of expensive plastic. They by no means plundered the soil, either technologically or conceptually, but they certainly got there a while back.
These aren’t concepts that are new; they’re just new to videogames. There’s a level of irony there. Inspired by physical, social games like tennis or football to make Pong or, more recently, games like the FIFA or Madden series, digital representations of games that are about as physical as they get. We flew to one extreme, without considering a middle ground…
This is just a small extract from the full feature in Issue Two. To read the entire article, click here to purchase the complete digital edition of Continue for just $2.99/£1.99/€2.25.