It’s pitch black. I’m on a derelict barge in a backwater of Copenhagen harbor, and I’m trying to kick a girl.
Welcome to Johan Sebastian Joust.
It’s interesting to see how the global indie development scene is evolving.
In the U.S., maybe not unexpectedly, success as an indie developer these days seems to include (require?) getting rich. Or at least selling a lot of copies of your game. Being a “starving indie” is only cool for so long, and the champions of the indie scene are all sitting on million-sellers.
I’ll never complain about that – I truly believe that commercial viability can be an extremely valid success criteria for art. Heck, with the exception of one lame zine, I’ve built my entire career on commercial art, and I’d never apologize for that. I love commercial art, and I love the commercial success so many indies have had. I want that to continue forever.
But I also think that art can and should be valid for its own sake, and on its own terms. I worry that some indies in the U.S. are trying to force their art in commercial directions it doesn’t want to go. Or worse, they’re unrealistically expecting that commercial success is an inevitable function of creating great art. Sometimes, great artists do need day jobs.
That’s one of the reasons it was so refreshing hanging out with some indie devs in Europe. While the tiny start-up / indie developer ethos I worship seems to be much less respected by the mainstream than it is in the U.S. (where, in the heart of every salaryman lurks an unrealized entrepreneur), there seems also to be less focus on the part of indies in creating necessarily commercial offerings. Therefore, the games can sometimes be much more novel, much stranger, and (sometimes) much more fun!
Which brings us back to Copenhagen and that barge. The boat is part of an art collective, and one night last May I crashed the Copenhagen Game Collective’s boat party. There were three or four games set up: B.U.T.T.O.N., tortuous keyboard rock-climbing game GIRP modded to work with four dance pads, and of course, Johan Sebastian Joust.
Joust is fairly straightforward. You have a motion controller (in the May prototype, a Wiimote), some Bach playing, and two enemies. No screen. No visual cues at all.
The rules are simple: If you move your motion controller too fast, it buzzes and you lose. If your opponents lose before you do, you win.
The motion controller is set to extreme sensitivity, meaning you have to move very slowly, and very gently. Occasionally the music speeds up for a few seconds and so can you, but basically this is slow-motion aggression.
The game almost quintessentially captures some of the themes the Copenhagen Game Collective has been working toward recently. It forces humans to interact with each other. It gets players looking at each other, not a screen. And it explores the intrinsic fun of slow motion.
Fun. Fun is an understatement with Joust.
There’s a reason that every online video of a play session shows all the participants grinning like idiots. Boldly put, this may be the greatest multiplayer game ever created.
As you slowly circle your opponents, arm held up and back (or down and forward) every element of deviant human behavior can be and is explored as a strategy. It’s a game theorist’s dream. From luring someone into complacency by pretending to gang up on a third player (only to smack your ally’s controller from their hand), to daringly exploiting your reach (or kicking ability!) in a frontal assault, everything is allowed, and through the course of an evening, everything is tried. And don’t forget: a well-timed dodge will put your opponent off-balance and make him move his controller too fast as well, if not better than, a well-timed strike.
Violence, finesse, reach, retreat, perfidy. It all works, and it’s awesome
In my longest match, played in pitch black after a fuse blew, I had a foot and a half height advantage. But my opponent kept shrinking back into the crowd, forcing me to back up and give her room since I couldn’t quite bring myself to kick someone cowering on the floor, even in a game. After six or seven volleys like this, we both laughed and I just shook my controller and committed suicide. She beat me with my inability to overcome societal norms, and we both knew it.
I don’t know if Joust can become a successful commercial product. It’s certainly fun enough that there may be a way to try (a version is in development now for smart phones, and a PlayStation Move controller version, which supports six players at once, is also in the works). But I do know that the game was not conceived by its creators as a commercial product. I think that gave them a freedom that some indie devs in the U.S. lack.
Joust may be one of the most important things to happen in games in years. You can’t be around it and not be wowed by its magic. Whether or not it ever evolves into a commercial powerhouse, it’s creative like this that moves gameplay in new directions, and that’s just as exciting.