Folk Lore: How Johann Sebastian Joust is defining a new gaming genre

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Round one

My roommate and I have been friends since childhood, and in all the time we've known one another, no act of physical aggression has ever passed between us. That's why I'm so shocked when he throws a furious barrage of jabs and swipes at me in the living room of our apartment.

In his defense, it isn't against the rules.

We're testing an alpha build of Die Gute Fabrik's Johann Sebastian Joust with the only two Move controllers I own. It's meant for more players than that, but the amateur-duelist vibe is working for me.

We quickly learn that there are many things that aren't against the rules. I attempt to knock him out of the game by launching a throw pillow at his vulnerable, controller-holding hand. He protests, but again, it's not against the rules - I suggest that it's called a "throw pillow" for this very reason.

He has me cornered in the kitchen when the game's guiding tempo of classical music spikes. We both lunge at each other's off-hands, but his wingspan far outmeasures my own, ensuring that his blow connects a half-second quicker. I fall to my knees in disgrace as the tip of my Move goes red, and his glows a sequence of victorious neon hues. I'm exhausted, and grinning.

"We're going to need more controllers," I say.

A slow-motion epiphany

Johann Sebastian Joust is novel for many reasons, not the least of which being that it's a game about exchanging blows with friends and strangers while protecting - to the outside observer - a florescent magic wand.

The actual magic of Joust, however, is that (unlike just about every other video game in existence) there's only one rule hardwired into its barebones logic system: If you move your controller beyond the acceptable motion threshold, you lose.

The Mac-based game client reads the gyroscopic output of each players' Move controllers, distributing a warning rumble to players who approach that threshold; or a deafening, game-ending boom to those who pass it. The meat of the game - the manner in which you jostle your opponents' controllers while defending your own - is left purely to the invention and adjudication of its two-to-seven players. For example: Is kicking allowed? Shoving? Projectile weaponry?

Joust rides at the vanguard of a genre that's as old as written language, but entirely new to video game culture. It's part of a movement heralded by bands of independent game developers and digital artists searching for unexplored intersections between virtual mediums and physical interactions. Joust is, in the grand tradition of Tag, Hide and Go Seek and Red Rover before it, a folk game.

Kind of.

Johann Sebastian Joust in Death Valley! from Die Gute Fabrik on Vimeo.


The term "Folk Game" has been co-opted somewhat from its original definition. Traditionally, folk games feature no specialized equipment, and their few, player-mediated rules are subject to transform as they're transmitted orally between cultures and generations. Folk games are old and ubiquitous, created by ancient forerunners and played by millions of schoolchildren across the globe.

Video-folk games, however, are the interest of only dozens, maybe hundreds.

Douglas Wilson's entire career has centered on the possible implications of this untapped genre. He's currently a student of the IT University of Copenhagen Center for Computer Games Research, finishing his Ph.D in Interaction Design and Design Theory. He the co-owner of Die Gute Fabrik, the small development team behind last year's arthouse puzzle-platformer Where is My Heart, among other, more physically demanding titles. He's a co-founder of the Copenhagen Game Collective, a group of artists and developers which could just as easily and aptly rename itself "The Monsters of Folk Gaming."

It was at the 2011 Nordic Game Jam - a 48-hour development marathon organized by the Collective and the IGDA - where Wilson first came up with the concept for Joust; a concept fueled by a simple, yet poignant observation.

"Moving in slow-motion is fucking fun," Wilson says, with the conviction of a man who has had to defend this very point at the highest academic level. "It's basically the funnest thing you can do. That was my thesis going into that project: Moving in slow motion is rad, and we should do a game about that."



It was a simple enough idea that was transformed by inspiration drawn from one of Wilson's earlier, more mean-spirited games, B.U.T.T.O.N., in which four players race to compete increasingly humiliating tasks before hitting any button on their designated controller. Failing that, players can just tackle one another, or unplug all the controllers but their own, breaking rules that are non-existent and unenforced.

"We were testing the sensitivity of this slow motion game, but inevitably, every round, we would turn to each other and try to make the other lose," Wilson said. "That's theB.U.T.T.O.N. sensibility - this really adversarial physical fun. At that point we realized the game we were playing is some sort of a 'dueling, jousting hit the other guy's controller game' and it all fell into place from that."

The slow-motion impetus for its creation remains an integral part of the game. Selections from Johann Sebastian Bach's "Brandenburg Concertos" play from the Mac client, fluctuating in tempo to dictate the sensitivity of each player's controller - and, in turn, the relative speed of the game.

In slower stanzas, players tiptoe around each other, the slightest tremor of their Move-hand knocking them out of the game. When the pace suddenly quickens, those same players tilt at one another, their free arm outstretched and ready to disrupt an opponent's equilibrium.

It's more like an actual, medieval joust than you might imagine.


Independent Games Festival chairman and Venus Patrol founder Brandon Boyer is credited as one of Joust's earliest testers, a relationship that started when Boyer played one of the first, Wii Remote-based builds of Joust at the 2011 Nordic Game Conference.

"Its appeal was immediate," Boyer said, "partially due to Doug's hypothesis that anything in slow-motion is inherently rad, but also in how much it instantaneously turned a group of strangers into a hunched-over and hyper-aware feral circle of predators doing that slow dance around each other."

The game made its stateside debut that same summer at Juegos Rancheros, Boyer's monthly, Austin-based indie game gathering.

"Joust must have been only the second or third thing we showed at a Juegos event," Boyer said, "and staff at The Highball (the lounge where our events take place) still had no idea what to make of us. 'Are you gonna stick around for nerd night?' I overheard one of the clearly super skeptical rockabilly waitresses ask another that was getting off her shift. They both shared a mean-girls type sneer with each other.

"Ten minutes in to the Juegos crowd playing the game, those same waitresses and bar staffers were putting down their trays and asking if they could have their turn yet."


Round two


Now with five Move controllers in our possession, Joust has become an entirely different game for my group of friends. It's very political, we've learned - much of the game is avoiding the attention of the other players, either by puffing your chest and looking dangerous, or outright hiding from the competition.

In one particularly lengthy game, I'm hiding in the shower of a darkened bathroom, hoping my four opponents will knock themselves out. Someone enters, and the glow of my Move betrays me from behind the shower curtain. They report my location back to the living room to a peal of laughter, but for strange, primordial reasons, I am terrified. He throws back the curtain as I make a desperate shove, but I'm too far from the computer to hear: The music is slow, and my movement is far too fast.

This Psycho-like bathroom showdown teaches us an important lesson about Joust: It is incredibly beautiful in the dark. We use potholders to unscrew the motion-activated floodlights from my front yard to give ourselves a larger, duskier area in which to lunge and retreat. My neighbors watch from their porch, caddycorner to my apartment. They laugh with each overdramatic riposte, each childish squeal of victory and defeat.

Two houses down, a young girl stands on the curb and watches us with silent bemusement. After she leaves, I walk barefoot to the street to see what she saw: Disembodied lights, colliding, going red and extinguishing in the yard. We must have looked like ghosts.

Building a babycastle

For one night in early September 2011, a shipping and receiving office on the Williamsburg edge of New York's East River became a theater of war for would-be Jousters. Strangers, friends and colleagues swiped furiously at one another's Moves; but across the room, even more aggressive modes of combat unfolded. A pair of helmeted brawlers grabbed fistfuls of each others clothing, swinging their free hands like clubs towards their opponent's skull. In another corner, two more duelists swiftly pivoted to face one another, drew guns, and fired.

The event - a Babycastles indie game exhibition both appropriately and inappropriately titled "Fuck the Screen" - has brought together some of the adolescent folk genre's most important games and game-makers. Wilson's talent is represented not only byJoust, but also Mega GIRP, a modification of Bennett Foddy's Flash-based mountain climbing sim/typing teacher. Fitting of the physical nature of the other folk games in attendance, Mega GIRP is played with four interwoven DDR pads rather than a keyboard.

Matthew Parker is an interactive artist and Fellow at Eyebeam, a New York-based art and technology collective. His credits include Recurse, a webcam-based motion game in which players must twist and contort their bodies to match patterns on a digital background. It's reminiscent of any number of Kinect games, but it preceded Microsoft's motion sensor by more than a year.

At Babycastles, Parker demoed Duello, the Wild West-themed Wii Blaster quick-draw game mentioned above.

"Obviously, I'm a little biased, but I thought that was the best night of Babycastles that I've experienced," Parker said. "It's hard, when you just have a couple of people crowded around an arcade cabinet, to feel like everyone is experiencing the game. At that particular event, it felt like everyone was part of everything.

"The people who wouldn't normally play games got sort of pulled into the games, because they didn't have to seek them out. They were just happening, everywhere, all around them."

The aforementioned bludgeoning was facilitated by Kaho Abe, an honorary fellow at Eyebeam. Her focuses include the (rarely combined) fields of fashion design and game design, with a focus on wearable technology. That concentration inspired her most recent project, Mary Mack 5000, which turns the titular folk clapping game into a Rock Band-esque rhythm game, complete with pressure sensitive gloves and vests.

It also inspired her Babycastles exhibit, Hit Me!, which tasks players with hitting a fight stick button wired to their opponent's helmet by any means necessary. The button is wired to a camera embedded in the helmet, which snaps a picture of the hitter.

Points are then rewarded not only for making contact but also - by vote from the audience and judge - for the quality of the victory snapshot.

"When you're playing a game like that at an event where you're socializing with friends, something great happens," Abe explains. "Every single person who plays it has the freedom to come up with their own styles of play, and you can start to tell by body language and facial expression what they're thinking - what they're planning. It's kind of fun to watch that unfold."

The games that Wilson, Abe and Parker have created define the video-folk genre. Each requires physical activity and social interaction. Each have very few rules, which players must enforce on their own. They also require a small sacrifice of dignity - even Joust, which does not require the aid of mechanical vests or camera-helmets.

Nonetheless, Wilson continues to offer Joust demonstrations in public forums, often with complete strangers who may not be prepared for the melee, or to be more precise, how ridiculous they're going to look while moving in slow motion.

"To me, the concept has always been to provide an alibi," Wilson explained. "All these games are just providing a societal alibi for people to act this way. If you were just walking down the street and I started moving in slow motion, every one would freak out. But suddenly, when we're playing a game, it's okay for whatever cultural reason.

"Making a game around these bizarre, fun actions is a really powerful way of publicly enabling us to do silly things."

Round three


The self-made rules are starting to surface. The way we've taken to playing Joust has a kind of unspoken nobility to it; for the most part, clashes between two individuals are left unperturbed by the other three players on the field. Ousted players walk away with grace and dignity - those who make post-mortem attacks are given as harsh a verbal reprimand as the other players can muster.

We've discovered the games editable Settings file, which allows us to flavor the game in almost every conceivable way. We play on teams, adjust the sensitivity and handicap of each controller. We enable invincibility, which lets players squeeze the Move's trigger to become invulnerable for two seconds, giving them freedom to duck an oncoming attack, or make a desperate lunge without fear of disqualification.

We've even developed a few of our own gametypes, very few of which make much sense. In BERZERKER, players hold Moves in both hands, and then just, sort of ... run into each other. Usually, players who lose one of their Moves will go into a full-blown blood frenzy, which is fun both to watch and to do.

Just as we have taken ownership of Joust, it has, in a way, taken ownership of us. Email threads about future gatherings feature the term "pre-game Joust" more often than not. In discussions with friends who've yet to play the game, we speak with a level of excitement we reserve for few other subjects.

"Just wait until you try Joust," we evangelize. "You're going to love it."

The Joy of Hitting Strangers


The one aspect which separates games like Joust, Hit Me! and Duello from their folk influences is also the issue which will likely stunt the growth of the entire genre: These games, to varying degrees, are relatively inaccessible. Forget the fact that they aren't available through traditional commercial channels - most require unique peripherals, immense technical savvy and large groups of players who are willing to experiment with them.

That's a tough needle to thread, but it's giving rise to a fascinating phenomenon: Specialized communities are forming around these community-based games, creating a symbiotic relationship between folk games and ... well, game-folks.

Brandon Boyer has seen the game grow alongside Juegos Rancheros, which has played host to even more folk games since Joust's debut. The latest event featured Wilson and Foddy's Mega GIRP, played on a stage in front of an entirely rapt crowd.

"This rapidly proliferating idea of curating regular spaces and meetups for public play sort of demands a game like Joust," Boyer explained, "and Joust demands a space like that for consensual adults to be able to put down their guard and accidentally smack strangers in the face and throat with lit rubber orbs and zero reprisal."

Across the globe, like-minded individuals are getting caught in these games' gravitational pull, forming organizations and hosting events like Come Out and Play in New York and Hide & Seek's Weekender festivals in the UK. In London, a new series of events by the name of The Wild Rumpus are beginning to pick up steam.

"I don't feel I can speak for everyone, but for me its that I don't see why the style of games we played back in the playground had to be left there," Rumpus co-director Marie Foulston explained. "I don't just want to play against a machine, I want to play with other people.

"For video games especially, the concept of being physical and shifting away from the screen still feels like a contradiction in line with traditional expectations, but it's a fantastic one."

Still, the outreach of these groups are limited when contrasted against the larger game-playing populace. There's a spectrum of casual accessibility for folk games, and unfortunately, so many are perched far on the inaccessible side, destined to live exclusively in art exhibits rather than living rooms.

Some of Wilson's other folk games are found at that end. Beacons of Hope, his take on survival horror, sees three players hunting down other players in a large, pitch-black room while holding Move remotes that glow a haunting red when the hunters move too quickly.

In Awkward Tarzan Grinding Game - a byproduct of this year's Nordic Game Jam - players must "swing" between 20 Move controllers hung from the ceiling, all the while keeping hold of two remotes which match their team's color.

Both are, for all intents and purposes, unreproducible.

Joust falls on the exact opposite end of that spectrum. It takes mere moments to set up. Even to an absolute gaming amateur, Joust's core concept - hit the other player's controller - is incredibly easy to grok. It's quickly beloved, not just by the game consumers who come in contact with it, but by other folk-focused developers.

"I think it's super accessible," Eyebeam's Matthew Parker said. "I've said this many times, but I like Joust so much I sort of hate it. It's probably the game I'm most jealous I didn't make. I feel like it's so elegant and perfect and well-made that, every time I see it, I wish it was mine."

Though Wilson's Ph.D. program currently occupies a majority of his time, the releasability of Joust isn't lost on him. He said he's talked to Sony about publishing the title, though he couldn't specify exactly how far those talks have gotten. Other options include a standalone "toy" with Move-like controllers and an MP3 boombox, or even a smartphone port.


Joust - Original Prototype (via doouglevideos)


"I promise," Wilson added, "I promise, promise, promise Joust will be released, hopefully this year, in some form for the general public to enjoy. Again, I don't exactly know in what form, but I'm so desperate to - even more than making money, which you know, would be great, the primary goal here is to get people out there enjoying this thing."

There's something unique about the ubiquitous delight shared by those who've played the game, and given in fully to its preposterousness. These people are eager to share war stories of their favorite moments with Joust - moments of novel, emergent mirth that every game strives to (and few games actually) achieve.

"It's down to these two girls, one of them my friend Sidsel," Wilson recounts, "and she's getting backed into a corner and this other girl is coming at her aggressively. And then out of nowhere, she lightning-kicks her leg and totally nails the other girl's controller, which goes flying and she wins the round. And at this point nobody had even thought about using their legs, it just hadn't registered yet. It kind of blew everybody's mind."

"It's probably the picture of industry veteran Ed Fries being kicked in the crotch by a player during a particularly fiesty round of Joust at Nordic Game last year," Foulston said, recounting her favorite Joust memory. "I've nothing at all against Ed Fries, but that image is precious and isn't something any other game could have given us."

Those two particular stories are indicative of folk gaming's laissez-faire approach to the government of player's actions: For some, it's prohibitively dangerous. Even the creators of folk games don't shy away from the fact that some players fear the physical or societal repercussions of their titles. Bystanders to the Ed Fries incident likely had some trepidation when it was their turn to joust, and understandably so.

But for those willing to put up with the risks, the other story probably carries more weight. Outside of the range of the Move controller's Bluetooth connection, there are no boundaries to Joust. It is constantly surprising and delightful, and all because it follows a bold, yet completely commonsense design principle: When nothing is prohibited, anything is possible.

Images sources:
Lead image, images throughout: Eric Zimmerman, Griffin McElroy; The Wild Rumpus Natalie Seery