He calls it the "Fru-zone." In any other situation, two strangers touching hands, holding up each other's legs or pressing limbs against each other would be awkward and a little creepy. But when they get into the Fru-zone — a kind of focused headspace filled with the determination to conquer the levels of the video game Fru — all awkwardness melts away. In fact, game designer David Oppenberg says it becomes something of a bonding opportunity.
"Even if players don't know each other, or they're not usually physical, they don't mind touching each other [once they get into the Fru-zone]," he said. "It's cheesy, but they bond in a way. They accept this universe for a while. So there are not so many awkward moments going on because those moments that would normally be awkward in real-life situations are not really awkward when you commit to the game."
Fru is the latest in a line of video games that require players to physically interact with each other. Like Johann Sebastian Joust, which encourages players to physically knock each other off balance, and Bounden, which tries to get players to dance together, Fru features a co-operative multiplayer mode where two players work together in the same physical space to solve platforming puzzles on a screen.
The game world has three layers: the surface layer, which is what players see before they step in front of the Kinect motion sensing camera; the second layer, which reveals itself inside the first player's silhouette; and the third layer, which reveals itself in the second player's silhouette. The Xbox One's Kinect motion sensor tracks the bodies in front of it and reveals different layers of the game world depending on where and how players position themselves. In order to reveal hidden objects and platforms, players will have to maneuver their bodies into often awkward positions, Twister-style. Oppenberg gave an example where a mountain blocks the path of both player characters and, in order to make it disappear, the two players have to touch so the layers within their silhouettes cancel out the mountain.
The seven-person development team from The Netherlands' NHTV Breda University started development on the game during this year's Global Game Jam. It has since been picked up Microsoft as an Xbox One exclusive, and is slated to launch in late 2015 with both single-player and multiplayer modes. Oppenberg told Polygon that the development team would like to build a narrative into the game so when people play together, not only will they be able to enjoy awkward moments together, they might also be moved by the game's story and challenges.
"I really like experimental games, and I miss this culture of having face-to-face and physical contact," he said. "I think games in general should explore many different approaches. Digital gaming is beautiful, but so is physical gaming and local multiplayer gaming. They all have their benefits. They all have something to add to the medium.
"I think they're beautiful, and when you see someone's reaction in real life in front of you and you share a moment with them, it can be really powerful."