All Tech Considered
2:26 am
Fri May 9, 2014

Joust To The Music: Video Game Evolves Beyond The Screen

Originally published on Mon May 12, 2014 2:26 pm

On a plaza outside a hotel in Culver City, Calif., four people are stalking each other with PlayStation Move controllers. The devices look a bit like microphones, with glowing orbs on top lit up in pink, yellow and blue.

Video game designer Douglas Wilson is holding a portable speaker, blasting Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.

From afar, this looks like some sort of public performance art. But it is actually a high-tech combination of tag and musical chairs, called Johann Sebastian Joust.

As Wilson describes it, "It's half playground game and half a video game. But it's this interesting intersection between those."

Here are the rules:

The music playing in the background controls the flow of the game. It erratically changes tempo, and the players must change the speed of their movements accordingly.

When the music plays quickly, the competitors can move quickly. When the music plays slowly, they are forced to move in super slow motion.

Each controller has motion sensors to detect whether it's moved too quickly. If a player messes up — or is pushed by a competitor — the orb turns red, and that player is eliminated.

The players take their cues from music, rather than graphics on a TV screen. This means the game can be played almost anywhere. It also means that it might not technically be a "video" game.

"You could argue that it's not," Wilson says, "because there's not really video involved."

Wilson came up with Johann Sebastian Joust in 2011. He was inspired by a folk game he played with friends in Denmark. That game involves two players wearing blindfolds, moving in slow motion while attempting to be the first to tap the other with a wooden spoon.

His goal was to recreate that sort of interaction using video game technology.

"It's also really fun to see the facial expressions of your friends and to no longer be so tethered to this strange screen," Wilson says.

And, unlike most games for the Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect, Johann Sebastian Joust is physical. You're encouraged to chase or push your fellow players.

"It's a pretty open-ended game," Wilson says. "How you hold your controllers or where you stand? ... Are you allowed to kick other players? The game itself doesn't really specify all of that, so different groups of players start negotiating and enforcing their own social rules on top of the computer system."

Jesse Schell, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, says the basic concept of physical interaction is a novelty in itself.

"Video games that involve touching other people, that just doesn't happen," he says. "Video games are usually so much about just interacting directly with a virtual world."

Johann Sebastian Joust became a hit at conventions and other events, but it wasn't easily commercially available until now. Part of the problem was that the concept is so hard to explain.

Wilson says it was a challenge to present the idea to publishers. "It becomes this kind of question, like, OK, well, will this thing sell? Will people understand it? And so forth," he says.

So Wilson did what many indie game makers do these days: He crowdfunded the project on on Kickstarter.

Instead of risking going it alone, he teamed up with other indie designers to create a compilation of arcade-style games, called Sportsfriends. The games can only be played by people who are physically in the same room together.

After months of delays, Sportsfriends hit the PlayStation Store this week. The developers are planning a release for PC, Mac and Linux soon, as well.

Schell of Carnegie Mellon says that while Johann Sebastian Joust may seem like a novelty, or gimmick, there's more to it.

"This game is the tip of a much larger iceberg that is kind of coming our way," Schell says. "I do think we're going to see a lot of growth in the notion of games without screens or games that are designed to be played outdoors."

Schell offers this interesting, perhaps paradoxical notion:

"Look at it this way. Play is very old. Play is hundreds of thousands of years old. And occasionally, technologies show up and distort the way we play games. When computers first showed up, they were very much about single player gameplay — which is weird, because over the history of play, we play in groups, that's what we do. We play together."

Now, computers can handle more: Local multiplayer, online multiplayer. And now that technology has made physical games like Johann Sebastian Joust possible, Schell says, "It's reverted back to the traditional modes of play."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Elsewhere today we're reporting on Screen Free Week, an effort to encourage kids to get some exercise, among other things. Now we hear of people getting off of the couch and out of the living room - for a video game. It's a modern take on an ancient sport: jousting. Here's NPR's Medieval correspondent Travis Larchuk.

TRAVIS LARCHUK, BYLINE: It's called Johann Sebastian Joust.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Get ready to joust. Go.

LARCHUK: The first notable thing about this game is it's not tethered to a TV screen. So players can take the action outside which is exactly what these people are doing, at a video game conference in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME, "JOHANN SEBASTIAN JOUST")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh! I'm telling Mom.

LARCHUK: Instead of staring at a screen, the players are looking at each other. And off to the side, a portable speaker plays Johann Sebastian Bach's "Brandenburg Concertos."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS")

LARCHUK: Four people nervously stalk each other. Each holds a Playstation Move controller. It kind of looks like a microphone, with a glowing orb on top lit up in pink or yellow or blue. Although the game's called Johann Sebastian Joust, the object is to keep your controller away from the other players. And you have keep tempo with the music, which changes. If it speeds up, you speed up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC REVVING FASTER)

LARCHUK: If it slows down, you slow down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC PLAYING SLOWLY)

LARCHUK: If you ever move faster than the music, like, say if another player pushes you, the controller senses it. And you're out.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME "JOHANN SEBASTIAN JOUST")

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Awww.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the winner is yellow player.

LARCHUK: In public it creates a spectacle. Strangers join in like 17 year old Zach Wilson.

ZACH WILSON: This is a game I just found out about. It's really invigorating. I'm going to get you.

LARCHUK: Though Johann Sebastian Joust relies on video game hardware to work, it maybe isn't really a video game.

DOUGLAS WILSON: It's half playground game and like half a video game but it's this, you know, interesting intersection between those.

LARCHUK: That's Douglas Wilson, no relation to Zach. He invented Johann Sebastian Joust. Motion-controlled games aren't new - think of the Nintendo Wii and the XBox Kinect - but Wilson wanted to take the attention away from graphics on TV.

WILSON: It's also really fun to see the facial expressions of your friends and to no longer be so tethered to this, you know, strange screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME, "JOHANN SEBASTIAN JOUST")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Go for the elbow. Go for the elbow. Go for the knees.

LARCHUK: And this game is physical. You're encouraged to chase or push your fellow players. Jesse Schell is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center.

JESSE SCHELL: Video games that involve touching other people, like when - that just doesn't happen, right? Video games are usually so much about just interacting directly with a virtual world.

LARCHUK: And that presents a challenge to the game's creator Douglas Wilson: selling a video game without video.

WILSON: It becomes this kind of question like OK, well, will this thing sell? Will people understand it?

LARCHUK: So he Wilson did what many indie game makers do these days and he crowdfunded the project on Kickstarter. And instead of risking going alone, he teamed up with other indie designers to put Johann Sebastian Joust into a compilation of more arcade-style games. It's called "Sportsfriends." And after months of delays, it hit the Playstation store this week.

Jesse Schell says while Johann Sebastian Joust may seem like a novelty or a gimmick, there is actually more to it than that.

SCHELL: This game is the tip of a much larger iceberg that is kind of coming our way. I do think we're going to see a lot of growth in the notion of games without screens or games that are designed to be played outdoors.

LARCHUK: Schell says, paradoxically, technology has improved to the point where now it's helping people play games the way they did before computers came along in the first place: Face to face. Travis Larchuk, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.