PAX East 2012: Johann Sebastian Joust Breaks the Ice

As with so many game conventions in recent years, PAX East 2012 was defined as much by its downloadable arcade titles and Independent Game Festival darlings as it was by towering booths for surefire hits. Lots of charming, pixelated graphics and lots of innovative takes on old favorites. But if you were looking for my personal game of the show, you wouldn’t be able to find it on the main show floor. I’m not even sure if there were any formal announcements, but if you were lucky enough to be in the right hallway at the right time, you would have stumbled upon the Move’s killer app, Johann Sebastian Joust.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the game has been shown to the public. This very social game, which requires you to protect your Move controller at all costs, has been generating buzz for some time now. We talked about the game on our show when it was demonstrated at GDC 2012, and it’s been in the works much longer than that. However, I can think of no better testing ground than PAX East, with thousands of admittedly awkward men and women interacting with each other through games. With its emphasis on mind games and physical contact, Johann Sebastian Joust is the ultimate icebreaker.

During my first game, I had little-to-no idea what was going on. “The only rule is that there are no rules,” I was told. That isn’t entirely true, but because the game requires no screen or “controls,” you have a lot of freedom in how you play. At the start of the match, five other players and I activated our Moves – which was accompanied by a series of high-pitched hisses – and then classical music kicked in. I quickly found myself surrounded by two other players, and I jerked my arm back in a panic, shaking the controller and knocking myself out of the match.

Before I rejoined, I studied the players around me. Some let the tempo of the music dictate their actions, while others went straight in for the “kill.” One player flipped a chair and tossed scattered nerd debris at his opponents, which didn’t work particularly well but at least got a few laughs. Hands-down, the most ingenious move came when a player sneakily hid the controller behind his back, waiting until everyone else had been eliminated before claiming victory. With the 30 minutes we spent with the game, I saw as many tactics on display as would in a few matches of Halo. There’s a tiny learning curve, and you’re bound to have at least one opening match where none of the game makes sense, but it doesn’t take long at all before Johann Sebastian Joust clicks.

When the Wii first debuted, there was much fanfare for its approachable, inviting gameplay; it may look silly to outside observers, but who can resist a round of bowling? Speaking anecdotally, though, the Kinect and similar initiatives have only intimidated my friends, and I think much of that has to do with the on-screen feedback and rigid controls. With Joust, players were moving and communicating at will, and it has a playful quality that harkens back to gym class and pick-up sports games. Again, the game was tucked away, but any passerbys had to stop and give it a try. (Developer Die Gute Fabrik excels at this kind of stranger interaction, as I got to see with B.U.T.T.O.N. last year at the MoMA.)

After so many successful showings, the next step is to figure out how to get this game to the masses. In its current state, the game requires a laptop and at least five or six Move controllers to really work, and there are also huge space considerations. But Joust is too good to be isolated to art installations and PAX. Within a few minutes, its readily apparent to me that this game could dominate college quads and recreation halls (and I’m sure that countless others have thought this is well). I wouldn’t mind seeing Sony easing restrictions on the Move and allowing it to be coopted by the same PC community that turned the Kinect into a body-scanning, robot controlling, pancake flipping device. The price of entry is also a little steep, but some smart marketing (and a possible Johann Sebastian Joust campus tour) could counter that a bit. Whatever it takes, more people need to be able to play this.

In the meantime, I’m so glad that this game made it to PAX East. These weekends have always been about coming together to celebrate and play games. PAX is a tribute to the multiplayer experience, and Joust may be its purest representation.

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