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A Folksy New World

Being It. That’s a concept I grew up on, and I’m sure it’s the same for you. You both love and loathe it. When it’s you, you don’t want to be. When it isn’t, that’s all you can think about. Cumulative years of my life have been spent centered around the simple notion of being different.

Sometimes it’s a meritocracy and other times it’s random. It really just kind of depends on the game. More specifically, I guess, it depends on the folk game, a genre of gaming that doesn’t require a screen or controllers, a genre that includes games like tag, gravel, hide-n-seek, mafia, and any of their innumerable variants like freeze tag, sardines, werewolf, etc. Games like Simon Says and tag shift the It based on mental acuity or physical prowess, respectively. Others, like Red Rover, are arbitrary in their selection.

More importantly, being It can be viewed as either a reward such as with I Spy or as a punishment, such as with tag (and probably every other folk game to have existed). But in every case, being It is generally an empowerment. Everyone else will fear or envy you—or possibly both. Even in Marco Polo where the It is blind and largely clueless, they still wield fear like an ungodly tool. You run, shriek, curse your way from them even though you exist as nothing more than an idea and a sound to them.

This is what game designers call asymmetrical multiplayer (not to be confused with asynchronous multiplayer such as with e-mail chess and Hero Academy). Traditional multiplayer is symmetrical such as with deathmatch modes in Call of Duty or involves mirrored cooperative play like in Borderlands. Being asymmetrical means that one or more players have a completely different gameplay methodology or philosophy or goal or whatever than everyone else. Think about how the second player in Super Mario Galaxy does zero platforming and instead focuses on helping Mario collect Star Bits and stun enemies.

And it seems that Nintendo has been focusing on exploring that asymmetry as of late, building on what they did with Galaxy and many of its games before it (there was an N64 game that had one player piloting a ship and the other controlling its armaments; any ideas?). The Wii U, in fact, is largely predicated on asymmetrical multiplayer once you get down to it.

Sure, that GamePad works well enough as a map or inventory screen, but the Wii U has already begun to shine with some of the minigames in Nintendo Land, namely Mario Chase and Luigi’s Ghost Mansion. Mario Chase is pretty much a literal digital translation of muckle, a variant of tag commonly (and crudely) called “smear the queer.” The player with the GamePad must avoid the other players (various colored Toads) as they watch the quadrant’d TV screen. Mario also gets a map detailing the locations and movements of the Toads, but the Toads have a ticker that displays their current absolute distance from the portly plumber at any given time.

It’s tense and exciting and brings back just about every feeling I remember having playing it on my elementary school playground (and, for a while, in Red Dead Redemption). Being It is such an incredibly tense experience, one that I assume can only be accurately equated to being Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. Or Mario in Mario Chase. Or the It in muckle. It’s such a uniquely affecting experience that asymmetry brings to the table.

But more than that is the way the Wii U brings it to fruition, a way that is very much in the vein of those old playground games. Players are used to grouping together remotely against a faceless mass of opposition in deathmatch or a single, lingering threat in co-op. The Wii U brings that enemy into the realm of tangibility; he suddenly becomes a foe you can see and touch with your eyes and hands, whose fear being the sweet stench of impending victory. You can see as he revels in dodging your tackle, driving you to an impotent rage, and how he squirms as you close in on him, bringing you to the edge of your seat and sanity. It’s that very real and personal touch that such experiences would otherwise be missing if played via the Internet, that same touch that is present whenever you chase your friend down over the interminably dusty gravel under the slide or next to the swings, feeling that palpable tension rise and fall with your pursuit.

Folk games, in general, have made a splash in video games lately, though. A perennially popular showcase at PAX and the like has been Johann Sebastian Joust from Die Gute Fabrik, a game studio from Denmark. According to their website, they “take classic play forms from the past … and breathe new life into them with 21st century technology,” which is exactly what they did with Joust.

Joust is a game played with multiple people and a commensurate amount of PlayStation Move controllers. Each player holds a controller and attempts to sufficiently jostle every other person’s grip on both the wand and tranquility. The acceptable amount of jostling varies according to the speed of the background music, inviting bouts of incredible physical feats and boneheaded maneuvers. With the last man standing winning the game, games often devolve into fits of giggles and dirty play, sometimes involving kicked chairs and thrown shoes.

It takes what could otherwise be a traditional playground game from decades past and adds an element of definitiveness to it. It takes a fun concept and makes it work as a game. As opposed to how Mario Chase captures exactly what you experienced when you were a kid running around a jungle gym, Joust creates a new game that could only exist now and puts it back into an old classification of games. You get that same immediate, personal feedback from those around you (both the players and the crowd watching as they ooo and ahh along to the each frightful lunge and balletic escape), but eliminates that Cowboys-and-Indians situation of “no, I shot you first!”

And it doesn’t begin and end with Die Gute Fabrik or Joust. Look at Juegos Rancheros in Austin, Texas, or the games Mega GIRP and Mary Mack 5000. Folk games are back, and with good reason. Capturing the sensation of being It is great and important—and wholly impressive on Nintendo’s part with Nintendo Land‘s Mario Chase and Luigi’s Ghost Mansion—but the exploration of the comeback is just as crucial. Consider the asymmetry a toe-dip into the water, Johann Sebastian Joust a peek beyond the veil. They are simultaneously good games, important experiences, and proof of concepts. They prove that people traditional video games and traditional folk games can co-exist and, more importantly, inform one another.

It’s just a question now of where do they go from here. Years from now, will the concepts of playing outside and playing with your PlayStation be inseparable? Is this the singularity we’ve been promised? Just look at Dancingularity from Fantastic Arcade this year. We’re well on our way to where game design and technological advancements will encompass all forms of leisure and pleasure. To what extent? No idea. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Those crazy Danes.

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