April 29, 2014 10:15 PM | Staff
A few years ago Adriaan de Jongh was at a party playing Werewolf, a popular social roleplaying game where friends coerce, flatter and fib. "I fell in love with this girl," de Jongh says, "and during the course of the game, she completely changed. She became a person I'd never seen before."
"She was shouting, calling people names, and it was bizarre," he continued. "I couldn't wrap my mind around it. That was one of the moments when I figured, shit, I really want to continue making games that are social."
de Jongh's game designs aim to make mobile devices into little lozenges of connection -- objects that close distance between people, rather than create it. Of course, that's a cliche about the smartphone, that it's a distancing device, that people are too occupied with it, that people can't put it down. But take Game Oven's Friendstrap -- you put your hand on a phone, and so does your partner, and you have to be the one to touch it the longest. That's it.
That's the game: you're enduring the playmate's unfamiliar, sweaty thumb-smudge on your screen. Or watching them endure your hesitant, intrusive touch on their intimate property. That's Friendstrap, the uneasy, shallow act of holding still over the prized black glass while the screen prompts you to make awkward conversation. Or think of GameOven's Fingle, where your twin fingers and an acquaintance's are led into a courtship walk on the face of a tablet, drawn to fumble and scissor together, digits straddling one another lewdly.
That's the kind of interaction that makes you think about the difference between "mobile game" and "mobile as game." Game Oven's work explores that smudgy, anxious fourth wall, where the device is mostly an accessory to an experience that makes people more aware of themselves, not less.
The latest is upcoming Bounden, a coy, eloquent dance game in development with a little help from the Dutch Ballet. You can see the video here, where professional dancers delicately pinch an inch of phone between them, as if the device were a kind of fluid little hinge for the choreography. Playing Bounden with my friend's young art school roommate Emily was not nearly as elegant.
"What is it," she asked, when I hesitated in her bedroom doorway to see if she'd play a game with me. At first she didn't stand up: We held the phone between us and rolled it around, wrists twisting, until we couldn't really see the screen anymore. There is an orb in the center of the screen, and a little crosshair radial that must trace little paths all along the surface of the sphere, like biking among archways on a tiny planet. You tilt and roll it together.
"We have to stand up," I told her apologetically. "We're supposed to be dancing."
Solemnly as mourners we held the phone between us, waltzing. Emily doesn't really play video games. I can't even explain normal ones to her, let alone this abstract geometric ballet. Our arms wrap mistakenly, Twister-like, around each other. We're not really doing anything right. Bounden is going to ask a greater cooperative effort of us than this. This is already a little too much touching. She looks like she wants to get back into studying.
"People are not used to trying to figure out something with someone else," de Jongh tells me. "You're putting yourself in a very vulnerable position."
Bounden isn't supposed to be awkward, not much. "We want to actually make people dance, in the end," he continues. "In the beginning of Bounden you're really focused
on the screen, this ball, and learning how it translates. And then in the end, instead of thinking about what's happening on the screen, they realize things translate to real-life motions, and that's the point where it becomes less awkward."
"We want to actually make people dance, in the end."
People who play digital games generally have a high tolerance for steep learning curves. Players love being thwarted, if the success of the Dark Souls brand is any indication. They love the chance to persist against the limitations of unfamiliarity, to master and familiarize. But their tolerance for frustration seems much lower in an in-person game, a physical game. At times like that, there are more factors in play: the fear of failing in front of someone, the fear of failing them. Maybe they make eye contact for a little too long, or not at all.
"It's really difficult to steer that process," de Jongh reflects. "In the end, you'll have to figure it out together. There's a lot of feedback and we're still iterating on the tutorial, but we hope in the end everything becomes clear enough, people have the awkward feeling less, and they'll just roll into the rehearsal mode."
de Jongh doesn't feel he makes "folk games" -- small games that are portable, teachable, tangible, can be spontaneous and require players to self-govern -- because the role of the device in his work is too strong. But he's okay if you call him a folk game-maker. A lot of folk games adore that uncomfortable-silly air that fills the room when people have to play physically with one another; they love watching the player muddle through an uneasy conversation with a recused and gloating system. I think of Doug Wilson's Dark Room Sex Game, where players flick vulgar, grunting Wii remotes at one another in the dark. Or Spilt Milk's Hugatron, which provoked many conversations on the ethics of designing a public game about inescapable embraces.
But if de Jongh is a folk designer, he's not like that: He lives for the moment when people "get it," when they feel fluent. When he talks about Friendstrap, he can barely contain his laughter. "I'd be like, 'yeah, just put your thumb on the white circle and if you let go, you lose,' and they look at me like... 'what kind of game is that,' and then after one second, they get it," he enthuses. "For me, personally, that is one of the most amazing experiences in games that I've made so far."
He enthusiastically cites Bernie Dekoven's definition of that illuminating moment in cooperative play, where a "you and I" is visibly transformed into a "we." When Bounden's dancers have finished fumbling around their shared purpose, when, hand-in-phone-in-hand, they begin those first halting steps toward physical fluency together.
"I always wanted to make games that go beyond the screen, and that's vague -- but I'll continue to keep it vague, a bit," he says. "I wanted to think about players, thinking about each other."
"Even if you make all these errors, you're still making them with someone else," he reflects. "For a lot of people, that's most of the fun of Bounden, where you're trying to figure
out how to do it properly, together. I'm aiming the experience to be the satisfaction of having learned a dance with another person, and then finishing the dance, and being like, 'holy shit, we just did this. We can do this dance.'"
"I'm aiming the experience to be the satisfaction of having learned a dance with another person, and then finishing the dance, and being like, 'holy shit, we just did this. We can do this dance."
Yeah. I showed Emily Bounden. She held it, and I held it. If we had only made it to the we to the we figured it out, the we did it. We touched an invisible wall in our friendship, and it was the color of black phoneglass.
de Jongh makes countless prototypes, and one in about every 10 feels strong enough to him to develop further. Game Oven will be crunching meticulously on Bounden for each day of the less than two weeks till the game goes to review. Every detail needs to be right, and the tutorial needs a lot of work, he says.
"It's difficult to explain a kind of game nobody has ever seen or played before, which has mechanics that no one has seen or played before," says de Jongh. But people who press past that invisible wall learn to attain the satisfaction of being a we, moving fluidly together. "I was rehearsing a dance with the girl I fell in love with during Werewolf --"
I interrupt: "You started dating that girl, and now she helps you test Bounden?"
"Yeah," says de Jongh. "I tried a dance out with her, for 15 or 20 minutes, and suddenly we could do it fluently, and we sometimes didn't have to even look at the screen any more. It's a divine moment... and I feel like we can get there, I feel like people can have that feeling that I've had with my girlfriend playing."
"Emily," I shout into the next room after De Jongh and I have said goodbye. "Try playing this game with me again, and see if you want to become my girlfriend."
I'm joking. I mean, we're both seeing other people already. I'm not being sincere. She laughs, and it also sounds insincere.
"No, but we should try it again," I volunteer awkwardly. "Okay," she replies, and the sort-of promise hangs in the quiet apartment across the space between us.
[Leigh Alexander wrote this article for sister site Gamasutra]