Video games without screens: Johann Sebastian Joust uses a PlayStation but is more like a playground game.

Video Game Club 2014

One of the Best Video Games of 2014 Doesn’t Even Require a Video Screen

Video Game Club 2014

One of the Best Video Games of 2014 Doesn’t Even Require a Video Screen
The art of play.
Jan. 5 2015 11:59 AM

Video Game Club 2014

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Entry 9: One of my favorite video games of 2014 doesn’t even have any video—you don’t even need a screen.

Johann Sebastian Joust, a no-graphics, digitally-enabled playground game designed for motion controllers.
Johann Sebastian Joust is a playground game designed for motion controllers.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Brent Knepper/Johann Sebastian Joust/Die Gute Fabrik.

Hey gang,

Like Stephen, I think it’s indisputable (and obvious) that interactivity is fundamental to video games. I prefer the word interactivity to gameplay because I think its meaning is clearer and it is fraught with fewer connotations about fun and competition and the like.

But I’m less certain that interactivity ought to be isolated and declared the only worthy characteristic of our favorite medium. I would wager that we’ve all played video games in which in the interactive elements are fair to middling but which achieve greatness nonetheless. What makes the Grand Theft Auto games unforgettable is not the tightness of the driving controls or the precision of the shooting. The BioShock games are masterpieces, but the moment-to-moment action is the least interesting thing about them.

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Like Laura, I’m suspicious of sweeping declarations and hard-and-fast rules about what a video game is and what a video game isn’t. For instance, surely video games require screens, right? But Doug Wilson’s superb Johann Sebastian Joust, included on 2014’s excellent Sportsfriends anthology for PlayStation, flouts that requirement.

Johann Sebastian Joust is a living-room contest that pits players wielding motion-sensitive PlayStation Move controllers against one another. The goal is to hold your controller as still as possible—so, naturally, players begin to try to jostle the other controllers. An added wrinkle is that when the music—from Bach’s Brandenburg concertos—accelerates, the controllers become less sensitive to motion, allowing players a brief moment to attack. The screen on your TV? It’s a bystander.

Johann Sebastian Joust is a folk game like tag or red rover. (Its makers describe it as “a playground game.”)  But rather than a schoolteacher or the backyard consensus, its referee is the computer inside the PlayStation. That makes it a video game, under my expansive (and, surely, incontrovertibly correct) definition. We no longer think video games need to be fun, or that they need failure states, or that they require a challenge of some kind, or that they teach the player a skill. We don’t, in any real sense, demand that they be games. So why demand that they be video?

Over time, I’ve reduced the requirements that a creative work must fulfill in order to deserve the appellation “video game” to a measly two. First, a video game needs to involve a computer, broadly defined. Whether that computer is a PC or an iPhone or a Galaxy Tab or an Xbox or an Ouya is immaterial; the point is that video games are (at least partly) digital, rather than mechanical like pinball or electronic like Simon or physical like basketball. Second, the work needs to respond at least minimally to player input.

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That’s it. From those blocks, game designers are building a vast and varied medium that encompasses Twine stories and Hearthstone and The Sailor’s Dream and Kentucky Route Zero and Elite: Dangerous and Sunset Overdrive.

Which brings me to replayability, which Stephen fears he has overemphasized in the creed of his church of video games. Guess what, Stephen: You’re right! For certain games—an iPhone game that’s designed to pass the time while you wait for the bus, or a multiplayer shooter that’s supposed to bring players back to it night after night for months or even years—replayability is essential. But for other games, it’s wholly irrelevant.

I wonder if my bias against replayability is what led me to be more lukewarm about Shadow of Mordor than so many other critics. I was captivated by the action in the game. Planning and executing my assassination plots against the game’s orcs provided me with as much pure fun as any game I played this year. But I was less enamored with the so-called “nemesis system,” which algorithmically creates enemies inside the game with varying names and traits. To me, it seemed like a souped-up version of a run-of-the-mill drag queen name generator that any Web designer could hack together in an afternoon. But to Ken Levine—the BioShock creative director who has committed himself to making endlessly replayable narrative games—it was an ambitious step toward an entirely new form of fiction.

Speaking of games I never want to play again, I finally completed Dragon Age: Inquisition. Dragon Age is racking up game of the year awards from a host of outlets, and we’ve barely talked about it. I confess I’ve barely mentioned it because I can’t decide whether it’s any good. It’s definitely compulsively playable; I spent nearly 80 hours inside its world. It’s impressively large. As a game about relationship management, it’s not bad: My female Inquisitor enjoyed seducing Blackwell and then dumping him for Cullen.

But it’s not exactly good, either. It’s filled with dull speechifying. Its dialogue routinely inspired me to check Twitter while characters were talking—and Dragon Age is a game almost entirely about talking to characters! And did it really need to be so long? I spent literally hours in the game buying and selling inventory items and crafting them and equipping them onto my characters. Shouldn’t the game automate that tedious task for players who aren’t interested in micromanaging the weapons and armor used by the various members of their party?

Laura, alone among us in the club, you put Dragon Age: Inquisition on your best-of list for 2014 (although it also landed on Kotaku's list, which Stephen helps put together). How do you square your affection for Dragon Age with your declaration that you’re a player who insists that games value your time as highly as you do?

Chris