My left shoe carefully pins the heel of my right… allowing me to secretly slip the back of my foot free, the sneaker now a loose extension of my toes. While I subtly prepare for my defensive strike, my opponent has been mounting a slow, stalking offense, our eyes locked in combative consideration of being the final two remaining. The glow of my target hangs from an outstretched arm while my attacker’s other hand—set to lunge at my own colorful orb, positioned protectively behind my back—leads his charge. I’m pressed up against the feverish crowd, no longer able to sidestep without giving myself away; and with my enemy closing the gap, I flash a wicked smile. He pauses, just for a moment… a moment long enough for my brain to perform the rapid calculation and launch my secret weapon. My right foot rises, my toes lifting my dangling shoe, and with a snap I send the projectile hurtling toward its mark—dead on. My sneaker hits the Move controller my opponent saw fit to dangle from his wrist—a tactic adopted by some—and his orb’s color changes to red, accompanied by the familiar crashing sound of an elimination. I had won this round of Johann Sebastian Joust.
JS Joust, created by Douglas Wilson, is a special kind of game. The idea of what Joust is today first came to mind when Wilson and a friend, in the midst of developing an entirely different motion controller focused game, realized how much fun it was to simply push each other—to try and physically screw up your opponent. A longtime proponent of folk games and social play, Wilson set to work on developing his game that would eventually cause players, who might begin a round as complete strangers, to connect on a basic, human level.
Though unofficially released as of yet—but thanks to a successful Kickstarter, now on its way to various platforms—Joust’s current means of play consist of attending a social gathering, commonly a gaming convention, where perhaps someone happens to have the latest build of the software on their MacBook, which connects to up to seven Sony Move controllers via Bluetooth. The orbs atop the controllers each light up a unique color at the start of a round, at which point Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos” starts to play; and the players begin to pace around—keeping in synch with the game’s fluctuations on the music’s tempo—each searching for the correct opportunity to strike one another.
And it’s in these personal assessments of strategy where Joust becomes more than just a game about shoving strangers. A swiftly learned—and often unspoken—aspect of Joust is that there are no rules. The system and the objective is explained and understood by players, but there is this underlying mechanic that wonderfully fails to state how players should achieve the goal. This leads to hilarious attempts to subvert the system by, say, placing one’s controller on the ground and then freely running around to tap out everyone else’s; or the creation of uneasy, and often deceitful, temporary alliances; or even one of my personal favorites, the unexpected projectile attacks (as detailed above, but also effective with hats, loose pocket items, or even cosplay props).
Like the greatest of games, the system itself does not change in difficulty (barring any software modifications to values such as controller sensitivity), and any increase in player skill comes from actively learning the borders of the system and how one can grow within its confines. The skills you develop in Joust are ones you discover yourself, through manipulation of your style and from testing your own abilities against what the system allows. Play a few games, and you’ll begin to get a feel for how the tempo affects the safety zone of controller motion; and after a while, you’ll develop your own personal style for interacting with other players. Some players, feeling confident in their control, become the aggressors, approaching their targets and intimidating them into a mistake; some players prefer to turtle, using their bodies to shield their controller as best they can while smacking away attackers with their free hand; some players prefer to go unnoticed, biding their time and constantly retreating to safety until they are of the last remaining; and some players, myself included, prefer to play outside the perceived box of the others: walking outside of the unmarked and unofficial game area, agreed upon only by player movement; hiding in the crowd at the start of the game, pretending to not be a participant; the introduction of accessories as a means of attack; and many other initially unconsidered approaches to play.
Like any great game which does not coddle lax play and holds no truer reward than victory through skill, Joust is an environment in which you learn what is necessary to survive, and what you yourself are capable of doing to ensure that happens. You take your place in this world of combatants, joyfully jostling each other, and each victory tastes the absolute sweetest because it has been earned.
“Get ready to Joust….”