I had only known Eline Muijres for a few minutes before our first dance, and it wasn’t long before I became scared our movements were going to lead to more physical contact than is likely appropriate for near-strangers.
So I let go of her iPhone.
Muijres is a producer on “Bounden,” a mobile game that aims to teach players ballet — or maybe just inspire them to get closer, awkwardly. Either result is a win.
Most dance games, such as the popular “Dance Central” or “Just Dance” franchises, have players moving in front of the TV, working off a sweat solo or goofing off at a party. “Bounden” is far more intimate. And potentially more revealing.
Developed by Netherlands-based three-person studio Game Oven in conjunction with the Dutch National Ballet, “Bounden’s” challenge — the difficulty of being in sync with another human being — transcends simple movement.
“Bounden” is one of a small smattering of games released over the last year or two that seeks to use technology to have players engage in a physical space, an approach to gaming that has essentially become a mission statement for Game Oven. Like “Johann Sebastian Joust,” “Spin the Bottle: Bumpie’s Party” and “Spaceteam” before it, “Bounden” is the latest in a series of independent games where the action between two people is often more involved than what is transpiring on the screen.
The goal of “Bounden,” essentially, is to keep a small orb displayed on the screen centered, and doing so requires the sort of interactions our text-ready smartphone devices supposedly limit: eye contact and verbal communications. Or, to be precise, it requires that you dance.
Our movements — well, my movements — certainly weren’t graceful. Muijres attempted a twirl, but I was more or less a human brick, putting an abrupt end to any whirls at a spin. Was it OK, I wondered, if our elbows bumped? Or should I make an effort to avoid entangling our arms?
It wasn’t the anxiety-inducing levels of my first high school dance, but there were definitely nerves. Yet as the game went on, and the dance continued, “Bounden” replaced my apprehension with excitement. I was, after all, dancing — dancing! — and dancing with a stranger even. Kind of.
Playing “Bounden,” Muijres and I may not have been holding hands, but our bodies were connected via a single phone between us. Our right thumbs pressed down on the screen, which sought to guide our steps and occasionally bring us closer together. Our footwork certainly wasn’t ballet-grade, but each stride, dip and turn eased the tension and hinted at the skeleton of a more complex work of choreography crafted by the Dutch National Ballet.
“We really like to make games that are about interaction — games that close the distance between people and make people suddenly aware of themselves,” said the 24-year-old Muijres, one of the co-founders of Game Oven. “Sometimes that can be very awkward for people, but it can also be really fun.”
Video games have forever toed the line between spectatorship and participation. The player is in control, but it’s a power with limits. When charging up the typical console, PC or mobile game, our actions may dictate what happens in a digital world, but we are still bound by the rules of the coded universe and our gaze is locked on a monitor.
“When I’m playing ‘Dance Central,’ even if I’m playing with others, I’m so focused on the screen,” Muijres said. “We’re dancing next to each other but not dancing with each other. There’s not an interaction going on.”
The Wii U’s “Spin the Bottle: Bumpie’s Party” is solely about player-to-player communication. “Bumpie’s Party” emphasizes the Wii U’s controllers, namely the console’s tablet-like GamePad. Sometimes players will get close, being asked, for instance, by cutesy animated creatures to squeeze the buttons on a controller using only their nose. All that separates faces from touching is a video game peripheral.
“Spaceteam,” on the other hand, takes one of the more aggressive aspects of video games — interstellar combat — but relies on vocal commands rather than arcade violence. Necessitating two phones and relying on face-to-face cooperation, “Spaceteam” has players shouting nonsense orders at each other (example: “Soak Ferrous Holospectrum!”) as they try to prevent a disaster.
It starts out simple, perhaps even relaxed, but the pace quickens rapidly. Every time I’ve played, the following thoughts have raced through my head: “Is it acceptable for me to be yelling at this person?” “Will having screamed ‘Turn T-booster’ at someone I barely know forever mark our relationship?”
When he was in Los Angeles late last year, “Spaceteam” creator Henry Smith, a veteran of top game companies such as BioWare and Irrational Games, credited “Johann Sebastian Joust” as forever changing his approach to game-making.
“Joust” is the modern granddaddy of competitive cooperative games, having shown up for a number of years at game festivals and events before being released this spring for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 as part of the “Sportsfriends” compilation.
It will require at minimum two PlayStation 4 controllers, but is best with four players. The Douglas Wilson-designed game is a dance, as players will move in time with music, all while attempting to keep their controller as steady as possible. A player is knocked out when a controller is jostled.
I’ve played with those who are more outgoing when it comes to pushing and shoving their way to a win, but also with those who move more diminutively, trying to coerce someone into a mistake.
“Joust,” said Smith, “blew my mind about what can be done with this technology and how we should be making games.”
“Bounden” is the party game at its most disruptive. The game knowingly enters a personal space many of us all but close off to anyone other than a significant other. That it does so with grace, under the guise of ballet, is its secret weapon.
Past Game Oven titles have poked and prodded personal space as well. “Fingle” is an iPad game that will have players hands contorted in a Twister-like fashion, and “Friendstrap” is a free iPhone game in which the winner simply has to hold onto the phone the longest. All the game encourages is potentially invasive conversations.
Muijres and her partners in Game Oven — designer Adriaan de Jongh and technical developer Bojan Endrovski — happened on this style of play by accident, becoming fascinated a few years ago by watching players recoil when they accidentally touched each other while using a tablet.
A thesis for a company was born.
“When people would touch each other they would retract their hands, like, ‘Oh, sorry! Sorry!’” Muijres said. “Why is it so awkward to touch each other’s hands? That’s weird, right? It’s OK to touch.”
“Bounden,” developed for a budget of about $100,000, for which Game Oven has not yet broken even, guides players for $3.99 through the basics of twirling and then leads players through five original dances. Mastery of the dances isn’t easy.
Play it on a date, Muijres said, before adding that the team at Game Oven may or may not get a kick out of watching the romantically linked attempt to dance. That interest is purely anthropological, of course, as it turns out that rudimentary ballet may offer a telling relationship status update.
“You can tell a little bit about someone’s personality,” Muijres said. “It’s fun to watch couples. ‘No, we have to move this way!’ ‘You’re doing it all wrong!’ Then some couples just say OK and wrap their arms around each other and start dancing.
“To many people,” she added, “dance is freedom.”
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