I've never forgotten Epyx Summer Games on the Commodore 64.
A significant chunk of my teenage years were spent in a neighbor's basement with crossed fingers, hoping that the collection of digital sports competitions would load and then that it wouldn't crash. I didn't know what the hell hackeysack was but I knew I had the fast-twitch reflexes to crush fools at it. Since physical co-ordination has never been my forte, playing that sports video game let me do something that I could never do in real life.
It's been a long time since I felt the way that Summer Games made me feel but the works assembled for Sportfriends rekindled that spark.
In case you haven't heard about it already, Sportfriends is a project that combines four off-kilter multiplayer games under one banner. The games' creators—Doug Wilson, Bennett Foddy, Noah Sasso and Ramiro Corbetta—have been running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to release final versions of their games on the PS3 and PC/Mac platforms. I've already played all of the Sportsfriends experiences in different places at different times. Alone, they're each odd, brilliant shards of creativity. More importantly, when bundled together, the quartet represent a unique take on what it means to build skill and compete against others in a video game.
The Sportsfriends games remix the way you think about physical and digital space and what it takes to win over somebody. Take QWOP. It's the only game that's made me think about my muscles. Bennett Foddy's completely maladjusted take on the 100-meter dash serves as a reminder that the human body is an amazing feat of engineering. QWOP abstracts something that we take for granted: the fact that years of evolution and instinct allow you to climb, jump and otherwise move. What if you didn't know how to walk or run and had to learn all over again? You'd appreciate the ability to do so a lot more. Following that logic, QWOP makes me want to get off my lazy ass. Foddy's contribution to Sportsfriends takes the coordination challenge of QWOP and throws it into combat. The pole-vault deathmatches in Super Pole Riders are like an acid-trip apocalypse killsport. Every time I've watched a pole vault event in the Olympics, I've thought that there was a hell of a weaponization waiting to happen there. SPR makes that dream a reality.
If QWOP incites me to actually appreciate sports-centric physicality, then Johann Sebastian Joust goes one better, in that it's actually made me move. Doug Wilson's game remains the most clever and fun thing anyone's done with a Move controller yet. In fighting game community circles, you always hear about how controlling the spacing between you and your opponent is important. J.S. Joust makes its participants put that into practice, sharpening your senses in a really intense way as you try to track, attack and defend your glowing wand while playing.
Like the Smash Bros. games that have inspired it, BaraBariBall moves from looking like a mindless rash of jumping and striking to the realization that you need to mold your own strategy into it. When I played BBB at NYU's No Quarter exhibition earlier this year, the soaring leaps and energy bolts made it feel like playing volleyball with a crew of demigods. And, when it gets good, Hokra boils down the kind of telepathic teamwork you see in high-end soccer teams. There's a lot of yelling, by both players and observers, during a Hokra happening.
We live in a different era of game-making now, one where the people who create games and the ideas they want to put in them are more visible than ever. I never knew—and still don't know—the names of the designers, artists and programmers who made the Epyx games. And what they thought of the end result of their creations is likewise a mystery. Part of what makes Sportfriends worthy of support is that these game-makers are all aware of the counter-intuitiveness of their efforts. Their four games don't belong with Madden or other reality-aping simulations of pro sports. And Hokra, J.S. Joust, BaraBariBall and Super Pole Riders will probably never get the kinds of massively orchestrated tournaments that Halo, Call of Duty or League of Legends enjoy. But, in the same way, they're sort of asking nerds to be jocks.
When I started writing this on Sunday night, the Sportsfriends Kickstarter was hovering at around
$132,537 $133,766 $138,007 with 19 17 hours to go. By the time I wake up and publish Monday morning, the campaign could be either agonizingly close to their goal or gratefully beyond it.
They're sports games where you don't have to know anything about sports. Your success doesn't depend on stats culled from how well a real-world team or athlete played the year before. They're also video game competitions where you don't have to be among the elite in a multimillion-dollar shooter franchise. All you need is to show up with a bunch of friends. Something fun will probably happen. We need more games like that.
Update: And they've hit their goal. This tweet from Markus "Notch" Persson seems to indicate he had a big part in bumping them over.
@raveofravendale (I increased my pledge from 5k to 8k, the suspense was killing me)— Markus Persson (@notch) December 10, 2012