I still vividly remember the day I “lost it,” bolting out of a crowded college lecture class as the professor wrapped up musings on some former president’s mission of Manifest Destiny. My own thoughts were as far away from expansionism as they could be, preferring to retreat inward. I had 15 minutes before work at the library across the street. I found the quietest corner in the basement, wedged between biographies on Beethoven and Boyz II Men, and cried my eyes out.
As a kid, inevitably it came time to play games like “the floor is lava,” but as years passed it quickly became apparent that overwhelming crowds of people, much less being stuck in the middle of one, were the thing I’d leap over furniture to avoid. Crowd anxiety almost became a game itself to me, counting down the familiar motions of the day’s schedule until I drifted off to a safe space at the end of some hallway. Like many, video games became a place to take solace and enjoy rich characters and community without danger, a place where only my closest friends could break in for a quick round of Mario Kart.
So it surprised me then that with Elbow Room, created by the three-man team at Deep Dark Hole, I not only found myself comfortable enough to brave the crowd at Bit Bash, Chicago’s annual indie games festival; I even encouraged random passersby to join in. With the tagline “101 Keys. One Winner,” it’s a party game that’s simple enough to understand immediately: players join around a single keyboard in ever-increasing proximity to others, staking a claim on a single button. After confirming their keys, players must time taps to match an increasingly quickly-spinning “clock hand,” while double-tapping sends the hand back in the opposite direction. Enough misplaced taps and you’re out, until a high-intensity “duel mode” is initiated between two remaining players, all within a lightning-quick window of two minutes.
It’s the deceptively primal combination of simplistic design and your favorite letters or numbers, like a particularly twisted episode of Wheel of Fortune or Sesame Street. This smackdown was brought to you today by the letter “P.”
“I think it reminds people that it’s OK to have fun,” says Dain Saint. “And I think that’s what I really see when we take it out, just people having a good time. There’s no exclusion, no ‘oh, I’m not good enough,’ it’s just like ‘play the thing and have fun.’ It’s going back to kids playing tag in the schoolyard.”
Don’t let the pleasant quote fool you. The Deep Dark Hole team may be the living embodiment of Elbow Room’s goofball sense of play and foolishness. The three men jokingly refer to themselves as Andrei “The Deep” Marks, Dain “The Dark” Saint, and William “The Hole” Stallwood, so there’s clearly no room for overly serious pontificating, just sensibly silly game design.
And what better environment for the creation of a party game than one prone to random parties? Saint and Stallwood, co-founders of Philadelphia’s Cipher Prime game development studio, joined with fellow employee Marks in 2013 to enlarge the studio and create the Philly Game Forge. The Forge existed to serve as a monthly game jam/coworking space for Philadelphia game developers. Elbow Room came into existence thanks to one particular jam session with the theme of “overload.”
“With the monthly jams we do, there was always an atmosphere in which we had 30 people in the room to play the game,” Stallwood says. “We always had a party going to see if this sort of stuff would work out. There was always a lot of beer involved. Games like Johann Sebastian Joust, which are fucking epic and amazing, I don’t think the intention was ‘how do we get 30 of our friends together,’ it was ‘how do we get five friends together,’ and I think that [the environment] helped us a lot while we were making the game.”
From there, development of the game became a process of making it visually and sonically attractive to new, if trepidatious players, including young children. The game’s soundtrack, an instrumental piece from Saint’s own solo electronic music project, is a soulful throwback to the disco era, married to the chiptune sensibilities of classic arcade music. Though you won’t hear Saint’s lyrics in the current version of Elbow Room, they’re as amusingly ridiculous and nerdy as anything else, touting lines like “Why don’t you and me make like a prism and split, baby.”
“A lot of that comes from how the game is going to be played, in a festival where you need to get people’s attention from a distance, keep it while they’re playing, but not annoy the shit out of everybody that has to listen to the game being played for hours,” says Saint. “The duel section is just loud, has that deep subwoofer rumble so as somebody walks by they feel that in the soles of their feet and look over to see what happened.”
In many ways, that’s entirely what happened with Elbow Room at Bit Bash. Amid the swell of attendees and volunteers, it wasn’t long before the only reason hands moved away from the keyboard was to beckon strangers to come join. Of course, there were the awkward stares, or the sidelong glances to friends or significant others, but soon after came the hearty shrugs that said “what do I have to lose?” I found myself not wanting to move away for even a second, at times even ducking beneath the table to grab the last key with a vantage point. And yes, I even had to apologize for accidentally touching someone’s butt.
“It opens people up,” Stallwood said. “Within 10 minutes you get emotion, you get feeling out of people. It just kind of makes them come alive, which is silly because it’s the tiniest little toy.”
As a sort of psychological test, Elbow Room works fantastically. It’s no longer about having your personal space invaded; it’s about rubbing shoulders with those willing to share in an absurd experience. Perhaps the most significant difference of all is that central gathering point. It’s not all that different from a team huddle. Rather than the shared misery of a lecture hall, the shared foolishness of Elbow Room only bounces between players faster when they’re bouncing off each other.
Joseph Knoop is a freelance games journalist and part-time comic book geek. His favorite games include cute animals, so Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater probably counts. Talk progressive metal and jazzhop with him on Twitter @JosephKnoop.
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