05 July 2013
I am a white square. A hugely athletic white square, playing tennis. I'm 40-30 up and for the sake of this article it's match point. My opponent is hesitating. His first serve went wide and he knows that if this doesn't go in it's all over. He's weary of my return game so I take a few steps closer to the net to further intimidate him. Force his hand a bit. Out of the corner of my eye I see him quietly depress the A button. I think he's going down the line. I take a step back. Release. The ball fires over the net at speed and looks to be headed right down the middle of the court. I slide out to the right and instantly begin cranking my winding-up counter. The ball glances the line and at full stretch and tiptoes I swing, catching the ball at the end of my racquet and turning it back across my body into the open court. An intake of breath. Silence. And then an awful lot of swearing, not my own. It’s a winner! Get right in.
I'm playing TENNNES. Look at it. It's AMAZING!
A moment of intense drama captured.
Made by Jan Willem Nijman of Vlambeer fame, TENNNES is part of the Sportsfriends bundle that was Kickstarted earlier in the year. I’m not going to write a review or a critique as such, more a love letter to a game whose simple charms have transported me back to a childhood spent running haplessly around in the dilapidated, moss strewn tennis court at the end of my road.
Now some of you might be thinking that the screenshot looks like an Atari 2600 game at best, so how can such simplicity be so evocative, but this is the core limitation that allows the game to excel. In its visual and mechanical simplicity it becomes an invitation for us to use our imagination. The authenticity of the experience never falls into question, it is not simulation but representation. There are no gimpy animations that detract from the controls and thankfully we do not find ourselves confronted by the vacant eyes of uncanny valley dolls, each desperate to convince us that they share our human traits. Furthermore, this abstract directness results in a game in which flow is not interrupted between points whilst the characters fulfil canned animation cycles or 'TV style' replays. It's better than that. Purer. You never lose control of your little square and can happily run about like a madman between points, or as you get better, use this time to change the pace of the match and try to exert pressure on your opponent by taking little time between serves. Yeah, it starts to get a bit ‘next level’ when you’ve been playing awhile against the same person.
Sensible Soccer. One button. Tons of control.
TENNNES only uses one stick and one button and it's plenty. This will come as no surprise to old school Amiga gamers who were brought-up with the likes of Speedball 2 and Sensible Soccer, but there is a huge amount of control and feedback that can be squeezed into this system. A good example of this in TENNNES is the slide. The moment a player starts holding the button they begin winding-up their shot. Releasing the button strikes the ball. The longer it's held, the harder it's hit. However, if the player is moving at speed when they begin holding the button they will slide, as if the character is setting her feet and pulling the racket back for the shot. The inertia of their movement means they can be travelling in one direction and then deliver a shot in another - the stick switching over whilst the button is held to determine where the ball will go. It's a mechanic that's harder to explain than it is to grasp and one that perfectly mimics the most exciting moment of its real world counterpart - the split second before a ball is struck, when both players and spectators hold their breath in anticipation. Is she going to risk all and try to smash a winner or merely keep the ball in play and establish herself better in the rally?
As with real tennis, the service game becomes a duel in which every detail takes on great importance. Has your opponent changed his position slightly? Can I exploit this? Has he moved merely in order to goad me into making this particular shot and is setting-up a counter? Is this a double bluff? Maybe it's just a response to that last serve which beat him? Perhaps I should change my position slightly to account for him? Perhaps I'm over-thinking this?..
Whilst taking a few liberties with the rules, TENNNES still manages to highlight how sports often achieve the rare feat of both simplicity and depth. That is to say that it's not complex in its ruleset, the entry point is low, but mastery might take a lifetime. I've had countless rallys in which the bounds of what seem possible have been pushed further and further back. My friends and I often let out exasperated yelps and squeals like a Wimbledon crowd when the genetic British disposition to silence is shattered mid-point. Here's a nice excerpt of Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga recreating some of our finest TENNNES points:
Nice of 'em to go to such trouble, aye?
What TENNNES has managed, in its simple glory, is a distillation of both the instinctive brilliance of tennis and the longer metagame that occurs between opponents. So we not only experience the fleeting desperation of a rally on the backfoot and the collective astonishment when a ball clips the line, but also the psychological warfare that occurs in top level sports. This is why local multiplayer is special.
My over-enthusiasm for the game and lack of opponents has resulted in us hosting a small TENNNES tournament at our digs in the Bristol Games Hub. We’ve not set a date yet, but if you're interested in coming along and playing, drop us an email at email@example.com.