Just Dance 2014 and the Power of Pop Music

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Xavier Poix, the Managing Director at Ubisoft Paris told me, “We’re a family game. We have the rating process. Of course, we need to build the choreography and the universe of the game itself without any offensive things. So we discuss that every time this kind of potential issue comes up. But at the same time, we want to propose to our players what they want to have in the game. We know that, for ‘Blurred Lines’ for example, some people will say that it’s strange to have that kind of song in the game. But at the same time, we’re revisiting the song. We don’t do the original video clip with the naked women… We blank some parts of the lyrics, of course.”

It’s Veronique Halbrey’s job, as Just Dance character designer, to interpret the songs and give them a Just Dance slant. She explains, “When we try to visually illustrate the lyrics, we’ll come up with something completely different.”

“We know, of course, about the lyrics,” Poix says. “Even if we are French people with bad English,” he laughs. “We know the theme of the song. But our goal is to propose another way to discover the music. Not what’s behind the music, not the meaning. We don’t care about the meaning. Or sometimes we care, but not on this one… Again, because we’re playing with the song… We’re not supporting the song as it was when it was released.”

“We have so many kids playing Just Dance,” Halbrey says. “It’s always on our mind. We have to think about it.”

“We have this discussion almost every time. Unfortunately, most of the hot recent hits have bad words in them,” Poix elaborates. “It’s crazy. But even… We want to bring some stuff for everybody in the family. So for example, we had this discussion also for the alternative version of ‘Rich Girl’ from Gwen Stefani. We wanted to propose an alternative version for dancing with a chair—a little bit sexy, but not too sexy. Because we didn’t want to be offensive, and we didn’t want to be… You’ll see the final result, the alternative version, where the girl who’s dancing is…”

“First, she’s wearing clothes,” Halbrey laughs.

Throughout most of my time in the studio, we were taken through the process of actually constructing an entirely different experience from my view of mainstream pop. It seemed that Ubisoft were keen on making pop… well… fun. And less gross. And completely approachable. It’s in the mix of new pop and old pop, “old diamonds” as Poix would say often of tracks like “Careless Whisper.” But how do you go about sloughing off that embarrassment that everyone harbors of dancing in front of others? How do you get them to let go?

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The first thing we’re asked to do in the giant glass building in Paris that is the hub of Just Dance operations is do a serious, pens-out-nod-nod-nod interview on the evolution of the franchise of Just Dance.

I snuck off and did a Scrooge McDuck dive into the vast costumes cupboard. It’s in a corner of the office near where they do the green screen with the dancers; it’s got all their ridiculous costumes in it including a massive squashed panda head from the Ke$ha song, a wooden bokken painted blue, a giant tribal mask and about 20 different sorts of silly PVC squeakiness. Daphnee Ayabe, the International Product Manager, wandered along and grinned at my rummaging around, and then dutifully corsetted my broad hippoesque torso into the “Starships” costume as if this were a completely normal day at work. I guess for the Just Dance people it is. This is the sort of office where you’re off to find the john and you open the wrong door and six people are nonchalantly dancing to Ghostbusters behind it and wave for you to close the door. It’s like in Wayne’s World where Wayne opens a door to see a ninja training ground, only these ninjas are dressed in parachute pants and sport extraordinary rhythm.

I think Daphnee is laughing at me as I do a spread-eagled star for her in my silly costume in the green screen room… but she takes a picture and sneaks off and gets some disgruntled graphics-wrangler to make me look like I’m in the actual game. By the end of the day the other journalist who’s here with me, fellow Scot Keza Macdonald from the much vaunted IGN Dot Com, discovers the costume box, and four of us attempt to wear the silliest stuff we can find in them. There’s that tribal mask I put on, and I pick up the blue samurai sword. Keza puts on some sort of pink wig and an eyepatch. Keza asks me what I’m going to write about this visit. “Oh, some gonzo thing,” I say, and she rolls her eyes at me. “I was thinking maybe I’d do it in blank verse or something, you know, it’s Just Dance” and Keza looks even more like I have thrown up in her handbag. I live for this shit. I don’t even know if she has a handbag. I am past caring. What is this weird hat doing here?!

I get Daphnee to put on a horse head and take a picture of her having a conversation with me, the weird character from the “Starships” Just Dance video. Daphnee tells me that the costume I am wearing was meant to be a sort of edgy kawaii style, kawaii but sinister. It is very sinister, I say, looking at the sharp black spikes coming out of my skirt. Why are the costumes so… goofy?

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“Of course, sometimes we’re doing exactly the contrary of what people would expect from a song,” says Xavier Poix, “because we want to make a joke or something like that. But again, we’re looking for a concept. We’re working on our concepts with our players in mind. It’s not all about our tastes. Sometimes we even have some songs that we don’t like that much, but we know that part of our audience—which is very wide—loves it, and we want to propose the best thing we can in this precise direction. We choose the teams who are working on the particular songs depending on their background, their skills, and what they like in real life. That’s interesting, because we have people in a lot of different studios from a lot of different cultures.”

“It’s really a story,” Halbrey nods. “Each time I try to create a character, I think, ‘Okay, who is this girl? Why is she dancing to this song?’ Even if it’s not useful sometimes, we try to tell a story behind the character. For me it’s not only about a dancer or a song. It’s really a combination of these different elements—the personality of the dancer, for sure, the outfit, what we call the dance mood, the choreography, the atmosphere, and the story. It’s a combination of all these elements to make something unique. Each time we try to do a kind of mini-music video starring a new dancer. We want to create something new.”

“The interpretation, also, is very important,” Poix says. “Sometimes we’re doing some kind of actual direction. We give some instructions to the dancer to act as if they were somebody else, with another psychology. It’s funny, because sometimes it becomes a kind of comedy.”

“The girl that we saw wearing the Lady Gaga costume, it was really funny, because the initial…” Halbrey breaks off. “‘Imagine you’re a kind of queen in the future, but like Marie Antoinette,” she acts out to an invisible dancer. “One time she was coughing a little bit and said, ‘Okay…?’ … It’s really important for them, the costume. When she didn’t wear the costume, it was a little bit abstract for her, to get into the character. But the moment she put on the complete outfit, she told us, ‘Okay, I understand now.’”

So it’s partly to distance the song from its lyrics, partly because they want the player to get lost in a little weird fairytale—something that estranges them from the room they’re in. And that’s smart—because as soon as you forget about how silly you’ll look dancing along, that’s when you start to enjoy yourself.