You probably know the stereotype: A grown man barks into a headset mic while playing some shooter or sports game on an Xbox. On the other side are middle schoolers, hundreds of miles away, swearing like Mamet characters. They call it Xbox Live, but is this any way to live?
If you already think video games are dehumanizing or a waste of time, the thought of playing with disembodied (and possibly racist) voices on the Internet probably reinforces your beliefs. If you do play games, you’ve probably already realized that online gaming’s benefits outweigh its deficits. I am in my 30s, with a wife and a job and a mortgage, and I can’t just hole up in a room with my friends and play video games like we’re 13 again. There’s no way to spin playing with my friends online as a negative when that’s the only way we’d ever play together at this point in our lives. But it is true that we’ve lost something personal with this high-speed Internet culture of ours, and it’s something that a spate of recent games aim to recreate.
A local multiplayer set-up, aka “couch co-op,” is the foundation of such games as Nidhogg, Samurai Gunn, Towerfall, Sportsfriends (an anthology of various games) and the upcoming Videoball. These games are all variations on competitive multiplayer games, where the goal is to beat a live human competitor in the same room as you, not a computer or online opponent. And although some of them hedge their bets and do allow online play, they all heavily stress the superiority of the local multiplayer experience.
As Ramiro Corbetta, the designer of the Sportsfriends game “Hokra,” explains, “We want people to come together to play our games. We believe that the best experiences you can have when playing a game involve other humans in the same room. And we believe that hanging out with your friends is pretty great.”
You’ll have a hard time arguing with Corbetta after playing any of these games. One round of Samurai Gunn with friends will convince you. Teknopants’ Japanese-flavored brawler is a lightning-fast duel to the death with up to three friends. Death comes suddenly, after a single hit from either a sword or bullet. Gunn is closely matched by Towerfall, Matt Thorson’s fighting game for the Ouya (and soon the PlayStation 4 and PC), which Thorson describes as his attempt at a Super Smash Bros. Melee-style game. Both are bursts of frantic combat in single-screen environments, with the only goal to be the last warrior standing. The tension that knots up your gut makes each round feel longer than it actually is.
That tension is a unifying feature for all of these games, and it’s greatly heightened by occupying the same physical space as your opponent. All of these games boil down to reflexes and strategy, with fast fingers and prudent planning usually taking the round, and both of those are easier to disrupt when you’re in the same room as your enemy.
There’s another, more practical reason behind the local emphasis, though, one that the designers may not want to acknowledge. Building a game that works smoothly online takes a lot of work, and these games are all made by small teams—some of them even by single designers. It’s smarter to get the basic game in as great a shape as possible than to devote any of their limited resources to building a stable netcode. Even the largest corporate game designers often struggle with online issues (see EA’s fiascoes with Battlefield 4 and Sim City). You can’t begrudge Thorson, the sole designer of Towerfall, for not spreading himself too thin with an online mode. And Messhof’s excellent Nidhogg—a cross between football, fencing, and tug-of-war that’s something of a precursor to this wave of local multiplayer games—shows why these games work best in person. The recent retail release of his long-gestating festival favorite has a problematic online mode that doesn’t run nearly as smoothly as local play.
Yes, it’s still a struggle to get enough friends in the same room to enjoy any of these games. And if you are, for some reason, inherently opposed to fighting games or sports titles, you probably won’t find any of these games interesting. (Although Sportsfriends and Videoball aren’t based on real sports, instead creating their own simple systems patterned after familiar sports concepts.) But much like a good board game, they all remind us of the power of human contact by encouraging us to play with real live people. It’s easy to go from car to cubicle to apartment and hardly acknowledge the people around us; games like Nidhogg and Samurai Gunn help break that isolation drill. And you’ll never have to hear hate speech from a 12-year-old while you play them.