Cooperation & Explosions: How else do you pick a perfect party game?

Parties + Gaming = Fun! Just don’t forget the Cooperation and a dash of Explosions.

Let’s say you’re having some people over, and you wanna liven up the party by having a game ready for everyone to play. Or maybe you’re the designated gamer, and your buddy has given you the daunting task of choosing one that everyone will like. Easy, right? Not so much.

You could of course go with the ‘classic’ first-person shooter genre (if you manage to snag one that still houses split-screen), but risk alienating those total non-gamers that might show up, or the people daunted by the semi-pro wannabes that put in hours and hours of training and routinely blow everyone else out of the water. Then there are a few lists of party games out there that actually have a few of my favorites included, and others that I’ve been wanting to get my hands on.  Screenrant includes veritable powerhouses like Rock Band, Goldeneye (damn, seriously old school, but I love it – NO ODDJOB) and Mario Kart (I myself will never step down from a Kart 64 challenge, just let me be Yoshi). The list also broaches newer offerings like You Don’t Know Jack (in the Jack Box Party Pack), #IDARB, and Gang Beasts.

First, a word on cooperation in games

When the topic of multiplayer games comes up, I’m guessing most people initially think of competition. Not just in the MLG sense of pro-gaming, but even if you think about sitting down with an FPS to play some online multiplayer, you’re competing against the enemy, competing against your own stats, and it’s even important that you beat out your own team for more rewards.

winners

Just look at those little competitors

Not to say that shooters can’t be cooperative – I loved playing though Left 4 Dead for that very reason. The L4D games prioritize cooperation, even without other humans involved. By the way, the internets are abuzz with rumors about Left 4 Dead 3!

Couch co-ops also lend themselves to a special brand of teamwork between players. One recent example of this is the Press Play (RIP) game Kalimba. Teamwork is only necessary in the multiplayer version (and even then, there is a perilous and crazy option to try it solo by bifurcating the controller functions), but it’s enthralling and super-challenging. Basically, cooperation in games can be awesome, if done right.

Cooperation in life

Turns out, cooperation in life outside of games is also pretty sweet (kinda works into that whole hopeful homie thing pretty well, huh?). If you ever took an intro to Psych course, you probably recall parts of the Robbers Cave experiment, or at least know the name vaguely. This is one of the classics of Psychology, and one of those old timey experiments that probably wouldn’t get approved by modern standards of ethics without some altering of methods. Here’s the low-down:

  • Muzafer Sherif was the mastermind of the experiment in 1954, and sent two groups of boys to a summer camp who didn’t know about the other group.
  • After some time and group bonding exercises, the groups were told about each other, and researchers set up competitive activities.
  • Name calling turned into property attacks and the hostility may have escalated if researchers did not intervene.
duel

It’s lost to history, but we can assume the camp looked like this

  • After a cooling down period, multiple attempts were made to reconcile the differences, including several extrinsic rewards or fun activities.
  • The successful method of reconciliation was the introduction of ‘superordinate goals’.
  • Essentially, when two groups – even those that have hostility towards each other – have to work together to achieve goals that are bigger than the differences between the groups, those differences can be more easily set aside. You might say they can defuse…the tension.

Like many psych studies, and especially these ethically-edging ones from the days of yore, there are problems and limitations. This wasn’t the most diverse set of kids after all, and the conflicts and goals were all artificial. Despite obvious parallels to real-world situations of conflict and goal-based resolution, the fact is that these limitations in addition to the third-party powerful group of the researchers should make us skeptical – always a healthy part to science.  That said, plenty of evidence abounds that cooperation is critical. And you’re about to find out it can be pretty damn fun too.

When two groups – even those that have hostility towards each other – have to work together to achieve goals that are bigger than the differences between the groups, those differences can be more easily set aside. You might say they can defuse …the tension.

 Some of my faves when it comes to Cooperation in gaming

  • The Jack Box Party Pack has been a standard for my friends and me for a while, ‘cause everyone has a cellphone on hand and it’s basically a combo of some of the classic party games out there, but with a digital upgrade and humor thrown in on the side. You can count on at least 45-60 minutes of fun at a time (or way more) playing essentially better-than-normal Pictionary, trivia with some extra jolts of competitiveness and adorable ‘cut scenes’, or a game that pits you and your best lies against your friends. Your cellphone is your portal to the game but the board is your TV screen, so it can host a lot of players at once and it seems easy to jump in and out as your cup empties and you need a refill. Come on, you’re probably drinking while playing this game.
  • #IDARB is hectic, evolving, head-spinning, and mildly addicting. It’s a game I come back to and just think about every once in a while, because my first few experiences with it were so bewildering. The main version I’ve played is a sports-hybrid with uber simple controls and always leaves me wondering what just happened while simultaneously making me spam buttons to play again. Definitely worth checking out, and I’ll leave it mostly to your own interpretation.
  • Rocket League knocks the metacritic score out of the park, and boy does it deserve the credit.  The most popular mode essentially involves racing around a tiny arena in a car with extremely simple controls.  You are playing with and against a team of other cars and are basically playing soccer.  You can jump, boost, and twirl your way to scoring goals (think of extremely acrobatic soccer players with jetblacks flying around on ice and you’ve got the idea just about right).  This is another game I first played with a groups of friends at work, but have picked up a lot more recently at home.  We recently hosted an outdoor movie night in our backyard; we were all set up with the projector, snacks and the original Independence Day on July 3rd, but Rocket League stole the show and the controllers literally had to be pried from players hands.  It’s one of those ‘easy to pick up, hard to master’ games that pretty much anyone can have fun with while also feeling like they are terrible.  The small jolts of human connection while playing online come from the d-pad based text communication, but it’s actually enough to make it feel like you’re playing with and against humans, which goes a long ways towards longevity.
  • I first saw Gang Beasts at PAX in Seattle last August and am somewhat ashamed to say I haven’t gotten a chance to check it out yet. We were in a rush and the booth was understandably swamped; these little beasts are fricken adorbs. They looked cuddly, hilarious, and vicious all at once. It’s an arena fighter but with tons of character, despite lacking crazy graphics or details. I need to get my hands on this soon.

The Oft-Dreaded Work Party and the Game that Turned Up the Awesome

We were recently forced into one of those inherently awkward situations at work, the first meeting between two teams about to be merged. Maybe if you work in a smaller company or a startup this won’t be familiar to you, but beyond the standard turf-war possibilities, people can be pretty anxious about any number of things when this happens. Granted, in my situation, the two teams both work in games research, so generally we take situations at work with a heavy emphasis on also making sure we have fun. So of course we set up the space with various games and lots of pizza and beverages.

There were the classic FPS games, settling bragging rights for weeks to come, and the old school party games – i.e. board games. And then another room that was oozing crazy-fast talking, bordering on yelling, hoots and hollers and general exuberance. Intrigued, I poked my head in and saw a few people at PCs, and the others flipping through packets of paper with all sorts of text and images like their lives depended on it. In a way, they did.

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The ‘manual’ section of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

They were playing, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. The newly introduced teammates were cooperating, succeeding, or ya know, exploding together. They were sure as hell breaking the ice. I could barely tell which teams were which, and smiles and high-fives were everywhere. Imagine one of those corporate-y stock images of people in suits high-fiving – erase the suits and put in casual clothes – it was actually that cheesily awesome. I had to get in on it.

Intrigued, I poked my head in and saw a few people at PCs, and the others flipping through packets of paper with all sorts of text and images like their lives depended on it. In a way, they did.

With a very brief but critical intro to the basic controls of panning the camera, rotating the bomb, interacting with various parts of the bomb, we were off. I had two experienced ‘bomb-techs’ on the other side of the physical partition luckily. Instantly, my heart raced, and even moving the mouse was getting more nerve-wracking with each passing second. I had little idea what was coming, but as they shouted instructions, and I yelled back information, it felt like I was quadruple-tasking and it was legitimately exhilarating! It really didn’t matter who I was talking to and working with, and before I knew it we were done – and successful, I might add. We lived. Again, there were smiles, relieved gasps and ‘hoo-ahs’ and yep, I got my very own high-fives. And inevitably, we immediately started comparing bomb-defusing times with the other teams. Cooperation only goes so far after all – but for now, the Robbers Cave theory of working together certainly held true, even if we didn’t harbor any defined hostility towards each other to begin with.

The Gameplay

Basically, you can see a bomb. You have one or a few bomb-techs that can see the instruction manual. You have to work together to defuse the bomb in a certain amount of time and with a certain amount of errors, but without seeing the other’s materials. Sound simple?

bomb

da bomb

It starts simple, but once you progress beyond the first few puzzles, you’re bound to make a mistake and then the pressure really mounts. You get a predetermined number of strikes before the bomb goes boom and then it’ll be a fury of diagnosis, and maybe some mild finger-pointing (or an all-out frenzy, depending who you’re playing with).

Without giving away any major spoilers, to win as the person defusing the bomb, you will need to describe in incredible detail and at incredible pace what you’re seeing on the screen. Then you’ll have to follow the instructions given to you by your teammates, and hope they got it right. Potentially working fast to flip the bomb over or read off additional information. The cognitive load can pile up fast, which just makes it more fun and exhilarating. As the bomb-tech with the instruction manual, you’ll have to take in information and quickly parse what type of puzzle you’re dealing with (there are a good variety); then, you’ll have to find that section of the instruction manual in your packet. Once you understand the parameters of the specific puzzle, you’ll have some decoding or matching to do and then will have to intelligibly (easier typed than done) relay that information to your partner without any visual aids.

vr

I can’t wait to try the VR version of this game, but something about the adaptability to paper materials is very compelling.

As I mentioned above, we were playing on PC and it was basically like the world around us evaporated away. Were there real-life bombs going off? No idea, wouldn’t have noticed. Now imagine it in VR! When I stumbled on this game for the first time, also at PAX last August, people were giving it a whirl on the Oculus, and it seemed every bit as tense and exciting from the outside.

It was basically like the world around us evaporated away. Were there real-life bombs going off? No idea, wouldn’t have noticed.

Beyond Gameplay

The music in the game deserves a call-out, as it adds to the overall experience and fits so well, in my opinion. Created by Liam Suavé, it has the right amount of angsty secret-agent drive. Honestly, after listening to it again just now as a refresher, I’ll probably start throwing it on at work when I need to get down to business and start writing a report or a crucial email.

Let’s get one thing out of the way, you won’t be blown away by the graphics – you had to know these bomb puns were coming. But ultimately that really doesn’t matter. They’re good enough to get what you’re concentrating on done, and they don’t distract you (okay, sometimes they do, but that’s totally by design).

It’s hard to know how much replayability there truly is without diving in for hours, but it kept me wanting more after 60 minutes or so, and in a large party situation you’d get your money’s worth really quickly. Even after working through all the types of puzzles, switching up players should hypothetically keep it fresh.

Hopeful Homies Acclaimed Gameplay Design

*This is the section where we’ll point out the design elements of any given game or piece of media that we particularly love, and would advocate for in the future. It could be mechanics, ambiance, anything really.

  • Cooperative gameplay is dope. Add a superordinate goal, some intensity by way of time and failure constraints, an epic soundtrack, and cognitively challenging puzzles, and you’ve got to keep talking… about how good the game is gonna be.
duelhug.jpg

When you start with a duel, and add in some cooperative goal achieving, you just might wind up with this beautiful moment.

  • Built-in Tutorial that mirrors gameplay. I didn’t discuss it much, but the tutorial covered the three major pieces of a tutorial as far as I’m concerned. It was brief, it was critical (and critically helpful), and it was actually fun. Another way of putting it is that it didn’t waste my time by being long or covering things that weren’t necessary, and it was baked into the gameplay or somehow made interesting. Sure, I had to select it from a menu, which I’d argue is actually a good thing in case I wanted to skip it, but ultimately I felt like I was in the game universe, and not in a corner somewhere reading text while my friends were still playing.
  • Whether you play in VR or not (it’s already awesome to be thinking about what VR can do really well), Keep Talking breaks mediums by allowing lo-fi play with literal packets of paper. There’s something about this that feels so right when you’re trying to learn how to diffuse a bomb and solve mind-bending puzzles like the ones found in those books that your parents might have kept in stock for long road-trips. Or was that just me?

Recommendations based on our first impressions with the game

  • Recommended for a fan of this genre?
    • There was enough challenge and leveling (fully optional) in this game to last for at least a few parties I’d say. Even without playing for very long, it was obvious that we had much to learn, and I wanted to keep going with it.

 

  • Recommended for non-fans of this genre?
    • If you just hate puzzles or get very frazzled, then maybe you won’t be as successful. But with the right group of people, I actually think you might still have a good amount of fun. It’s worth giving it a shot, but the position I’d suggest starting out with is a secondary bomb-tech with the manual. Someone more experienced helping you out can make the task a LOT less daunting. The worst that can happen is you cause your friends to explode. So, there’s that.

 

  • Recommended for non-gamers?
    • Oh yeah. I’d consider this a gateway game for sure. Non-gamers might still be big puzzle solvers, or hopefully they at least marginally enjoy human to human interfacing. Either way, I think there’s something to love and have fun with in Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes.

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-tom

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