For the first twenty-something years of my life, video games were very much a social hobby. From the shit-talking Blades of Steel sessions as a kid, all the way to getting gently stoned and playing some Mario Party in my twenties, games were about hanging out with other people. But for ten years or so, with the advent of online gaming, multiplayer became a much more solitary affair. Many games no longer offer a “local” multiplayer option at all; players are now typically separated across screens and thousands of kilometres. Game developers tried hard to make this shut-in behaviour more social, for example by encouraging talking through headsets, but most players aren’t interested in hearing what some idiot stranger has to say, myself included.
Coupled with this, most games became increasingly complex in their controls, which meant that it was much more difficult for a casual player to pick up and stand a chance against their “gamer” friend.
The end result of all this is that I stopped playing games with other people, and there became a clearer divide between my friends who played vids and my friends who didn’t. There was no longer any space for it to be a casual, social hobby. And that kind of stinks, because playing video games is just as fun as, say, playing Settlers of Catan, or sitting in a bar getting drunk for no reason other than it’s an excuse to hang out.
But in the last couple of years, smaller developers have increasingly turned their focus toward “couch multiplayer” games, i.e. multiplayer where people all sit in the same room again. And as with the rest of the indie game renaissance, the results have been fresh and revitalizing. These developers have been smart enough to keep the barrier to entry low, in that the games are usually quite easy to pick up and play, but without making the game superficial or shallow. Pair all this with the fact that these games are on the cheaper side, usually under $20, and it’s an enticing way to get friends playing games again.
I recruited a few of my pals, including one couple who don’t spend any time playing video games at all, to survey the state of couch multiplayer. Here’s a selection of games that were a hit.
Tricky Towers (PC/Steam, Playstation 4)
Tricky Towers takes the tetrominoes made famous in Tetris (yes, they’re really called “tetrominoes”) and repurposes them for a new competitive game. The goal of the basic game is to stack your pieces into a tower and reach the finish line above you, but your best efforts are often thwarted by your friends, who send hazards your way or get power-ups to build better stacks of their own. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of other threats to your tower-building enterprise, including the harshest mistress of all: gravity. Whether it’s the simple controls or the variants in gameplay (including puzzle and survival modes, and the championship cup we always play), this is the game my “non-gaming” friends always ask to play. Super fun.
Overcooked (PC, XBox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch)
If Tricky Towers builds a healthy antagonism between you and your friends, this one really tests the strength of those friendships under pressure. Overcooked is a bright, silly, colourful cooperative multiplayer game where you all work together to prepare meals. There’s plenty to do in the kitchen, like chopping, boiling, frying, plating, and even cleaning dishes, and it doesn’t help that the kitchens often have some bizarre challenge to overcome (such as being on the roofs of two vans that keep coming together and separating!). To succeed in the game, you and your friends need to plan ahead and work together, and that should be easy, but boy oh boy, it sure isn’t. Again, the game’s controls are very simple to pick up, but it ratchets up the difficulty every level with more demanding recipes or obstacles to overcome. It was fun to watch our best-laid plans go down in the flames of an oil fire (all of us were too busy cooking to grab the extinguisher).
Gang Beasts (PC, PS4)
And back to the pure antagonism. Gang Beasts is a very simple fighting game with “rag-doll” physics, colourful wrestlers, and funny locations. Your goal is to throw your friends out of the “ring”, which may be off a silo or into oncoming traffic. The game didn’t necessarily have a lot of lasting power with my gang, but it’s notable for causing one of my friends to go into a laughing fit for almost ten straight minutes. The game’s physics, the tiny punches and flopping bodies, really are hilarious, and since the game is still in development, it may end up being even better than it already is.
Mount Your Friends (PC, XBox 360)
A simple premise, a tough set of controls, and a lot of dongs. Mount Your Friends is a game about ascending a tower of men in speedos, only to become a part of that tower and force your friends to climb one nearly-naked dude higher. The game’s timer and deadly serious music pair really nicely against the absurd imagery and tricky controls (for both novice and experienced gamers). Pretty dumb and great.
Ultimate Chicken Horse (PC, XBox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch)
Let’s get it out of the way: this is probably the best proof of concept for couch multiplayer in 2017. Ultimate Chicken Horse, in addition to having the greatest name, is that perfect balance between game and meta-game. The game is simple: traverse, a la Mario Bros.‘s-style platforming, to the finish line. Between rounds, each player adds one obstacle, trap, platform, black hole, teleporter, or other shenanigan to the map. By the end of a game, the map is littered with insanity. And it’s in this meta-game that the game is endlessly replayable: how can I make it too difficult for my friends to succeed, but still easy enough for me to beat it? What secrets can I drop without my friends noticing? What are my friends scheming? Like most on this list, Ultimate Chicken Horse has a playful, cartoony presentation that hides a surprising amount of depth. This game rules, and while my friends may ask for Tricky Towers most, we always end up playing this the longest.
Nidhogg (PC, PS4)
Nidhogg is pure. Nidhogg doesn’t bother with fancy graphics or complicated game rules or variety of gameplay. It is a game utterly distilled down to its component parts, two stick figures swordfighting for the opportunity to be eaten by the titular beast at the end of the level. That’s right: the winner gets eaten by the Nidhogg. You jump, you stab, you kill, you run, you die, you are born, you fight again. Nidhogg is furiously paced, so much so that one friend noted his palms were sweaty and his heart was pounding out of his chest. I say a lot of dirty curse words while playing this one. There is something sublime and pure about Nidhogg, something that reminds me of the purity of playing Nintendo games against my friends as a kid. AND I just found out that the (even uglier) sequel is landing four days from now!
So when you and your friends are trying to decide what to do this weekend, consider firing up some video games and having a legitimate excuse to trash-talk each other. It’ll cost you less than going out to the bar, and it may remind you of the simple joy that games can bring.