How Indie Games Saved Christmas: A Holiday Co-op Miracle Evan W January 20, 2016 Consoles, Editorials, Featured, News, PC, Xbox One The allure of a good gaming session is hard to resist. But we are expected, during the holiday season, to shelve those urges in favor of visiting family and close friends. We exchange pleasantries and presents, and pretend to care about relatives we never speak to, or who show very little interest in our lives beyond their current requirements of holiday “cheer” and “togetherness”. Often times, a simple suggestion of a gaming session during one of these family gatherings is met with stiff opposition. “Gafaw!!” they shout in horror, “We must spend time making small talk, complaining about our lives, and having one sided conversations about ourselves at other people!” All cynicism aside, however, an experience I had over this holiday break showed me that games can be a gateway to togetherness during the holidays (and really, any time of year) and it came from a surprising place: Indie co-op games. It was Christmas Day and my girlfriend and I were headed to my sisters house for Christmas brunch. A decent gathering of family members began to pile in to her house around noon. My mother and her boyfriend, my sister and her boyfriend, my Uncle, etc. We all spent some time stuffing our faces before everyone grabbed a mug of coffee to sit around and talk about our lives, which is tantamount to complaining about something. Anything, really. The conversation started innocently enough. We talked about my Uncles business and marital struggles, and what his plans were moving into the future. As you might be able to guess, it wasn’t the most uplifting of conversations, especially for Christmas. I’d rather take my mind off of the rest of the year during Christmas, usually by watching Home Alone or A Christmas Story. But, through my feelings of obligation to make at least an attempt at family bonding time, I sat there and tried to contribute. My Uncle knows I’m a left-leaning Liberal youth, and whenever we meet, our conversations either turn to politics, or discussing how his business works and how the company I work for compares, analyzing the minutiae with all that he has learned through his years of experience. When we reached that point, I was ready to check out. Luckily, I had the foresight to have a contingency plan in place. Earlier that week, my sisters boyfriend Tyler approached me excited that his new Alienware laptop had finally arrived ahead of the holidays. He is a big fan of Kerbal Space Program, putting in upwards of 200 hours into the game. I found this peculiar and intriguing, because he had dumped so many hours into a niche indie space game, but has an Xbox One and usually focuses on more traditional blockbuster AAA titles (this will be important later). It gave me hope that he might be open to some more niche indie experiences, and while I’m far from an indie aficionado, I tend to think I find a few gems worth sharing with everyone. During the Holiday Steam Sale I bought two indie games, Duck Game and Broforce, for dirt cheap, and figured it would be proper to run a $2000+ behemoth of a laptop through its paces on a couple of lightweight indie titles. You know, to see what it can really do. No, truth be told, part of the reason I bought both of these games and thought to show them to Tyler on Christmas Day is because of one thing: Local co-op. Duck Game Developer: Landon Podbielski Publisher: Adult Swim Games Platform: Steam ($12.99) Duck Game is best described as a 16-bit mash-up of Hotline Miami, Halo, and Super Smash Bros…with ducks, of course. Everything is presented through mock sports coverage ala ESPN, with a duck flavored twist. It takes cues from Hotline Miami in that combat is fast, and death is even faster. Players fire projectile weapons ranging from your typical pistols, shotguns, and sniper rifles, to more bizarre and unconventional ones such as net guns, magnet guns, mind control rays, a trombone (you read that right), and even a weapon like the Spartan Laser from Halo. Weapons have a set amount of ammo but that ammo count is not displayed, so players need to learn how many rounds each weapon has, and remember how many rounds they have used (that goes for their enemies weapons too). Players can also throw weapons to kill and knock weapons out of other players hands like in Hotline Miami, and each weapons has important quarks and details to learn. Like Halo, each weapon has its advantages and disadvantages. No weapon feels useless, but there are some weapons that are better against other weapons, and some that are simply more powerful, that all players will rush to get. Also like (classic) Halo, players start with even arsenals (i.e. none) and must rush to grab a weapon, or the best weapon, as fast as possible. Levels have the same layout and weapon placement no matter how many times you play them, but the order in which you play these levels is randomized. So players will start the game and either rush towards the closest weapon, or take a chance to get the most powerful weapon on the map, but they will have no anticipation as to which map is coming next. Duck Game takes cues from Super Smash Brothers in that players start from a zoomed out view of the map, and can see where others are and must navigate the level, making sure not to fall off the side on their way to killing other players. Duck Game is also charming as Hell, giving players a cast of cute pixelated ducks to dress up in unique and hilarious hats while they battle to the death. There is even a dedicated quack button and, while not necessarily appropriate, I would love such a button to appear in every shooter from now on. Teabagging would be infinitely better with a dedicated “quack” button. Broforce Developer: Free Lives Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform: Steam ($14.99) Broforce is a Contra/Metal Slug inspired shoot-em-up with destructable environments and a cast of over-the-top, action movie inspired parody characters; Rambro, Bronan, Commandbro. You get the picture. Each character has a unique primary and secondary attack, but some are more useful and fun than others. Players will quickly pick out a few favorite characters, but won’t get much time to use them. Every time a player dies, their character is replaced with another random Bro, so players must learn to play all of the characters, not just spam their favorites. The Bros of Broforce Players fly a helicopter between different mission areas on a top-down overworld map. When players arrive at a mission area, a muscle-bound, no-necked Commander gives players a humorous mission briefing before being dropped into the level proper. These briefings are some of the funniest moments in the game, the Commander’s audio coming through as a grumbling, gravelly gibberish over top of nationalistic and often xenophobic text. Your objective is to rescue fellow Bros, and to literally “GET TO DA CHOPPA!” at the end of each level. It’s over the top in nearly every way. The mission briefings are one of the funniest parts of Broforce The soldiers of Broforce greatly overpower their terrorist cannon fodder enemies, but there are a variety of enemy types to pay attention to. Being overzealous and charging into battle is the quickest way to get killed. Players will most often die because of an unintentional explosion or pieces of debris crushing them as the level falls down around them. Its chaotic with one player. With four, its downright madness. Both Duck Game and Broforce support four-player local co-op so long as you have the proper number of controllers. You can also choose to go online with your local compadres and play against others cooperatively and competitively. And that’s exactly what I did. I brought two wired Xbox controllers with me to plug into Tyler’s laptop. After we arrived, I asked if he would be interested in playing any games. He agreed that yes, we should play some games, and having just got a copy of Halo 5 for Christmas, he was eager to load the game up for some split-screen. Knowing that 343 Industries decided to remove split-screen from Halo 5, I told him that we wouldn’t be able to. He chuckled a bit and responded “It’s Halo, man. Of course they have co-op.”. I assured him that it didn’t, but he was convinced, so we booted up his Xbox One and loaded Halo 5. After a few minutes of exasperatedly flipping through menus and options, and me muttering “Told ya,” Tyler sat there, defeated. He was baffled by the fact that a game that had such a long history of being a co-op darling would omit such a thing. The decision to exclude split-screen from Halo 5 had many Halo faithful up in arms. His sadness was quickly alleviated by the magic of Steam, however. We plugged his laptop into the TV via HDMI and I pulled up Steam to sign in to my account. An email activation code later, and I was able to navigate my Steam library and download both of these 300mb games. We then plugged in my controllers, and were ready to play. All told, the process of setting up his laptop and installing these two games took less time than it did for his Xbox One to boot and for us to flip through Halo menus looking for a co-op option. We played both games for hours and laughed the entire time. Family members asked us what we were having so much fun with. When they came over to look, they were infatuated by the brash, loud, colorful, and silly way these games looked, played, and presented themselves. For the older folks, it reminded them of classic games from when they were kids. We handed off controllers, and the games were easy enough to pick up and play that everyone could take a turn and have fun, while not exactly being masters right away. Rounds went fast, so everyone got an ample amount of turns playing, and before we knew it everyone in the room was having as good a time as we were, chomping at the bit to get their next chance to play. I couldn’t help but smile at the idea of a group of people gathering around the couch to play a game together again, and the whole process being so easy. Nobody else besides me needed to own these games. If anyone else had a Steam account, we could have logged into their account and played any of their indie games in a matter of seconds too, without any fuss. The ease of installing and setting the whole scenario up was only buoyed by the fact that both Duck Game and Broforce can run on the laptop equivalent of a toaster, so long as you have an HDMI port and some wired controllers. The barrier of entry for these titles is very low, and the fun factor is very high. This image is far too peaceful, and not representative of my family in the slightest. Each year we continually buy gritty, annualized, big budget sequels that require people own a separate console and multiple copies of a game to get the classic local multiplayer experience we all grew up loving. They favor blood, skill, and realism over being easy to learn, fun to play, and accessible to a large group of gamers. I grow tired of going to a friend’s house to “play some games” and handing off a controller every 10 minutes or so once someone is done with a long, drawn out match spent shooting realistically rendered soldiers in the face. Someone is always relegated as the viewer, and not a fellow player, and to me that feels about as exclusionary an experience as you can get. After this experience I feel like we need more indie games like this to pick up the torch for co-op and local couch gaming where the AAA scene has dropped the ball, because I felt more togetherness this holiday season through playing a bunch of $15 indie games than I have in a long time.