The RPS Advent Calendar – Dec 4th: Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes

What is the best co-op game of 2015? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games from throughout the year, and behind today’s door is…

Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes!

Graham: Bomb Squad, assemble!

Adam: I’ll assemble. But we’ll probably end up disassembled as soon as Morse Code enters the picture.

Pip: That Morse Code disaster will haunt me forever. Do we know anyone who knows Morse Code and can join our group?

Adam: Morse Code seems like the kind of thing I would have found exciting when I was a kid because The Famous Five caught a smuggler using a combination of dots, dashes and semaphore. It’s dead to me now.

To recap, briefly, we were undone by the need to decipher some Morse Code while playing Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, a game in which one person must defuse a bomb, randomly generated and displayed on their screen, while their team-mates attempt to instruct them as to the correct method of disabling each individual bomb component. Those team-mates cannot see the bomb but do have an instruction manual. It’s a game about communication in a high pressure, time-sensitive situation. We were good at cutting the right wire and deciphering symbols but Morse Code destroyed us. Utterly.

Has anyone played since? Have you been seeing other Bomb Squads behind my back?

Pip: Not me – I feel like this bomb squad is for life, we just need to maybe pick up a few extra squadmates so we can plug the gaps in our own knowledge. #squadgoals

Graham: Nor I. That might sound like an indictment of the game, but that single session with it was the most solid block of fun I’ve had with a game all year.

Adam: I taught Claire to play because she’d been watching over my shoulder when I was playing with official Bomb Squad during that session. She refused to play as the defuser though because she said it seemed too scary and tense, so all of my precious knowledge of the manual went to waste as I ended up locked with an explosive in the dark relying on the voice of a novice to guide me to safety. IT DID NOT END WELL. But it did end in laughter, which is good. And we tried again a couple of days later and had great success.

I’ve recommended the game to loads of people though and it’s caught on with a few boardgame groups I know. It’s a great social experience that doesn’t require a huge amount of knowledge – there’s no great barrier to entry – and it works surprisingly well as a spectator sport for anyone who might not be sure they want to join in initially. I’ve seen people demanding a look at the manual when they think the so-called experts are letting their team-mate down. It’s infectious.

Pip: When we played I think I was a bit unsure because I tend to be quite quiet in multiplayer or find it hard to talk when other people are talking but for some reason this was different. I just took charge of the bit I could do best and tried to chip in with the other things. It might sound like a small thing but it was such a relief!

The other cool thing was that it never got mean. You know how when something’s going wrong in multiplayer and it affects the dynamic in a negative way? People getting snippy with each other or feeling sad about themselves – that never happened for us here. It just got funnier or, when we were about to die it was tense but not miserably so. Maybe that’s a combination of how we all play, though. I mean we weren’t competing in the Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes MLG Regionals or anything. Do they have those? Should I be covering them? IS THIS AN ESPORT?

Graham: I think it could be an esport! But I hope it never becomes one, because I too liked that it didn’t feel competitive. A lot of these kinds of games put a lot of pressure on a single player – the person who has stepped up to the flipchart to draw a picture for everyone else to guess, say – but Keep Talking distributes the pressure really well. As the defuser, you’re the focus but also kind of helpless, and success comes from communication. Describing symbols well, asking the right questions, remaining calm. I think that even if it did become an esport, the snippy teams would explode until they learned not to be jerks.

Adam: I’m playing Rainbow Six Siege right now (not right now, I am not that hopeless as a squadmate) and the difference is startling. Both games – and they’re very different, of course – have teams in high pressure situations trying to succeed. But where Keep Talking is about finding your own way of expressing and understanding concepts, and is very much a game about learning a shared language, Siege quickly turns into barked instructions and zero tolerance for delays or failure. That’s sort of effective in the sense that it is a competitive game and it creates a sense of panic, but it’s also quite miserable to play because I feel like I’m failing all of the time. Even a win feels like it should be followed by a harsh debrief so we can do better next time.

I love that we found a cooperative game that is based around an inevitable failure but didn’t feel crappy about it when the inevitable happened. I think a lot of that is down to the humour – it’s not a game built around gags, but it is absolutely absurd, these puzzles and the wording of them. Having to run through a list of words that are themselves instructions: “Does it say ‘No’ anywhere?” “NO” “DO YOU MEAN IT DOESN’T OR ARE YOU ASKING ME WHAT I SAID” “I DON’T KNOW”. It’s a game prone to farce and I’d like more of that in all of my cooperative ventures.

Graham: I love that puzzle. That it has the word “SEE” but also “SEA” and maybe also “CEE” and/or “C”. It’s devious.

I wonder if the developers have a bag full of puzzles they implemented but then discarded because they didn’t create the right experience. The puzzles seem clever both at making communication tricky, but in fostering that thing you mentioned Adam, of bystanders thinking they can do better. The puzzles seem so simple on the surface, especially if you have more information than the people playing. It feels like a game that was played a thousand times in order to perfect that.

Pip: I agree. Also I have a suggestion. The next time we have to hire someone we should make Morse Code part of the requirements so they can definitely make themselves useful.

Adam: I’d do alright if there was a Wordsearch every now and then. There’s a serious point there, actually – even though the puzzles are recognisable ‘types’, they’ve all been reimagined beautifully as components of a bomb. They look like weird little mechanical and electronic devices, with interfaces and typefaces that you wouldn’t be too surprised to see during a big Hollywood bomb disposal scene. A Wordsearch probably wouldn’t work but even the more outlandish things, like the mazes you have to guide the defuser through, look right. They’re not too busy graphically but they don’t just look like something plucked out of an airport puzzle book.

Pip: Is this the part where I tell you I hate wordsearches because they are awful and I’m a jerk? The puzzles look right, though, and they’re generally designed really well in terms of the back and forth they require. Are there any exceptions to that that I’m missing? I mean when you get to the more complex puzzles – the ones we watched online instead of doing ourselves – it seems like the various squadmates were given info and then left to work out the solution on their own while the defuser moved on to the next person and gave them the info for a different puzzle. Perhaps it’s fairer to say it’s a lot of back and forth early on and then you have to work out how to streamline everything as you get further in and the dynamics shift about.

Graham: That sounds right to me. The puzzles do increase in complexity as you progress, but I don’t think that’s as important an axis of difficulty as the reduced time and the increased quantity of puzzles it gives you. We experienced this in the parts of the game we played; doing three easy puzzles in five minutes was a sinch, whereas doing six of those same puzzles in three minutes brought us to the verge of defeat. We got better at streamlining our own back and forth but it never felt intimidating in the way that truly baffling puzzles can.

I love the big red buttons. I think the look of the whole thing is sort of Fisher Price’s My First Bomb Defusal Kit, but I think that’s perfect. I want my bombs to come with countdown clocks and exposed colourful wires and big, clunky buttons to push and hold. They’re irresistible.

In short: good game, I like it. More people should play it.

Adam: Yes. Excellent game. I’m trying to nudge Space Alert out of the door as drunken gathering game of choice so that Keep Talking can replace it. Though drunken bomb disposal could be a bit messy.

Pip: Maybe you could make it your new Christmas tradition…

Go here for more of our picks for the best PC games of 2015.

26 Comments

  1. Mario Figueiredo says:

    I played this. For a week or so we had some manner of fun. Not anything too exciting and it lasted only that week. We just grew tired. It gets tiring soon and fast. Best of the Year? I would surely hope not. Co-op would have had a terrible year.

    Maybe tomorrow this RPS list starts making more sense. Or maybe this was that of a bad year for games.

    • HothMonster says:

      I disagree with your choice your list is invalid. I am the center of the universe and if I bounced off a game no one else must like it!

      • Zankman says:

        Or, and hear me out here, he is just stating his opinion?

        • anHorse says:

          Nah once you start whining about the list itself you’ve moved from giving an opinion to trying to dictate content

          • Zankman says:

            Not… At all?

            That is still just sharing his opinion about the game choice and the list itself. Him disagreeing with it and stating that is in no way an attempt to “dictate content”.

            He didn’t say “Remove X game, include Y game instead… Or else” or anything close to that…

        • HothMonster says:

          Meh, if he would have said. “I didn’t like it” or “I thought X was a better co-op game” I wouldn’t have said anything. It’s the whole – because I didn’t like it this list makes no sense and it must have been a bad year – thing that steps it beyond stating an opinion and into criticizing people for having an opinion other than his own.

          Or I am just feeling sick, stuck at work, and grumpy so I read too much into it.

          • Zankman says:

            You are reading too much into it.

            He is merely saying that he disagrees with this game being chosen as the best one and implying that for that to be the case, the competition would have to have been incredibly weak.

          • Mario Figueiredo says:

            Yes. I know. You have strong opinions about other people opinions.

            If I said “this list is great”, you would probably say nothing. But that too is an extreme opinion. As much as “this list sucks” (which, btw, I didn’t say). But alas, disagree with something and there will always be a white knight championing the poor helpless authors who can’t defend themselves. Someone will present you a medal soon, champion.

      • Apocalypse says:

        Re-read the post, because I don´t think it means what you think it means.

        Besides that, yeah if that was the best coop game of the year than it must have been a rather poor year for coop games. Was it a poor year? No idea, I am a few years behind, damnit steam sales.

    • tehfish says:

      I do sort of agree…

      Not sure it even contends as valid in a ‘best of the year’ list.

      But on the flip-side, it is interesting as it’s a fairly new concept in many ways.
      It’s not a game i’ll ever likely play, but it is interesting mechanics-wise and gameplay-wise. I feel i got a lot of the experience just watching Youtube videos in this case.

      So overall i’d say it’s so-so, interesting enough technically to squidge into this list if nothing else for being something new. :)

  2. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    I hear “best coop game of 2015” on RPS’s twitter. But I know that Helldivers is being released in 3 days, so I’m all ready to come here and cry foul in the comments …

    … but, no, you’re right. Keep Talking is awesome. Never mind, I stand down.

    (Still: Don’t forget to cover Helldivers!)

  3. Ibed says:

    Oooh I loved this game, thanks for including it here.

    Morse is indeed the bane of my existence; the weird 4-part Venn diagram went a lot smoother for me. Since I played the game with non-English speakers, I felt we missed some of the confusion with the see/sea/cee/c puzzles, but that’s a very minor point.

    As for the “give squadmates info and let them work”, we only did that with the password puzzle, where that feels most effective (assuming multiple people with manuals). Streamlining our processes feels like changing the game; it becomes less “pure” and more about being good at solving the puzzles. I don’t think that puzzle-solving game is as cool as the bomb-diffusal game, though it was still enjoyable.

  4. Nixitur says:

    I’ve been playing this with a single other person over the internet. It’s really fun, but after defusing all the “Challenging” bombs, I think we’ve almost hit the limit of what we can accomplish with one expert.
    We’ve been thinking of re-ordering the information in the manual, like replacing the insane Venn diagram with a table or alphabetizing the “Who’s On First” puzzle, but, strangely, that sort of feels like cheating. At this point, the defuser already has to memorize a lot of information to have a chance at defusing the bomb quickly enough.
    In any case, great game, highly recommend it. Very doable and extremely fun even with just two players, but more people would probably have better success.

  5. Hypocee says:

    I was going to necro the previous post on Keep Talking because I had something I wanted to put into the hivemind and RPS is the closest thing to a forum I go to these days. Now I don’t have to, yay!

    I spend most work days with my eyes down a microscope. Podcasts and certain kinds of Let’s Play are great ear fillers, and obviously Keep Talking is quite well-suited to expressing personality and humour through audio. I went on a real jag for a week after release, hearing group after group come to grips with it.

    That did get a bit old eventually, both naturally and by the rage schtick, screaming-for-children channels smelling chum and moving in. The last couple weeks I’ve gotten into it again, though, thanks to other languages. I like languages and yep, I’ve been feeling inferior and guilty yet thoroughly entertained while people play a game that’s (initially) about quickly and precisely reading instructions in perhaps, overall, the cruelest legacy of the postwar Pax Americana.

    So far I’ve heard French, Spanish (Mexican), Portuguese (Brazilian), Italian, German, Polish, Russian (Intense Russian Has. Not. Gotten. Old. Yet, and added several colours and other words to my largely Clancy-based vocabulary), I think Romanian, an Indian language I don’t think is Hindi, and Korean.

    What I wanted to note was three exports from English that I noticed cropping up to various levels of surprise for me.
    1. ‘OK’. Every single language has used this (outside its necessity in Who’s on First), including Korean. No surprise at all there. As best we can tell this started as a 19th century joke, but it’s become English’s gift to the world. People everywhere yearned without knowing it for a short, all-purpose more-or-less affirmative.
    2. ‘Fuck’ and variations. Only the Koreans, so far as I’ve heard, haven’t used this. Still not too surprising – it’s relevant to the game’s milieu, and it can live as any part of speech; you can’t hear modern colloquial English media without encountering it somewhere.
    3. ‘Ohmigod’. But this one surprised me. Again, only the Koreans haven’t deployed it. It’s not out of place in Spanish and French that have lots of contact with untranslated Anglophone media, tourism exchanges and so on, but I was intrigued to hear it popping out in India and Poland. I mean borzhe moi, surely everybody has their own despairing interjections!?

    • ooshp says:

      Hah, that’s pretty awesome. I unofficially nominate you for an Ig Nobel.

  6. Unsheep says:

    Short-term thinking by RPS.

    As everyone in mainstream gaming media RPS gets completely lost in the novelty of the mechanics and completely forgets about the long-term enjoyment of the game.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      That was my problem with it. The game, as I said previously, was indeed fun. And I didn’t say it, but the mechanics are worth praise for their novelty. But the game gets tiring soon. It’s one of those things you play for a while and will probably never come back to. This was the feeling at least shared by me and 3 others.

      Meanwhile the year had other co-op niceties. The only other co-op game I played was Card Hunter (it’s not exactly a 2015 game, but it was the expansion launched this year that introduced co-op). And we are still playing it. It’s been a few months…

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Accurate description of the gaming media for the past, I dunno, 20+ years.

      My favorite example of this is an American PC games magazine which gave Black & White something like a 90%, then a few months later had a column saying “oh shit, that game was pretty bad, wasn’t it?” It’s a depressingly endless cycle of short-lived hype about whatever’s new and shiny.

    • Cederic says:

      “Best Co-op Game of the Year” – played once by almost everyone.

      Maybe they just don’t do co-op?

  7. Alegis says:

    Trying to nudge out Space Alert? What you need is more Space Alert

  8. Synesthesia says:

    oof, one of the best gaming experiences of the year, for sure. We played this with a few different group of friends, and it was a blast. Great choice.

  9. mineshaft says:

    I love this asymmetrical game. Get bored? Do a variant…

    I saw people playing telephone with it. The defuser tells the middle man about the bomb, the middle man tells the people with the manual, the people with the manual tell the middle man what to pass on.

    I saw the defuser hide the bomb from their stream and play with twitch chat providing defusing instructions.

    I saw people play who’s on first but tabooing all the words in the manual.

    I try to get my partner to play. It’s really tense for her, a non gamer. But it’s simple enough to control that she can be the defuser. It does a great job at creating artificial tension.

    If you play with a steady group, you evolve your own meta game.

    I think what I expect in the future is that more modules will be designed and the game will just get sillier and sillier.

    It’s fun to watch and play, definitely high on my list.

  10. ooshp says:

    Although I’d maybe not go so far as to say “co-op of the year” without a good long hard think about it, this game does stand out from the crowd in one important respect: you don’t need to be a gamer to play it.

    Like Wii Sports and Rock Band/Guitar Hero, non-gamers seem to enjoy this as much or more as gamers.

    Obviously one person is required to know which end of Steam to pick up and which way to point it, but beyond that it’s super friendly to casuals. Which I’m certainly not saying as a bad thing.

    • syndrome says:

      That’s interesting.

      I never thought I had to be a judge to form an opinion about something. Or a teacher if I was to teach someone how not to be clueless about something. Certainly only a gamer can be playful, inquisitive, and controlling a mouse pointer, amirite? Non-gamers stand no chance.

      There are no non-gamers dude, only neuroplasticity, consensus-alignment, and solemnity.