Welcome to a new (probably monthly) series on the rise of the party game, where we celebrate all things ‘local multiplayer’. How do we do that? We dispatch Brendan to some of gaming’s best blowouts to schmooze and play with the partygoers. This week, The Wild Rumpus and a chat with the brothers who made Gang Beasts.
There’s a paddling pool full of water outside a nightclub in London. Beside it, a group of young men are wrapping condoms around PlayStation Move controllers. The shrinkwrapped controllers are attached to an elastic string and flung into the water, and three players roll up their trousers and enter the paddling pool barefoot. They are the Jellyfish Stompers.
The aim of Jellyfish Stomp is to use your feet to submerge and suffocate your opponent’s “jellyfish” (the condoms give the floating Move controllers an unmistakably translucent quality), while keeping your own controller safe from harm. The fourth and final player steps into the pool, happily ignoring the drawback of getting her tights wet. The Stompers face off. Move controllers wobble on the eddies and waves in the pool. “They’re double bagged,” says one of the game’s organisers. “Just to be safe.”
This is The Wild Rumpus, a night of games, music and drinking [part organised by RPS’ own Alice O’Connor --Disclaimer Ed]. In this instance it was coincidentally taking place alongside the Eurogamer Expo, creating an unintended juxtaposition which, like a preacher following in the wake of a war campaign, served to soothe those displaced and exhausted by too many grenade-fuelled shooters with the word of the One True Videogame: the party game.
Inside the art space the Rumpus has hired out, the lights of party games shine like beacons. There’s Sync, a competitive four-player game that looks like a lot of other minimalist shmups with two big caveats: when one player thrusts, everyone thrusts. When one player shoots, everyone shoots. The only thing fully under the player’s control is the direction they turn.
There’s Musclecat Showdown, a game about muscular, animated felines mastering various poses in the blink of a reflective eye. Players compete to be the fastest to strike one of the cats’ many poses, from the athletic mid-air splits to the provocatively thrust-out buttocks, complete with rose clasped romantically between cat fangs.
There’s Push Me Pull You, which is summarily described as “cooperative physics-based sumo-soccer” but is more lengthily described as a fleshy mess of hot fun in which two players must control the same snake-like body at either end, to keep a ball in their side of the court and away from another two-person team.
There’s Canabalt 100P - a reworking of the original endless runner, strapped to a piano where every key is one of the game’s 88 besuited figures.
And, outside by the pool, there’s Realistic Kissing Simulator, a game about getting your foot-long tongue into your co-player’s mouth.
As joyous as all these games are (every one of them made me laugh) there is one that holds the room’s attention like no other. Projected onto a screen, eight gelatinous figures vie for superiority around a fiery pit. They punch, grab, and waddle like proud, drunk warriors. This is Gang Beasts. And I swear to God. I just. I mean. Gang Beasts.
Already something of an RPS darling, Gang Beasts is a multiplayer brawler with the inebriated ragdoll physics of Sumotori Dreams and a cast of angry, rubbery wrestlers. It is Battle Royale meets a packet of Bassetts Jelly Babies and it is going to make you laugh. Learning to control your character is half the game, as you flop around discovering how to grasp onto your opponent and lift them off the ground. Get punched one time too many and you will faceplant the ground, vulnerable and unconscious. Should nobody seize the chance to fling you out of the arena, you will be able to watch as your limp body comes back to consciousness, legs first.
It’s a hugely playful game, perfect for the Rumpus. As I watch the wobbly battle unfold, I see hiding become a part of some players’ strategies. One man secrets himself away in an elevator while the arena is busy with brawlers, only to dramatically reappear when there is one opponent left. The crowd laughs. Another match sees one player scaling a high wall, inch by inch, as the fight rages beneath him. When there is only one of his opponents standing, he flings himself from on high at his foe and knocks himself out on the floor. The crowd cheers.
“It’s definitely a tactic,” says developer James Brown, as he thwacks me in the head and throws me over the ropes of a wrestling ring. It is the day after the Rumpus and I am playing Gang Beasts with him and his brother (and co-developer) Michael. Together with a third brother and a friend they make up Boneloaf, the creators of this bizarre and clumsy beat-em-up. This Fumble in the Bronx.
“Boneloaf pictured at a different event. From left to right: James Brown, Jon Brown, Jason Pugh, and Michael Brown.”
I ask about the behaviour of players in the game. Did they expect players to do all these strange things? I saw a man last night who, using some secret formula of buttons, began doing ‘the worm’ as a victory dance.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of dance moves,” says James. “We were going to put a nightclub level in there at some point. It’s a big performative aspect of the game… Expressive dance. There’s a lot of moves you can do.”
Michael knocks me out cold and sits triumphantly on my back
“This is the new straddling,” says James.
“Humiliation,” adds Michael, proudly.
I struggle back to my feet and flop my body away from the punishment.
“You can do a kick,” says James. “It’s not very powerful at the moment because…”
I press the kick button. The little red man I am controlling moves almost imperceptibly. His feet don’t so much ‘kick’ as twitch. But it looks, like every other movement in Gang Beasts, adorable and hilarious. I am instantly laughing again.
“We’re brothers, three of the four developers,” says James. “So we always played a lot of multiplayer games anyway. And there were a number of games that we were playing before we got into this, so we were always going to make it a multiplayer game.”
The brotherly habit of playing multiplayer has obviously affected Gang Beasts. I ask what kinds of games they played together growing up.
“Just the obvious ones like Smash Brothers, Bomberman. Me and Michael are massive fans of Bubble Bobble, we played that a lot.”
“Can get to level 50 on one credit,” says Michael, as he chases me, fists swinging, across a metal platform. James carries on talking.
“More recently, before we started going into development on this, we were going back to the Ouya, and we were playing Towerfall a lot. There’s a game that’s now on the Ouya called BombSquad that we played a lot. Even though the way we played it wasn’t really the way you’re intended to play it.”
That unintentional tomfoolery is another thing that makes Gang Beasts a perfect fit for a party. Given enough freedom, people won’t always engage in a straight-up fight. Hence the dancing, hiding and wall-climbing.
“It’s kind of like a playset, really,” says James. “That’s how we think of it. Kind of like a doll’s house. Think of a child smashing cars together at home on his living room floor. We’re just giving him more things to smash together.”
We all lose our footing on a window cleaner’s gondola, set high against a skyscraper. Michael plummets to his doom and James grasps onto the railing. I manage to scramble up to safety and begin punching at the gondola’s ropes. It is still a competitive game, after all. Isn’t it?
“I don’t think we’re that competitive. We put up the pretence of being competitive because it makes it more fun - the whole trash talk thing. We’re not good at that trash talk stuff but it makes it more fun.”
“Yeah,” says Michael. “They don’t believe I can beat them at Mario Kart when I clearly can.”
“Yeah, obviously Mario Kart. Mario Kart is one of the few games we can play with our sister as well and that’s kind of what we wanted our game to be. And she doesn’t play it very much but when she does play it she’s able to be competitive.”
“She did beat us the first time she played it.”
“We kind of built the game with her in mind to a certain degree - and our Dad, who doesn’t really play it.”
The game is still in early access and, as we batter and pursue each other around a foundry, a giant air fan and a ferris wheel, James talks full-flow about all the things they want to add. More levels, Mario Party style mini-games, a co-op story mode set in an angry gang-filled city (“It’s called Beef City. It’s shaped like a cow”). Goldeneye is an old favourite of the team, so of course there are plans to include a Big Head mode.
But it’s the customisation of characters that tickles my party game fancy. Since the last time I played the team have added costumes, hats and other accessories to the brawlers. There’s something intrinsically funny about watching a man dressed as a cat clothes-lining a man wearing a dinosaur onesie.
“For the story mode to make more sense we wanted more customisation. And to allow you to build your own gang and go up against another gang we needed customisations because gangs are all about identity and associating yourself with other people.”
I punch James in the back of the head.
“We’re not looking to balance that. The Sombrero can save you in certain circumstances because it has such a wide brim.”
“On the Ferris Wheel level,” explains Michael, “if you fall through the gap in the planks, it just stops you from falling.”
Hats aren't just an aesthetic thing either. One proposed game mode will see characters fighting to tear these hats off the other players’ bodies and stomp on them. Whoever has destroyed the most hats by the end of the round wins. Meanwhile, the co-op ‘story’ mode is planned to be something like a clumsy version of ‘Streets of Rage’. A little Google search reveals a (since removed) summary of the backstory: “In the aftermath of the Great Beef Crash of 1979, Beef City, a mouldering meat production metropolis, is in a state of emergency triggered by multitudes of hostile gangs competing to take control of the streets.”
“Yeah. The game is set in the eighties,” says James. “We haven’t really explained that.”
“That’s just kind of our internal story I think. I don’t know how much of that we want to communicate in the final game. But it’s just a kind of reason everybody’s angry. But also a good reason to make the city in the shape of a cow.”
I dive from the top of a ferris wheel and catch Michael’s leg on the way down. We dangle there together in the centre of the wheel, lobbing ill-placed punches at each other. After a few levels the three of us just begin to waddle around and play with the controls. Every now and then we will take an almost obligatory swing at each other. But mostly, we are just messing around.
Back at The Wild Rumpus, the night is winding down. The computer housing Realistic Kissing Simulator has bugged, resulting in a pair of tongues slopping off each other at a nightmarishly slow three-frames-per-second. The Jellyfish Stompers have hung up the PlayStation controllers to dry. But inside, there are still drunk people playing Gang Beasts.