The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since lockdown, a handful of vultures have been trying to fill the social-distancing void by playing video games together, and, hey, if you don't hate your colleagues' guts, maybe there's something here you could introduce to them in lieu of the pub.
The Reg's enthusiastic approach to after-hours socialising is legendary, and this wasn't helped back when the UK office worked in central London. We tried but did not always succeed in knocking off early on a Wednesday to imbibe lagers, ales and ciders on tap.
Our Wednesday Club is all in the distant past. Though there must be some poor souls obliged to traipse in every day, The Reg decided early on that it would be safest if we did not, spelling the end of our in-person after-work sessions. But technology is a wonderful thing. If we could do a news meeting from the comfort of our underwear, we sure as hell could do a Wednesday Club.
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Google Meet has played host to our lockdown looks – from Quentin Quarantino to Beardy Skinhead – where we sullenly drank supermarket beer and attempted to talk about anything but work, until it struck me: We should be playing games.
My most dedicated companions in this cyber-socialising endeavour, reporters Gareth Corfield and Richard Speed, took some convincing as respective flight sim nerds and VR tourists. Their Steam libraries lie destitute, and Sam & Max Hit The Road is somehow still the pinnacle of gaming.
It was time for their re-education, and to repair some of that cohesion mgmt types bang on about during team-building exercises. Fortunately, I had a flush of cooperative titles up my sleeve which we have either now tired of, exhausted, or are only just getting started. Take a look, apply the lessons learnt to your own workplace, and see how you, too, can monotonectally whiteboard client-centric products through the power of video games*.
Human: Fall Flat (2016)
A bunch of doughy white guys flail about and bounce off each other while failing to address the task at hand: No, this isn't the UK Cabinet but a physics-based puzzle platformer with support for up to eight players. That's right, you could get a small department in a server on Human: Fall Flat and see where the carnage takes you. Players spawn into one of many themed maps selected by the host as little marshmallow men with all the stability of Gran after a night on the port and lemon. There are many laughs to be had and plenty of teamwork to brush up on – my most infuriating moment was attempting to offload shipping containers from a freighter, with one of us trying to hook the damn things and another operating the lift controls.
It works by the player grabbing things with either or both hands (operated by right and left click, or triggers on consoles) – levers, steering wheels, boxes, switches and what have you – and rather ineffectually manipulating them in order to solve a puzzle and move onto the next. Three seemed to be the magic number here, and we were able to overcome each obstacle without much difficulty, though the comedy effect of our characters swaying and bumbling about shouldn't be sniffed at. This will surely help us conveniently innovate technically sound results at work. Over to my comrades now for their take.
Gareth: Human: Fall Flat, I am reliably informed, is a "party game". Its premise is simple: you have a third-person view of a humanoid character with the physics implementation of a drunken paraplegic. You must steer your character through various levels containing puzzles to solve; gameplay consists of jumping about, pushing blocks and other items around, and a little elementary applied physics knowledge helps.
We spent many enjoyable hours staggering around the simple and colourful landscapes in each level, and driving a fully functional tipper truck around one world was a definite highlight. What wasn't a highlight was trying to figure out how to get over impossibly high walls without abusing the game's mechanics.
Richard S: This was the first of Rich's suggestions and it all began so well. Guiding a hilariously blobby little figure around puzzles while shouting at one's colleagues over iffy audio was initially brilliant (particularly when it came to throwing sofas from windows) but after a while the challenges became... boring. It was clear how a puzzle might be solved but dealing with a deliberately annoying control system swiftly went from "ha ha!" to "ffs" [I just think you're bad – ed].
Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)
The Left 4 Dead games are the granddaddy of co-op first-person shooters, and it was an obvious world to drag my colleagues into after the puzzling plod of Human: Fall Flat. Considerably less cerebral, the original was a masterstroke by Valve of Steam and Half-Life fame and takes place in a zombie apocalypse (think 28 Days Later rather than Dawn of the Dead). Thankfully, all of the first entry's (2008) campaigns have been since implemented in the sequel.
Up to four players blast their way through a linear map of vicious meat puppets and boss-level enemies with whatever tools can be found on the floor until reaching an extraction point. If one of your number goes down, they can be revived if rescued before being eaten. If all perish, you start again. Things can get very hectic – clear communication and strategic thinking helps in chokepoints, which you can totally apply to dynamically incepting low-risk high-yield markets in the professional realms. What did the chaps think?
Gaz: L4D2 is a mindless zombie shoot-em-up. Gameplay is exactly as you'd imagine. Graphics are dim and gloomy, the guns go bang in a variety of amusing ways and the zombies are suitably suicidal and provided in unfeasibly large numbers.
The levels are varied, ranging from part-ruined industrial and office buildings to rural areas, and the teamwork element is reasonably important.
What is more important than human teamwork, however, is having at least one AI character on your team. If you don't, you'll find yourself being wiped out in short order: several times the AI saved our collective bacon after we had been overrun by the murderous hordes [Again, you guys are just bad – ed]. L4D2 was a great antidote to the daily grind, requiring little or no brainpower to play and no more than a passing acquaintance with the concept of teamwork.
Speedy: It seemed inevitable, considering what was happening in the world, we would move onto zombie slaying. Like HFF, L4D2 ran a treat on my pathetic Intel laptop graphics. Also like HFF, the cooperative team aspect proved excellent (although the computer player tended to be the most useful) and the game mechanic of resurrecting fallen players proved rather touching. Although charging into a mob of zombies wielding a chainsaw was perhaps a little too similar to cutting a swathe through the morning's inbox of PR chaff.
Next we tried Embr, a cutesy indie effort about fighting fires in a hyper-capitalist future. It's still in Early Access on Steam but we received a number of codes for free, so took a whack at it. With bright and chunky graphics, the name of the game is rescuing a minimum number of clueless victims while the building collapses around them. You can purchase improved fire-fighting gear with your winnings, edit loadouts then choose levels with varying difficulties and objectives.
In two hours, we probably saw most of what the game had to offer in its current state, but we had a fairly enjoyable time doing it. Again, the coordination needed to succeed will no doubt interactively enable ubiquitous leadership skills in the office environment. Over to the lads.
Gaz: In this title you are part of a dystopian future working for an app-based private fire brigade. Subscribers to the app have a habit of setting their houses on fire. You must go in and rescue them from gazing at their phones before the house burns down and kills its occupants.
This wasn't quite as compelling as the other games we tried though its premise was sound enough. Lots of animated humans burned to death while we tried to figure out how to extinguish fires, and there's probably a morality tale in there somewhere. On the bright side we did figure out how to fling car tyres at each other.
Speedy: This was a good deal less successful, although it should have been great. Putting out fires, rescuing people – what's not to like in a co-op? In this case, juddering graphics (for me at least) and distinctly iffy game mechanics belied the beta nature of the cartoonish mayhem. It wasn't what we were looking for, and even copious amounts of beer could not conceal its flaws.
Sea of Thieves (2018)
"It's like someone came up with a bloody good sea effect and said, 'Guys, we have to make a game out of this.'" That became our rallying cry as we stared slack-jawed from the deck of our brigantine at the azure waters covering Sea of Thieves, the jewel in the crown of our lockdown team-building exercises and the only game here that I really must insist co-workers, friends and even family try out together.
This means it can be played for £3.99 a month along with any other game in the Microsoft catalogue, which can be cancelled at any time, rather than forking out the 30-odd quid to buy it outright. This proved instrumental in coaxing my suspicious colleagues into dangerous waters. If you're loath to download more Microsoft ecosystems, it also came out on Steam this month, a couple of years after its original release.
Sea of Thieves is a pirate game with absolutely gorgeous graphics reminiscent of Monkey Island environments but rendered in high-definition 3D. You and your teammates crew a ship together ranging in size from a sloop to brigantine to full-on galleon, depending on how many people you have with you (up to four). The main goal appears to be acquiring booty, eventually increasing your reputation to "Pirate Legend" by working with various guilds.
There are a few routes to achieve this: X-marks-the-spot and riddled treasure hunts on the many islands that dot the ocean, bounty hunting skeletal captains, or more pedestrian mercantile objectives, along with some others that we haven't got round to investigating yet.
However, you're not the only band of bloodthirsty corsairs on the seas, and much of the fun is derived from ruining other people's day by engaging in ship-to-ship combat, sinking them, and making off with their hoard as it floats to the surface. It must be said, however, that the community is extremely and refreshingly non-toxic.
For the handful of times we were dunked on by more experienced crews, we always buried the hatchet if we crossed paths again, resulting in loot being shared out regardless. But take heed – the less treasure in your hold when an enemy ship engages, the better.
The quests are really just there to give you and your crew somewhere to go and something to do, but the core of our enjoyment was simply the pleasure of working as a team to operate our ship. Sails must be lowered, raised and angled to control speed. Someone really ought to be at the helm, too, with a navigator checking your course is true. But they'll need another up front telling them if they're about to smash into an ill-placed rock rising from the seabed.
Somebody else might be in the crow's nest with their telescope out looking for hostile vessels. When things get hairy, shiphands will have to ditch their chosen roles to go below deck and start patching holes from cannon fire, then bail out the hold as it floods. If too much water gets in, the ship will sink and the crew respawns on a desert island with a new ship, sans booty.
Naturally, running an actual pirate ship would require much more expertise, but Sea of Thieves' system is just complex enough to make merely sailing around a thrill. It's definitely the closest thing to a "proper modern game" featured, and I feel like the good ship El Reg is only about to scratch the surface of what's on offer here. As far as teamwork goes, this one will definitely proactively drive resource-maximising relationships. Here's what the team thought.
Gaz: Sea of Thieves, or as I like to call it Ship of Fools, is the highlight of our collective lockdown gaming experience. Having been bullied into buying it [Renting it – ed] from Micros~1, I discovered a beautifully rendered world (Unreal Engine 4) in which you, the player, appear as a pirate. Along with your multiplayer comrades, you all crew a pirate ship (small, medium and large options available) and sail it off on quests to dig up treasure, transport goods across the pirate and zombie skeleton-infested seas and to hunt the zombie skeletons down for gold, doubloons and shiny upgrades.
The beauty of it as a game for our socially distanced times is that simply sailing out to sea takes an impressive amount of co-operation from the human crew. Having someone with nautical experience (I stood on a warship once, y'know) is not much help because your multiplayer crew is not under naval discipline and has no obligation to trim the sails, belay the anchor or shiver your (or anyone else's) timbers on command. You really do have to work together – and it really does build teamwork when your motley crew have to operate a three-deck, triple-masted galleon well enough to escape from a kraken, or another human crew trying to steal your loot.
That's another aspect of Sea of Thieves: as well as NPC baddies, you're also in an MMORPG along with other human players and their ships. This is just as unpredictable as any real-world interaction: our first experience of meeting another human ship was being sunk by a very well-drilled Polish crew who, after discovering our little scow had zero treasure and zero competent crew aboard her, took pity and allied with us. We continued blundering around the virtual seas while they racked up truly impressive hauls of treasure from completing in-game quests, which was shared with us by virtue of the alliance.
Speedy: This might be the perfect team-building co-op game. From playing musical instruments at each other to working together as the crew of a pirate ship, this is a lockdown delight. Perhaps it is the visuals, reminding us of holidays we wouldn't be taking (this year at least), a less frantic pace (until the enemy shows up) or the easy way in which we fell into roles and cooperated, this is the game we're looking forward to every week.
That said, it needs some relatively powerful hardware to do it justice and getting a multiplayer game started can be a righteous ball-ache (and don't get me started on one of our number's inability to make audio work) [Yeah, well, it isn't me – ed].
It is also a massive download and, worse, occasionally demands an update before starting. I want to play my game NOW! To be fair, it isn't alone in this regard. Many modern games and consoles insist on updating before doing anything. Just like Windows 10.
And this is why, in a nutshell, modern games suck. Now, where's my wood-veneered Atari VCS and Combat cartridge? I'm sure the extension lead will reach from Sussex to Essex via London.
There you have it. It doesn't have to be your colleagues either. Get your long-isolated pals or family on board – gaming these days really can fill in for cosy evenings in the pub or round the dinner table. Let us know how you've been harnessing tech to socialise and if there are any glaring co-op omissions in the article. In the meantime, stay safe, and we'll be back with more gaming goodness next month. ®
*With thanks to The Corporate B.S. Generator.