There were a number of very interesting cooperative experiences at IndieCade 2011, but one of my most memorable of such experiences was a puzzle-platformer called Way, which I played with a complete stranger. The person controlling my character's in-game companion was someone who I neither saw, nor spoke to, until after we had completed the game. As the credits rolled, I stepped away from the mouse and keyboard, and was compelled to cross the room, locate my new-found compatriot and shake his hand for a game well-played. It was that kind of experience.
Way takes some basic 2D platforming conventions and then layers in a puppeteer-like gesture-based communication system. By using the mouse, both players can make their corresponding avatars quite expressive: shoulders shrug, arms can wave and point, and even the player's head can shake and not. In concert, they give the player an ample suite of communication tools. This ends up being very important, since most of the game's puzzles require the combined efforts of both players to solve.
"We use the metaphor that 'everyone sees the world differently,'" designer Chris Bell said, before explaining why he and his fellow developers at CoCo & Co. (Walt Destler, Katherine Rubenstein, Hugo Shih, Cynthia Jiang, and Paulwei Wang) settled on the framework of a 2D platformer. "When these two players come into the game, they come in from opposite ends of the same place. One person is going left-to-right and one person is going from right-to-left," Bell explained. "Here is this genre that everyone knows and is familiar with, and that way it focuses attention on the communication and the individual, versus these other [basic platforming] parts that people already understand."
In Way "[one] player can see things that perhaps that [other] person can't necessarily see," Bell said, a reference to many of the game's split-screen puzzles. For example, one player may need to jump across a series of platforms that only the other player can see. Explaining when and where to jump using only gestures can be tricky, but when it clicks for both players, it's incredibly rewarding.
Bell told me that the impetus behind the game was to "get players from opposite ends of the Earth to play together, and become friends, and use play as sort of a common bond that we all share as individuals." After some early prototyping, the development team calling themselves CoCo & Co. began asking the question: "What if communication is the game?"
The actual communication method that Way uses also underwent some iteration. "Originally we weren't going to do the whole gesturing thing. That wasn't part of the concept," Bell explained. "We actually had a couple of different prototypes early-on. We had this high meta-goal of trying to create a relationship between two strangers," he said, "Particularly, two strangers that might not see eye-to-eye, or might not be able to share that--or feel like they can share that--because they speak different languages. With that as the link, we were like, 'Okay, what can we do?'"
BOOM video 10693
To help illustrate some of the inspiration behind Way's concept and its gesture-based communication system, Bell recounted a touching story about a time he found himself lost in Japan.
I got lost in the Tsukiji Fish Market. It was minutes before I had to leave, and the ride was going away, and all I had was a photograph of a meeting location. And there was a Japanese woman in the middle of a conversation. I just said, "Sumimasen," which is like, "Excuse me"--the only word in Japanese I know. I just hold up the photo and bow to her, and basically throw up my hands as a question. And she just grabs me by the hand--she ends her conversation immediately, bows to the guy she's talking to--she grabs me by the hand and starts running. We run for about four blocks, and we get there, and then she bows and then disappears forever. I just knew in me that that [experience] was amazing, and I was going to make a game in tribute to her.
Way's puppeteering component is very simple to use, but also surprisingly deep. "We didn't want it to be too expressive--then, you might as well just talk, or draw, for example. You could just write words, and then the communication is essentially spoiled," Bell explained as he walked me through the control scheme's inception. "So we had to find a framework in which we could work that was also human and natural. Puppetry was... when we brought that up, it was sort of an 'Aha!' moment."
Settling on the gesture system was an important step, and Bell told me that Way is designed in such a way as to not prescribe meaning, but rather to let players create their own language together. "All the communication is entirely on [the players]," he said. "We don't hint at it. We don't say what to do, or what it means. For example, there are a couple of puzzles in the game that we've seen solved five or six different ways, one of which we didn't even intend."
Way is a non-profit game, the free alpha 1.1 release of which can be downloaded for PC and Mac from the game's official site. It's an incredibly charming (if fairly brief) cooperative adventure, and one that's well-worth taking.