"I think the game is kind of horrifying," one game developer tells me over drinks. "Its violence... the intent behind it, is a little too real." His comments strike me as strange, given that Gang Beasts reminds me of watching slapstick comedy from The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges as a kid.
Gang Beasts is a local multiplayer focused sorta-fighting, sorta-not game about grabbing, wrestling, and throwing your friends (or enemies). It's strange -- all at once viciously violent and significantly more intimate than most video games. It looks like this:
Players are always close, always touching. Up in each others' grills, as somebody who's probably way cooler than me might say. It's almost like they're giving each other angry hugs. The game is adorable yet ever-so-slightly unsettling, a cocktail of emotions I didn't expect out of something that -- again -- looks like this:
It quickly became the talk of a convention I attended over the weekend, Fantastic Arcade, and it had the unexpected side effect of taking me back to a very tumultuous time in my childhood.
Flashback. I'm around 11 years old, hanging out with my mum in her room. It hasn't been that long since my parents got divorced, and everything is scary, uncertain. I spent a lot of time with my mum back then. I think I was afraid that if I didn't, she'd go away too.
It's late, and we're watching TV, flicking through channels. "Oh! I can't believe they're showing this," she exclaims, suddenly stopping on black-and-white movie I don't recognise. "You'll love this."
I am sceptical. 11-year-old sceptical, which means the movie in question is scoring incredibly low on my expert "Are there spaceships, Transformers, or Pokemon in it?" scale. It turns out to be Animal Crackers, one of the Marx Brothers' most famous films. I get into it and, before long, am in stitches. My mum and I laugh and laugh and laugh, for hours.
Despite everything, it's still one of my favourite childhood memories.
It's day one of Fantastic Arcade in Austin, Texas. Fantastic Arcade is an indie game-focused offshoot of film festival Fantastic Fest, a growing sideshow to film's main event that takes place alongside it. The Highball bar attached to Austin's famed Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, where the main festival takes place, is already swarming with people -- some milling about around a glossy stage, others kicking off the "evening" portion of their day exceedingly early (heavy drinking at 2 PM? why not?), and others still mashing away on a series of arcade machines in the back.
Fantastic Arcade is not a normal convention, and these are not normal arcade machines. Instead of playing host to, say, the latest Street Fighter or 47 versions of the Rush racing series, these cabinets are loaded with under-the-radar indie games, including wonderfully bizarre conjoined human centipede "sport" Push Me Pull You, more contemplative fare like Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon, and -- as something of a joke, I think -- celestial mountain simulator Mountain, in which you don't really do anything.
"How do I play?" the friend I'm staying with, who doesn't really follow the gaming scene, asks of Mountain. "You don't," I reply. "Mountain plays you."
Toward the middle of the pack, however, there's one machine that always -- whether it it's day or night, whether movie theatres are sponging up people or bleeding them -- has a crowd excitedly huddled around it.
It's Gang Beasts, a four-player not-quite-fighting-game, not-quite-party-game thing about gelatinous crayola-coloured marshmallow men clinging to each other and wrestling like drunken bar brawlers, like brothers fighting over who gets to decide what to watch on TV.
Gang Beasts was made by brothers. Intimacy indeed.
"It's weirdly brutal," the game developer I was talking to earlier continues, whispering in the blaring dark of the dimly lit bar. "It's a lot like the way this stuff actually happens -- the way people really fight. I don't know how to feel about that, about making light of it."
I laugh as I throw a colossal haymaker that lands smack-dab in the center of my friend's jello-y face -- in the game, that is. I'm finally getting the hang of this, I think. Finally coming to grips with Gang Beasts' weirdly floaty, yet enjoyably awkward controls. My friend ragdolls to the ground, and I pick him back up, intent on hurling him over the edge of the level -- into a pit of perfect nothingness -- to win the round. Then his character comes to and he grips my head, squirming and kicking frantically while holding on for dear life.
We come apart, the glue of life-and-death desperation finally coming undone. There's no time for a breather, though. We're both right at the edge of a rail, inches from going overboard. We charge at each other, winging sloppy, hyper-telegraphed punches. Finally, after whiffing, like, ten, I connect and my friend goes down again.
To add insult to injury (and because I find it hilarious) I just keep on punching while he's down. He can't get up with my avalanche of comically lackadaisical blows pinning him to the ground. I wail away, giggling and letting off some steam from the tenseness of our previous duel. He laughs, I laugh, everybody laughs.
All the while, my little red avatar furrows his brow and flails like a madman. I feel like he's the only one here who's not happy.
To kick off the official Fantastic Arcade Gang Beasts tournament, the show's organisers herd us into a packed movie theatre and reveal a special surprise: a level that's almost a perfect one-to-one replica of... that exact movie theatre. It's uncanny. Same distribution of chair rows, same lighting fixtures on the red walls, same incline -- same everything.
Only difference is, the movie screen is actually a physical manifestation of a movie, in this case one about copious giant, flailing tentacles at sea. So you know, just a little thing. Probably nothing to be worried about. The crowd erupts as soon as people start punching, grabbing, and tossing. Getting grabbed by a tentacle, as it turns out, means almost certain death (it's possible, technically, to grab onto the ledge while a tentacle is flinging you around, if you've got excellent timing), and tense moments abound.
It is a bit odd to watch a crazy brawl go down in this place of general merriment -- to think, "wow, now they're punching each other to death right on top of me!" -- but the laughter and good vibes are infectious.
Then it gets wilder: Four people are competing on a different level, a boardwalk with a big ferris wheel on it, when they all end up in a rather bizarre... predicament. Beyond a center platform, the boards on this boardwalk have a way of giving way, causing flat footed players to go plummeting into the depths in seconds. And yet, a brawl spills out onto the planks nonetheless. Predictably, the two combatants quickly lose their footing.
They both end up on opposite sides of the boardwalk's outer frame, dangling like floppy fish on a line, grasping the only thing they can: each other. They hold each others' hands -- neither unfurling their blobby little fingers for fear of instantly losing -- like they're reenacting the last scene from Titanic. "I'm never letting go, Jack, even though I am in this very moment doing everything within my power to kill you."
It's kind of beautiful, in a strange way.
The other two players push, shove, and butt-punt (exactly what it sounds like) their way to the spot where the strange railfellows have been dangling for, like, five minutes now. Waiting, hoping. At first it seems like they're gonna finish off the dynamically clinging duo -- who, by this point, have exchanged all their secrets and promised to name their kids after each other should they survive -- but then, predictably, the boards give out under them too.
Hands clasped, everybody dangles. The crowd goes ballistic. It is, on no uncertain terms, one of the craziest, goofiest things I've ever seen happen in "competitive" gaming. Every competitor in a single match stuck, forced to hold onto one another in order to survive while also trying to figure out a way to kill each other without killing themselves. For about a minute, nobody's really sure what to do.
Somehow, red clambers back up and shoves green into the water. And then everybody just kinda slips in all at once. Match over. The winner? Nobody.
The crowd roars and clips and giggles and sighs. That was an ordeal.The tournament wraps up, and a friend looks at me. "Wanna go play Gang Beasts?" he asks, eyes wide.
"Yes," I reply. "God yes."
"I don't know," I reply to the game developer who was expressing concerns about Gang Beasts. "I can totally understand where you're coming from -- it's definitely akin to real fights in a strange, possibly upsetting way -- but it strikes me as more like slapstick humour than anything. I see it as a playable episode of The Three Stooges or The Marx Brothers. That's something I think just about anybody can get behind."
I remember, when I was in middle school, a couple friends and I basically were The Three Stooges. We'd constantly play fight, and we even did the eye-gouge-blocked-by-a-hand-but-then-the-other-person-just-uses-both-hands-to-poke-both-eyes thing. You know, that one. We got in trouble for it a few times, and I'm probably lucky I was never rendered blind by childish stupidity, but there was always something… nice about it.
Work with me here.
Some people use punches to the arm or shoulder as greetings. Greetings. My Three Stooges phase was kinda like that -- a strange sort of intimacy with friends, a closeness that said, "Yes, I trust you to cold cock me and not send me to the hospital." A secret handshake. Something we'd do because, as young boys raised in a very Christian school, we were probably too afraid to hug. That wasn't how we showed our feelings.
It's the last day of Fantastic Arcade, and I'm walking around, making sure I didn't forget to play anything. I hear the hypnotic siren call of Gang Beasts -- not with my ears, but with my tingling fingers and my soul or something -- and shuffle-sprint to the machine as though trying to hide from myself exactly what I'm doing.
There's a family gathered around it. A mum, a dad, their young (he can't be older than 11 or 12) son, and an older sister. They're having the grandest time.
The kid is good. Really good. Good enough that I imagine he'd give me a run for my money, which becomes all the more surprising when his parents later tell me that he first picked up the game earlier that day. Damn children and their ability to absorb knowledge like tiny, maniacal sponges!
It's funny, though. While this kid totally blitzes his family members, giggling loudly and loving every second of it, he's also teaching them how to play. "OK mum, now hold down the two top buttons to grab me. OK now press the yellow one to lift me up and... yeah! You did it! You threw me!"
His mum laughs so hard I'm worried she might cough up a lung -- both because of the spectacle unfolding on screen and because she's really getting into it.
Later I ask her what she thinks of the game. "I don't really play games much," she says. "That one was fun, but mainly I bring my son to stuff like this because he loves games so much. It's a good way to spend time together."
"Also this place has good beer."
After the festival has wound down, I spent some time thinking about how Gang Beasts took on such a special identity at Fantastic Arcade. It was a game that managed the tricky balancing act of being extremely fun to watch and play, in equal measure. I wonder if, due to the current limited scope of its levels and modes (it's still in early access right now) and even attack strategies, that magic might be lost if I played it elsewhere.
I don't know. In a way, it's like the lost magic of arcades themselves. Arcades brought people together over games like this one.
The festival may be over, but I see a woman playing Gang Beasts alone. It strikes me as odd, since Gang Beasts definitely isn't (at least, as of now) a single-player game. I'm not sure if she completely understands the point of the game -- arguably it doesn't have a point without three other players -- but she's messing with the game's floppy physics, making her avatar dance and wiggle around. No violence, no punching or grabbing or throwing -- just pure, joyful motion.
Thanks to Giant Bomb for the footage from which we took a couple of gifs. Their video is also great, if you'd like to see more of the game in action.