When you think of generations it’s easy to think of hardware — consoles, controllers, TVs, graphics cards and the like. It’s natural because those things are so definitive in what we can and can’t play. But once a generation you get something that transcends those limitations in such a clever, elegant way that you’re left wondering why more people haven’t done it.
Look through any list about games of the generation and you can pretty much guess what’s going to be on it before you click through. Breath of the Wild. The Witcher 3. Games like God of War. The mastery of Bloodborne. Maybe someone will go a little out of the way and nominate the continued rise of Minecraft, the never-ending success of Fortnite, or the surprise breakouts of indies like Undertale and Rocket League.
There’s nothing wrong with any of those picks. I’m not debating their merits or selections. But something universal among a lot of those games is that, fundamentally, they’re still games doing the same things that games have always done. They didn’t really change how you played a video game, and crucially, they didn’t necessarily change who you played video games with.
The Jackbox games changed all that. They were the perfect gateway, icebreaker, party game, or time killer for larger groups, families, house parties and after a few releases, conventions and large-scale audiences.
They were games built around the idea of games being a social experience — something many people still fail to appreciate. But the developers understood that games still had this intangible barrier that excluded many.
But using a mobile phone, opening up a browser? Everyone knows how to do that.
And that’s what makes the Jackbox games so translatable. There’s 7 different packs out now, and this year’s latest edition is surprisingly good. But what makes the whole formula work is a set of basic principles:
- The games are generally very easy to understand
- Each game lasts about 10 minutes, which is compatible with just about any social situation
- Every game, save for the trivia titles, works on the vibe and the in-jokes of each social group, so you can replay the Jackbox games multiple times and have different experiences
In their own way, the Jackbox games have their own, underappreciated emergent narrative. It’s obviously not the case in something like Trivia Murder Party, which is just a slightly smoother spin on the You Don’t Know Jack series.
But games like Monster Seeking Monster create these scenarios where you have partners one upping each other with their own absurdities. I know some friends who occasionally still remember some nights of Tee K.O. because the perfect storm of drawings and quips created unspeakably funny moments.
And these are things that can be transcends traditional gaming barriers. I’ve played games of Jackbox with family members, grandparents, relatives who have never touched a video game, or haven’t played one since the arcades.
Some games are much better than others for those kinds of settings — Quiplash generally works better with a closer friends circle, whereas a lot of people prefer the subterfuge of Fibbage. I’ve seen workplaces bust out the Jackbox games for their end of Friday drinks. And I’ll always remember the Kotaku TAY community meet up at PAX Australia, and the Jackbox sessions in the big cinema there.
There have been a few games that tried using the same kind of technology, but I’m yet to see anything do it with the success and ease of the Jackbox packs. Knowledge is Power and Hidden Agenda are very different tacks on the same technology, but having to connect through the PS4 as a Wi-Fi device is a right pain in the arse. Use Your Words looked promising, but its slower pacing drained a lot of the humour for the people I played with.
The Jackbox games were a perfect tonic for COVID-19 induced isolation, but there is so much more that can be done with this style of gaming. Quiplash and Fibbage will always have a place in my heart, but I hope more developers start looking at this kind of technology in the new generation.
Big budget blockbusters like Uncharted, Breath of the Wild and the like are always brilliant and will always move gaming forward. And they deserve their due recognition for their inspiration, their impacts on broader game design and the sheer skill and talent involved. But games like the Jackbox series are just as important. They grow gaming beyond what we know. And in a year where the value of human connection has never been more apparent, it’s important to value the Jackbox Party Pack‘s contribution.
Many nights, weekends and parties have been funnier, happier and brighter because of the Jackbox games — and that laughter, those smiles alone are worth their weight in gold.