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Play nicely! The fun and frustrations of gaming with your partner | Games


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Kristan and Keza play It Takes Two

Kristan Reed: “Oh God! Let’s never break up!” pleads Keza as we embark upon the divorcees-to-be shenanigans of It Takes Two, a kind of Honey-I-Shrunk-the-Parents-to-Fix-Their-Toxic-Marriage. I admit, I approached this bizarro platformer with a certain amount of trepidation, on account of occasionally having a rocky time playing games with my beloved partner. People imagine it’s some holy-grail nirvana to have a gamer partner, but the truth is Keza is just a bit too good at games to be wholly tolerant towards others (mostly: me) flailing around haplessly – especially in Nintendo games, effectively her second native language.

Keza is a classic back-seat gamer, always spotting the solution in 0.3 seconds and barking at you for getting there fractionally later. And yet, It Takes Two has a pleasant, companionable feel to it – possibly because of the madcap cooperation at its heart. For once, our slapstick failures to nail the arm down of an angry boss were cause for gentle ribbing and hoots of laughter, rather than impatient harrumphing. What starts as a heartwarming tale of marital reconciliation actually reminds me that, hey, I really enjoy playing games with Keza. Maybe we should do it more often.

Keza MacDonald: Kristan and I met because we are both video games journalists, so you’d assume that we’ve spent many blissful evenings over the years working through the classics of the art form together. But when games are your job, you tend to want to do other things when you’re not working – and actually, it’s surprisingly hard to find great two-player games. Many of them relegate one player to bored sidekick while the other does all the fun stuff. Others insist on online play, which for us would involve setting up two separate TVs and consoles in the living room and the bedroom (it has been known, but it’s patently ridiculous).

It Takes Two, however, is one of those rare games actually designed for chatting and gentle competition on the couch. As two soon-to-be-divorced parents (harsh vibe) transformed into miniature dolls, we run and jump and puzzle our way from the garden shed to the family home, and neither of us is left feeling like the hapless tagalong (usually him) or the impatient drill sergeant barking orders (usually me). Instead of focusing relentlessly on the objective, I’m actually enjoying the journey. We really should do this more often.

Chris and Dylan play Overcooked

Chris Godfrey (left) and Dylan Jones.
Chris Godfrey (left) and Dylan Jones. Photograph: Natasha Khambhaita

Chris Godfrey: Dylan and I don’t really play video games together because I’m better than him at all of them. Even those we’ve not played yet. I grew up playing games and haven’t stopped, so I’m instinctively better than him (a casual gamer at best). I have tried to help him. I generously dedicated dozens of hours to coaching him at Mario Kart 8, but still, me losing is a rarity (losing to anyone is rarity, to be honest). It’s not fun for either of us.

Enter Overcooked, a co-op game where you work together, staffing a series of kitchens while you prepare and serve orders to restaurant patrons. A four-minute timer, personalised dishes, impatient customers and environmental hazards (thieving rats, icy floors, lava pits, etc) create a confusing, pressure-cooker environment. Bedlam is never more than one kitchen fire away. But so long as we communicate and work together, I’m sure we’ll complete it in no time. It’ll be fun!

Things seem simple enough on the first level. The customers want onion soup and so onion soup they shall have. Dylan, who I have appointed my sous chef, chops the onions; I take the onions and put them in the pot; when the soup is ready I plate up, shout “SERVICE!”, then Dylan takes the dish to the conveyor belt to complete the order. Chop, cook, serve, repeat. We split the dirty dishes between us. Easy!

As we progress through the game, the dishes become more complicated (pizzas with different toppings, burritos with different fillings) and the kitchens more ridiculous (haunted houses, icy lakes, the crater of a volcano). Our (my) strategy remains the same though: take a few trial runs to map out the level, then create a perfect, metronomic system of delegation and cooperation.

So long as Dylan continues to follow the plan we’ll be fine. Even if he panics, loses his rhythm, gets confused, slips on the icy floor and into the lake – I’m good enough to pick up the slack. We’re having fun! I’m really enjoying this.

Dylan Jones: I hate this. The best word to describe the sous-chef Overcooked experience, under executive chef Chris’s barked orders, is “gruelling”. If the hapless lambs to the slaughter of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen thought they had it bad, they should try half an hour of frantically trying to make an inexplicable salad, as a flurry of ingredients and instructions fly at you from all corners of the kitchen. Oh, and the kitchen is 300 feet in the air, in the swaying basket of a hot air balloon. Which is on fire.

Of course, for many, Overcooked’s frenetic, all-consuming stress is its appeal – and don’t get me wrong, it is a great game. But I value my mental health – and mine and Chris’s relationship – too much. It’s 2021! I don’t need all-consuming stress, I need to watch season 3 episode 12 of Will & Grace for the hundredth time (the one where Sandra Bernhard guest stars and they all sing Midnight Train To Georgia) while eating McCoy’s salt & vinegar crisps, with taramasalata.

While some find Overcooked’s high octane gastronomy escapist, I find it triggering. I’m getting flashbacks to my days as a student working in restaurants in Soho. I was so bad at it that I had at least 12 restaurant jobs in my first year. On Overcooked, I usually make it through three of the trickier levels – which Chris gleefully selected to be as traumatising as possible – before calmly putting down my controller and walking to our much more serene and thankfully grounded kitchen to pour myself a large glass of cheap red wine.

Oliver and Pip play A Way Out

Pip Usher and Oliver Holmes play A Way Out.
Pip Usher and Oliver Holmes play A Way Out. Photograph: Oliver Holmes/The Guardian

Oliver Holmes: Getting my wife to play video games has always felt like a dream. Pip has imagined we might become a yoga-retreating, juice-cleansing couple that watches sunrises. My wish is to scoff chicken wings and Haribo until we attain that delicate mix of a food coma and a sugar high, and then play PlayStation till dawn.

There have been several failed attempts but Pip agreed to give it one last go. We played A Way Out, a cooperative game in which two convicts help each other escape a Shawshank-inspired jail. Pip chose to be Leo, a short-tempered armed robber, whereas I picked Vincent, a white-collar fraudster.

Events started off well, with me distracting a guard while Pip snuck through the infirmary to steal a chisel. However, things soon inevitably deteriorated. We hit the same issues as in previous attempts to game together – Pip could make her character either walk or look around, but never both at the same time. It made me remember how unintuitive and frustrating video game controllers are when you’re just getting started with them.

It’s hard not to share the thing you love most with the person you love most. But after an hour of playing, Pip was getting repeatedly knifed in the jail kitchen. So we thought we’d give it a break.

Pip Usher: I’ve never understood how playing a stressful game helps you unwind. Just like sociopathic politician Frank Underwood in House of Cards, my husband likes to decompress with high-stakes virtual adventures – like A Way Out.

Within minutes of starting the game, I was being assaulted by an ogre of a man who kept shouting that Harvey had sent him. Who’s Harvey? I have no idea and the ogre didn’t offer details.

Because I couldn’t figure out how to operate the controller, my brief time in jail mostly consisted of walking into walls, getting stuck staring upwards, and being repeatedly humiliated and brutalised. Oliver and I managed a few successful operations, which I found so stressful that I just kept repeating, “Oh God, oh God, oh God” while he shouted “Press square! Press square! Press square!”

Alysia and Joe play Call of Duty: Warzone

Alysia trained up Joe as her rookie partner in Call of Duty: Warzone
Alysia trained up Joe as her rookie partner in Call of Duty: Warzone

Alysia: Joe wasn’t a gamer. He owned a secondhand PS4 that he bought to watch Netflix. But when Covid hit 10 weeks into our relationship and non-cohabiting couples like us were forced to stay apart, the world inside that PS4 became our shared space.

Since Call of Duty: Warzone was free, it was the obvious game to introduce Joe to when we realised we were effectively going long-distance and needed a way to connect. First though, my rookie partner had to go through an intense bootcamp. “Be quiet!” I’d hiss, as he clattered through a house while four green enemy dots lit up my heartbeat sensor. We were pinned on a hill at one point and I forced Joe to push forward – which he dutifully did, and was immediately machine-gunned. My guilty silence down the headset was deafening.

But as his abilities have grown over the months, Warzone has become a way for us to take care of each other. We lay down cover fire, strategise, and in the quiet of the loading lobbies catch up on the intricacies of our days. And after a year, Joe is now actively engaged in video game culture. His YouTube feed is full of Warzone tip videos, and he’s bought special paddles for his controller that let him pull off advanced moves. Warzone has become our routine, a lifeline, and a way to snatch victories on days when real life has been full of loss.

Joe: I only started playing video games regularly during lockdown after Alysia suggested teaming up in Warzone. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing to start with. I regularly threw grenades at doors instead of opening them because I’d forgotten which button did what (“Sneak, Joe! Sneak!” Alysia would howl). It was fun having Alysia coach me through the controls and game mechanics, even if she sometimes overestimated my abilities …

I tend to feel bored and isolated if I play a video game alone, but being able to play together online with a headset makes it feel more like we’re in the same room. Because our relationship was so young when the pandemic hit, I know some of Alysia’s friends only by their voices – yet we’ve shared (virtual) life-and-death experiences! With Covid making travelling impossible, I’d never have met them without Call of Duty.

Lockdown shut all the date spots and holiday destinations, but Alysia and I have still managed to escape on a little adventure each night. Instead of museums or a trip to France, we’re getting into gunfights and flying helicopters round the fictional map of Verdansk.

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