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2021 in review: Finding games to play together

It takes two.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Hello! Over the next few days we're going to be going back over some of our favourite games and moments and themes and whatnot from this very strange year. We hope you enjoy looking back with us!

It's not easy finding games to play with other people in the same house. You'll know this if you've tried. It's one of the reasons I was so impressed with It Takes Two earlier in the year. It's not only playable in local co-op but entirely designed for it, which means gameplay solutions require two people rather than can also be played by two people. For instance, one person throws giant nails into a wall while the other person uses the head of a giant claw hammer to swing on them. It's just one example and there are many - the ideas keep changing and they keep coming - and it's brilliant. It Takes Two is probably the best example of dedicated local co-op gaming in years, if not ever.

But playing together isn't always about defined co-op. It can also mean two people - or more - contributing to a game even though only one person is actively playing it. The Dark Pictures series does this really well, and it's become a defining feature of it. The newest game, House of Ashes, came out this year, and in it, you can assign different characters to different people in the room and then pass the pad when their sections come up. And having a quick break while someone else is pulled in and takes over - at their own difficulty level (a neat feature) - works really well.

As far as I know, developer Supermassive almost stumbled into this niche. It wasn't until people talked about playing Until Dawn with other people, and treating it a bit like a collaborative movie - "No, don't go down to the dark cellar alone!" - that Supermassive realised what it had. And it's actually this instinct to shout out and participate that you can see right across games.

Ian and Aoife take on House of Ashes their own way.Watch on YouTube

One of the most magnetic games in this regard, this year, was Microsoft Flight Simulator. By moving from PC to console, and therefore onto a big TV near a sofa, the game opened itself much more to passers by. There's a lovely part in Martin's Microsoft Flight Simulator Xbox review where he shares a picture of his family gathered excitedly around his TV while someone plays the game. I can almost imagine what they're saying. "Fly there!" Or, "Oh I remember going there!" It's an effect I saw first-hand when I flew to my partner's home town in Bulgaria - a place I don't think has ever been mapped for a game nor ever will. She was glued to the screen, sharing memories as we flew. Those common experiences of flying and home: they're incredibly powerful things to pull on.

But shared experiences don't have to be that grand. Another game we played a lot this year was Dorfromantik, a tile-placing game that's so quaint and lovely I just want to kiss it when I think about it. One of us would play while the other one watched over their shoulder, and we spent entire afternoons trying to figure out how we could increase our scores. Charmingly inscrutable, that game.

There's no deliberate co-op in Dorfromantik, there's just proximity and a human desire to be involved somehow. You don't always have to be holding the controller to take part. Since when have football fans felt left out because they're not on the field, or even in the stands in audible range of the players?

Talking of streaming: here's Ian being silly in Microsoft Flight Simulator.Watch on YouTube

It's why streaming works so well, because we're part of the game experience whether we're controlling it or not, especially if we're active in chat and affect the playthrough somehow. Social platforms are an extension of our social desires, I suppose.

And if it weren't for streaming - well, video conferencing in this specific case - we wouldn't have played the game that's taken most of our time this year: Dungeons & Dragons. This is the first extended campaign either of us has been involved in, and we've been playing online (and once in person) since the summer. It works wonderfully online when you mix in green screens and voice modifiers and sound effects and digital character sheets and dice rolls. I even bought faun horns and pan pipes as props! And I can't tell you how nice it has been to have daily conversations about character builds and 'what will happen next week' - oh and about how I accidentally pulled everyone into the spirit realm and nearly got us all killed, yadda yadda - than about mould on the bathroom walls.

Which is all a very long way of saying: we found games to play, whether they were tick-boxed co-operative or not. And I'm excited about finding more in the year to come.

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