PAX Aus 2023 Highlight – KarmaZoo hands-on and interview with designer Nadim Haddad

Posted on October 11, 2023

Announced just prior to last weekend, the creative cooperative platformer Karmazoo from Pastagames and Dewolver Digital got a release date of next month. Fittingly, Karmazoo was also at PAX Aus 2023, showing off its crazy goodness and drawing a real crowd.

We checked the game out for ourselves and chatted with designer Nadim Haddad about the reception to the game in recent public demos, betas and the like and why they’re excited to share it with the world.

For the unacquainted, Karmazoo is quite hard to explain, and often even seeing gameplay glimpses equally can stump people. However, in practice, it soon becomes an intuitive and inventive puzzle-platformer that fosters creativity and actively discourages you from sabotaging your peers.

The game is 2D and features randomly generated levels that have over 350 varieties. Up to ten players can join a session and prior to entering a level they choose a character (be it an animal such as a llama or elephant, or an inanimate object brought to life like a fishbowl or lamp) for their play. Depending on the characters used in a level, the level and the types of puzzles that populate them will change.

Each of these characters has its own unique abilities, akin to a Kirby game, and in working out how to use these abilities in tandem you’ll break the game and/or progress through in creative ways. Maybe a cactus can fire one of its thorns that then stick onto a wall, creating a platform for some of the weaker jumpers to reach. In my session, one of my partners was a more passive but still handy player as the lamp, shining a light on hidden paths for collectible goodies.

Immediately apparent in my playthrough of the game on the PAX AUS 2023 floor and in earlier preview events, Karmazoo is going all-in on the collaboration. Not a single player will benefit from going off on their own in search of goodies as the party has bubbles around them that burst and kill the player when they break off from the pack for too long. Similarly, being a team sport is what will have you progress through the game’s meta, as ‘Karma kisses,’ and other commendations from players will help you earn enough points to unlock other characters.

“…Karmazoo is going all in on the collaboration.”

In my chat with Nadim, they were very adamant that outside of character experimentation, there is no black and white with their game. Cooperation is how you win. “Fail together or succeed together,” is one of the mantras that they shared with me. This is a very unique idea for a game in the cooperative party play space, and it works very well in practice. Every single minute of this game provides you with positive feedback from your peers. This is something that normally often just comes at the end of a level rather than in minute-to-minute gameplay. A simple boost of a friend for them to reach higher heights or holding a door open for another… it’s a warming and rewarding experience.

Karmazoo is also coined as an ‘anti-bullying,’ video game. “Context defines the behaviour,” stated Haddad. This applies that, when given the opportunity to in cooperative games, players will likely jump at the opportunity to be a saboteur. If you remove those options then participants will oblige with the design philosophy of your game. Context-defining behaviour also applies to the abilities and is just a simultaneous mark that Pastagames have developed the game well, but also has the need for improvements and tweaking.

“I’m happy with the number of opportunities for poor behaviour we’ve removed, but I’m also confident we didn’t catch them all,” is what Nadim had to say when I queried him on this potential for poor sportsmanship. Real-time play and feedback from the community will help Pastagames better their craft when it comes to Karmazoo, creating a better product over time and developing the game in a quasi-games-as-a-service style project.

Karmazoo is such a unique idea for the space it’s slotted in that I couldn’t help but want to learn more about its inspirations. Turns out, it’s not any one individual game but instead, the inspiration comes from the public transport system in France, where Pastagames are based. Nadim Haddad explained that a lot of traingoers actually look after one another. Trains in France operate largely with manual doors one must open. He cited the different types of nods, small waves, or looks one can exchange with another when communicating that they are about to exit at a given station stop and are about to need assistance getting a door open.

This non-verbal communication is very akin to the emotes and Karma kisses you’ll send off in-game as there is absolutely no voice chat function on offer. It’s because of this that I’m excited to have those memorable moments where silent communication with strangers prevails, renewing my faith and love for fellow mankind.

With my hands-on time with the game done and my chat with the wonderful Nadim all wrapped up, I still find myself hankering for more Karmazoo. The public has yet to scratch the surface of the game with deep progression, good old community fun, and character unlocks to work towards. I can’t wait to be in on that crowd.

Karmazoo releases on November 14 on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S. It very well deserves to be on your radar.