May 10, 2022
Total Mayhem Games
Total Mayhem Games
Co-op games have grown a lot. Back in the day, the genre felt like it was somewhat swallowed up by other styles of game such as the shooter. Despite this, co-op developers never stopped making new titles for two from all corners. The work of Hazelight studios, among a crowd of other indie developers, has demonstrated how cooperative gameplay can work in any context.
The ‘We Were Here‘ series has centred on co-op escape room puzzles and has been well received over the years. In this reputation, there’s been a trend: each entry an improvement on its predecessor. I have no prior experience in the series, yet We Were Here Forever bears all the signs of a developer honing their craft. In doing so, they have made one of the best puzzle games I have ever played.
Two sides to a story
We Were Here Forever is a story designed for an escape room, though this is not a condemnation. Escape rooms require some suspension of disbelief, with a tendency toward a vague ambience of “danger” to help justify a ticking clock. The killer will return soon, or the warden is about to take you to the noose. We Were Here Forever has similar “no touch” rules. The antagonists taunt you, trap you, and threaten you, without truly confronting you. There is one exception that I won’t spoil, though I think that too is an illusion. It makes sense that the villains loom large in the plot, as the player characters are stripped back. Both player characters have no name or face under their layers of exploration kit. Over time, the story clues you into how our pair factors into proceedings. It helps contextualise your place in the world, but the balance of characterisation is tilted largely toward your adversaries.
The developers made the right choice in pushing the game’s story into the background. There is a familiarity to the story in a comfortable if dorky way. Following a few levels of introduction, We Were Here Forever brings on its antagonists. Escaping the villain’s trap, we are dropped into the meat of the story. The plot reads like the majority of epic fantasies. A king makes a deal with a devil to maintain the throne and the town starts a rebellion. The two explorers wander in and reboot their war machine. Of course, this requires three components, from three locations, each with its own set of safety violations. This is set dressing, but it’s appreciated all the same. My co-op partner and I would still poke fun at the game’s narrative during the obvious loading screens hidden by elevators, though in the most loving way possible.
Takes two to tango
The game opens with a brief tutorial, with the levels that follow filling out the introduction. As the game opens, the first-person controls are given for walking, moving items to and from inventory, pressing buttons, and the like. We then get the introduction of the core concepts of the game. These are parts of the game that, while important, aren’t suited to a tutorial. Learning that paths will diverge and converge, the importance of timing, and the understanding of communicating information; these are things that have to be demonstrated, rather than told to players.
The game features a variety of puzzles, though they clearly follow a formula. The focus is communication. Thus, the majority of challenges involve person A seeing a “key” and person B seeing a “lock”. There is an array of permutations: One player directing the other through a maze with a map, or a player communicating with a monster while their companion has the “monster to human” phrasebook, for example. Other templates involve trading inputs or items back and forth. My personal highlight is an alchemy challenge. In essence, the challenge was creating reagents by trading resources, using specialised equipment to process them, all under a time limit. There’s an odd excitement in a challenge like this that taps into strategic planning that is refreshing.
“Information is swapped, notes are made, theories are traded and tested.”
If I had to pick one thing I love most about this game is that it nails what we’ll call the “arc” of a good puzzle. Again, it feels like an escape room. At the start, both players are scrambling around their often-separate areas, looking for things to pick up or read or interact with. Buttons will be pressed followed by “hey did that do anything for you?”. It can take time to grasp all the pieces and how they move, but that’s how the cogs start to turn. Information is swapped, notes made, theories get traded and tested. That’s when things accelerate and you start getting a solid strategy that helps you bust through to the other side. This is, I’d say, the platonic ideal for this kind of game.
It’s not always a nice linear route from A to B, but I don’t hold that against the game really. It’s always tricky to thread the needle with this kind of issue. I was frustrated at times throughout the game, but in retrospect, that feels like a price of entry. The game’s challenges are so fun to chew through, but to achieve that requires resistance, and resistance can mean annoyance. Those little annoyances can aggregate, so I’d recommend spacing out your playtime. Additionally, some puzzles are a little weaker than others. The aforementioned monster-to-human chat sets the bar for communication too high, whereas a mapped maze was utterly confusing.
The game also has annoying bugs, though not ones that upset things too much. A graphic bug and physics mishap that we experienced required a checkpoint reset. It did mean starting over a puzzle, yet the progress lost was easily caught up to in a fraction of the time. Also, upon reaching the launch date, the audio servers were a bit overextended, but that’s unlikely to be a long-term problem. Generally, it was a pain, but not really enough that it tainted my experience.
Of two minds
The walkie-talkie is central to this series, and this being my first time, it took some work to get my head around. I’ve never used a walkie-talkie in real-life, and the game’s version is accurate to the real-world experience. First, walkie-talkies are “push to talk” systems. You press the button and speak. Oftentimes, however, I’d just jump to the latter half. This would mean questions would be unanswered as they were unable to be heard. That one’s on me. The other element is that walkie-talkies are one-way systems. You can push to talk, or you cannot push and listen. Put another way, to enable a message to be sent, you must mute any incoming audio. So, if both players try and talk at the same time, you can’t hear each other. You can, for example, both give instructions, neither hear the other, and both wait for the other to do something.
To avoid confusion when communicating via walkie-talkie, there is a light that illuminates when your partner has pressed their push to talk button. It doesn’t always completely alleviate the confusion, especially when inspecting objects can take the walkie-talkie out of eyesight, though it does help improve communication.
The walkie-talkie system feels similar to the game’s puzzles, with some frustration built deliberately into the game’s design. Both the puzzles and the form of communication can be challenging, admittedly providing some annoyance, yet undeniably facilitating plenty of satisfaction and accomplishment when you succeed. There is almost a social challenge here. The one person talking at a time system does make back-and-forth harder. If my partner info dumps, I’d just have to sit and receive the information. Trying to speak is pointless, since they can’t hear me, and now I can’t hear them. Conversely, players may find themselves paranoid of talking too much.
“We Were Here Forever is… an obstacle to plan and communicate through.”
Perhaps it makes sense that the game’s central mechanic of communication is harder to manoeuvre. If I had to use one word to describe this game’s challenge, it is communication. After the game, I started to look up “radio etiquette” for walkie-talkies. It was a nerdy revelation, to look at all the rules and lingo for radios. I would recommend looking at this kind of thing because it would’ve made our game a bit smoother had that research taken place prior to starting. The reason I bring this up is that it is such a microcosm of what this title represents. People have seen difficulty in communication and found ways to circumvent the limitations. When people noticed that letters sound too similar, we created the phonetic alphabet. We Were Here Forever is just like that: an obstacle to plan and communicate through. It may prove irksome at times, but it’s also really brilliant.
- Great puzzle variety
- Puzzles are hard enough to take work to solve...
- ...but easy enough to be figured out by two players
- The set dressing is nice as far as set dressing goes
- Walkie-talkies can be finnicky for the unintiated
- The occassional bug
Transitory issues aside, We Were Here Forever is, at least at the time of writing, my favourite game of the year thus far. At times it frustrated, but all that did was make the completion of its various brain teasers all the more satisfying. The mark of a truly fantastic game is one that aligns all its elements around a central purpose or goal. In this title, everything orbits around testing the skill of its participants, and that makes for a truly memorable experience for its pairs of players.