Most games at shows like PAX South have some sort of prelude involved. You get instructions from the developer or you might get some accompanying placard that details what buttons do and for what. Death Squared from SMG Studio, however, is different.
That’s part of the beauty of this multiplayer cooperative puzzle game. There are purposefully no instructions. (A sign on the booth even tells you to just go.) You pick up a controller, figure out which little robot you control, and then figure out what it is you need to do. I mean, that part is pretty set in stone—you get everyone playing on their respective glowing square—but how you get about to doing that is wildly up in the air.
I played a random set of levels with a partner, though you can also play with up to four players total, each one donning a different color. The first level was rather simple, if still shocking. Staring at a room of blocks above and below our own, my partner and I simply just went at it and made a move. Bad idea.
As soon as I moved past my starting square, spikes dropped right onto my partner and killed him. So bad news, I guess, is that we had to restart, but the good news is that we learned something, and that something was that he should go first.
The levels went on to include other bits and pieces like that. The environment would interact with our own cube bodies in different ways. Sometimes moving would cause another block to come out of a wall and push the other off the edge or sitting on a button would cause a platform to move to and fro. In one extreme case, there was a spinning laser in the middle of a platform that only affected one of the players, but that player also dictated the laser’s rotation.
There’s a surprising amount of depth to these puzzles, even though the only way the player can really interact is to move around. But that was the goal of the game from the get-go, says studio head Ash Ringrose. Beginning as a game jam game, it turned into something with an express purpose: to find something he could play with his wife.
It might seem a bit Portal-like in its setup with its test chambers and ever-watchful AI, but Ringrose said that for people unfamiliar with games, the first-person controls were often too much to ask for. So he stripped it down to something simpler with just as much complexity and depth.
The game even includes optional levels that go beyond what’s in the main set of puzzles called The Vault. This is meant to really push the limits of what these oddly floppy and lovingly imprecise cubes are capable of and, by extension, what you the player can do. One level includes a pirate ship on huge rolling waves while another is pretty much a giant, oversized combine harvester with spikes threatening to skewer you.
Death Squared is superficially simple, but it aims to be something much more. When the game has no desire to communicate its own inner workings to you, the players have to pick up the slack and talk even more. It’s so far a fascinating interplay between the two—almost adversarial—and I can’t wait to see more.
Death Squared comes out for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC early this year.