Let the bells peal forth and the townspeople rejoice: couch co-op is back. One of the best side effects of the Indie Gaming Apocalypse has been the triumphant return of cooperative or team-based competitive games playable by a bunch of people in a single room. These are like your Smash Brothers, your Mario Karts, and your GoldenEyes, but made by tiny teams with an infinitely weirder sensibility.
And no sensibility is weirder than that of House House’s creepy-cute wrestling game Push Me Pull You.
Named for the fanciful creature from Doctor Dolittle, Push Me Pull You pits two teams of two against each other in a blend of ball sports and wrestling. Each team controls a “sports monster” resembling two human beings joined as one, forming a great big wiggly worm with four arms, two heads, no legs, and one snaky torso. These two flesh-tubes grapple with each other to keep a ball on their side of a circular court. The controls are simple and one-handed: each player crawls their half of their sports monster around with an analogue stick, and expands or contracts their shared torso using bumpers and triggers. It sounds weird and gross, and it is. It's also intuitive.
Four game modes are available in Push Me Pull You, each offering a unique challenge. The default mode has teams keeping the ball on their side of the court to fill up a point metre. “Three Balls” brings two additional balls into the ring, adding a risk/reward mechanism to the fray. “Half Court,” the most tactical mode (and in my experience, the most balanced), requires teams to push the ball to the court's edge to take possession, then about-face and bring the ball to centre-court to score. Finally, “Sleepy Time” is a mode for two players where half of each sports monster trails around like dead weight; it’s incredibly difficult to win any kind of progress, and thus alternates between awkwardly hilarious and just plain awkward. If there’s one major request I have from Push Me Pull You, it’s more game modes; I want to see what other sports can be bastardised by these Cronenberg-Henenlotter nightmares.
While the game is easy to pick up, it conceals surprising depth - less in the intentionally simple mechanics than in the real-world play of communication and teamwork. Your and your partner, each controlling the same creature, will never be completely in concert; the game is about bringing them into some semblance of synchronisation. Depending on how well you communicate, you can create wonderfully clever blockades or spiralled flesh-walls against your opponents - or you can end up tugging against one another in vain. Shorter sports monsters have more force, but longer ones can surround the ball, making it important to know when to contract, when to expand, when to attack and when to defend.
If this sounds uncomfortably intimate to you, that’s because it’s supposed to be. You can play with a controller per player, but I recommend having teams share controllers (one stick and set of L/R buttons each). Sharing the controller is a unique experience in and of itself, as you link arms with your teammate and end up literally feeling your partner's movements through the controller. It’s a bonding experience more tactile than video games ever get the chance to be.
The little details take Push Me Pull You from eyebrow-raising curio to belly-laughing joy. Its sound design is basically perfect, with fleshy squelches for torso extension and taut, rubbery effects for contraction. Between matches, you get little illustrations of life as a sports monster, rendered in the same simple, playful art style as the game itself. You can customise the skin tones and hairstyles of your (always naked) monsters, with styles ranging from pigtails to combovers and more. To my absolute delight, there’s even a secret, unlockable dog mode, where you play as two-ended dogs. Ain’t nothin’ more adorable than lil’ pups with two faces and no butt.
Push Me Pull You’s 4-player local co-op is its biggest strength, but also its biggest weakness. It’s no surprise Melbourne-based developer House House was a close-knit group of friends before making the game: it’s got the idiosyncratic sense of humour that emerges from great friend groups, and its themes of friendship and teamwork translate perfectly into its mechanics. But to get the most out of the game, you need four people in the same room, which can be tough to achieve when everyone has their own lifestyles and schedules. It took me a month to assemble a squad for a proper session.
If you can get a group together, though, you’ll fall in love with Push Me Pull You. I know I have. I want to see sports-monster fan art; live-action Push Me Pull You matches with weird latex flesh-tunnels; a cartoon about the life and times of sports monsters; genetically-engineered double-ended pup-pups. This game will bring the house down in party scenarios - it’s funny as hell, and facilitates camaraderie and rivalry in equal measure. Run tournaments! Pair it with the likes of Nidhogg or Sportsfriends or Gang Beasts! You’ll come out the other end a happier, friendlier, and entirely weirder person.
Who doesn’t want that?