The PAXEast Expo Hall is something of an anxiety-producing beast. There are legions of people packed into a convention center that has been lined with hundreds of booths, and each of these booths is filled with tons of mesmerizing media. There are cardboard cut-outs and statues, fabulous prizes to be won and little tchotchkes to be gathered; every company and studio wants to grab your attention and get you stoked about their latest products. Needless to say, attending a video game convention can be quite overwhelming. Fortunately, Laura and I learned from our very first PAXEast to always visit The Behemoth booth every year, as it is the most inviting and honestly fun place to be on the convention floor. Besides the neat merchandise and friendly staff, every demo station is built into a faux arcade machine where delightfully cartoony games may be enjoyed by a pair of friends. It was here that my good friend Bobby and I first encountered Battleblock Theater.
At the time, we had no idea what sort of game we were playing, or even what our motivation was in this strange world. There were two adorable characters on the screen, one for each of us, and we led our little heroes through strange obstacle courses filled with acid baths, deadly spikes, and evil kitties. There was no tutorial, save for a few signs that explained some of the button functions, so much of our time playing was spent experimenting with the game. The first thing we found was our heroes could fight each other, which led to a few “accidental” deaths (a punch into acid here, a misplaced fireball there). But not to worry, our characters would respawn immediately, bright, shiny, and new (thank goodness). Then we noticed that we could stand on each other, as to reach higher items and areas (or to just sit on someone’s head while the other player had a nice nap). From these simple yet unexplained rules, Bobby and I started to do everything we could to break this game. We were tossing each other around the maps, bouncing off our heads to grab collectible items, and using our own projectiles to create new combos to destroy our enemies. In short, this game was awesome and we wanted to play it all day. But with a growing line behind us and plenty more to see in the Expo Hall, we pulled ourselves from the arcade machine and moved on to other booths.
Two years passed between our initial glimpse of Battleblock Theater and its public debut, but our fevered desire for this silly and fun game never faltered. I purchased the game from the Xbox Live Arcade on the day of release, eager to find out the story behind our little cartoon friends. I was not disappointed:
Battleblock Theater has the sort of story my friends and I would make up on the fly while chilling out and enjoying a couple of beers (read: drinking heavily). I can only imagine how the pitch meeting went over: “So, there’s a dapper gentleman, and he wants all of his friends to go on a cruise, but then they get shipwrecked on an island of evil cats. And the cats, see, they put a cursed hat on the gentleman’s head, and then force his friends to compete in death relays for feline amusement. What do ya think?” And the narrator, good gravy, let’s talk about this guy. An over-caffeinated storyteller (who does not pull his punches) comments on the player’s performance and provides all of the dialogue for Battleblock Theater. So much of the game’s humor comes from the high-spirited and sarcastic comments being force-fed to the player. These elements perfectly compliment the frantic gameplay and make for a colorful and manic cartoon world.
In an industry that emphasizes the need for high-rez graphics, gritty storylines, and massive online skirmishes, it is nice to see that some studios remember what first brought people to video games: discovery and fun. The Behemoth makes games that are easy to learn, but they don’t bash the player over the head with rules and tutorials. This allows each player the opportunity to discover new styles of play hidden within the basic rules of a game. As Laura and I made our way through the many stages of Battleblock Theater, we continued to find novel ways of getting around and collecting items. There was no single way to complete a level, and by carving our own path, the experience of play became much more personal and endearing.
In other words: stop what you are doing, grab a friend, and play Battleblock Theater. It’s a fun time.