“Okay, let’s just establish a very simple rule,” I told my friend. He leaned in half-heartedly, ready to hear, but not quite ready to listen. “We can do anything we want, as long as it doesn’t get either of us killed.”
Each player controls a robot the shape of a box. The box can’t do anything, really, besides move gracefully across a puzzle-box style single-screen level. Switches, lasers, and moving platforms complicate an otherwise straightforward task: put each color block on its respective marked block.
Framed as a series of experiments, Portal-like, players are meant to fixate mainly on the solutions, painstakingly working together to try out individual ideas like two scientists in a lab. But I’m not much of a scientist, so I aimed for mutual autonomy instead, creating a simple rule that would allow us to experiment on our own, to play out our own whims. Rather than two government-sponsored scientists painstakingly testing a central hypothesis with a list of pre-established steps, we acted like two mad scientists pouring unknown substances into test tubes.
The more we repeated the rule, the more we realize our utter inability to actually obey it. The game’s own subtle rule-set creates conditions geniusly crafted to cause us to screw one another over. Maybe we flipped a switch that moves a platform, and that platform almost lackadaisically thrusts one of us off of a cliff. Maybe he moves out in front of a like-colored laser just as I wandered in front of him and explode immediately on impact.
Death Squared was not designed for free-form experimentation. It did not reward my artful impulses. Instead, it found ways to remind us of the disconnect between us, and the ways experimentation can often blow up in our faces.
Consistently baiting players into obvious solutions that end up as disastrous red herrings, playing results not only in the aforementioned in-game disasters, but shortened tempers in the real world.
“Are you serious!” I yelled impatiently. My friend had come over simply to hang out, and found himself instead on the receiving end of my wrath.
“Oh my gosh,” he said under his breath. “This is hard.”
But still, we continued, solving puzzle after puzzle. A couple of times we were satisfied enough with our success that we high-fived one another.
After the game, we walked outside to head out together for the night. Outside of the confines of Death Squared, we no longer needed the “rule.” And driving to our next destination, we talked.
Our lives are slightly disparate. He’s a young, single man from the city. I’m a slightly older married man with a child who lives in the suburbs. We have always had a lot to say to one another, but the conversations aren’t always smooth.
I often feel nervous as he tells me of his city life, desperate to be “fine” with what seem to me like slightly dangerous or unwise impulses. He sees me as boring, I assume—too tentative, and far too judgey. The fundamental idea guiding our conversation is relatively simple: we can do anything we want, as long as it doesn’t get us killed.
That night, we talked like normal. Maybe we realized our friendship would need something a little more than a simple rule to survive. It seemed like we listened to one another just a little bit more intently than usual.