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HELLCOUCH has players playing with seating arrangements, "performing the sacred butt ritual" in order to free a demon from a couch.

Joel Couture

January 10, 2019

6 Min Read

The 2019 Game Developers Conference will feature an exhibition called Alt.Ctrl.GDC dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions.

Gamasutra will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase.

HELLCOUCH has players playing with seating arrangements, "performing the sacred butt ritual" in order to free a demon from a couch. Through shuffling where they sit with a friend or stranger, they can complete the ritual (and maybe learn a little bit about personal space and breaking down barriers).

Gamasutra spoke with Carol Mertz and Francesca Carletto-Leon about the challenges of turning a couch into an input device, how they looked to bring a little silliness out of strangers, and how they designed their game to look into feelings of comfort around strangers and the deep thoughts we often put into where we sit down in public.

Putting the couch in couch co-op

We’re Carol Mertz and Francesca Carletto-Leon. We collaborated on everything for HELLCOUCH, including game design, software development, hardware fabrication, and audio design.

HELLCOUCH is the first-ever couch cooperative game where the couch is the controller. You have to team up with a friend (or friends) to perform the sacred butt ritual to release a demon trapped inside of the couch. Players follow the demon’s instructions, moving their butts from cushion to cushion to successfully exorcize the couch.

Making games out of a couch

Carol sat down one day and made a list of theme ideas that we could apply to couch-centric gameplay, and as soon as she wrote down the word “HELLCOUCH,” she decided that was the design hill to die on. She could be heard screaming “HELLCOUCH” over and over for an entire week, and Francesca couldn’t say no to that level of enthusiasm.

Our core design values going into the project were to make something cooperative that was fun to both play and watch, and that really embraced the couch as an input medium. We worked on the project under Bennett Foddy’s advisement at the NYU Game Center, where he pointed us toward other projects that play with spatial negotiation (Copenhagen Game Collective’s B.U.T.T.O.N.) and sitting as gameplay (Ian Bogost’s Guru Meditation). After reflecting on these projects and the ways that people interact with couches both in their own homes and in public spaces, we started thinking about simple interactions that could translate to fun gameplay. Sitting and negotiating space with friends and strangers is actually a really interesting design space, so we designed a simple game that makes people compromise on where, how, and when to sit.

The troubles with couch controllers

Turns out that when a bunch of folks are bouncing on a cheap couch, it breaks! We’ve had to reinforce our couch quite a bit to make sure that it can support regular gameplay. On top of that, we have to consider how and where it will be positioned, how and where people will sit on the cushions, and how we can support accessible gameplay for diverse bodies. It’s also heavy, and we’ve had to move it a lot, which was definitely not the most fun part of development. Working with large furniture is a huge challenge!

Exploring personal space with HELLCOUCH

Folks don’t tend to sit close to each other on couches unless it’s the only space available (or, of course, if they’re cuddlebuddies), so the idea that players have to sit next to each other and bounce back and forth between close and more comfortable distances forces players to acknowledge and negotiate each other’s physical presence. It’s interesting seeing how some folks avoid sitting close to other people at all costs, and how others have absolutely no issue with sitting near (or on) their friends.

We both feel strongly about the power of play as a tool to encourage vulnerability and connection. While HELLCOUCH doesn’t necessarily seem like an intimate game on the surface, it does make for an interesting space for physical collaboration, which can lead to unexpected moments. We’re really happy with the emergent player behavior we’ve seen in all of our playtests.

On drawing out players' sillier sides in public

It’s a challenge. At first glance, HELLCOUCH is designed to look like just a regular couch, so players don’t necessarily enter into it with the expectation of being silly and letting their guard down. We didn’t design an attract mode, and were careful to keep any indication of it being a “possessed” couch hidden until someone sits down. As soon as a butt hits a cushion, though, players are met with a loud thunderclap, demonic cackling, and a fiery array of lights. And when the game starts, solo sitters have to face the fact that they’re not going to be able to play alone, so they need to figure out how to get another butt or two in the game.

This theme and sound design are meant to set the stage for humor and joyful play. The first guidance players get is a disembodied demonic voice declaring that they need to “perform the sacred butt ritual,” which often makes players giggle or raise an eyebrow. The game only takes about 90 seconds to play, but often by the end folks get very comfortable embracing their role as a goofy demon liberator.

On developments that don't involve furniture

We’re both graduating this May with a Master in Fine Arts degree in game design from the NYU Game Center, so we’ve spent the last two years creating LOTS of games. Carol’s background before NYU is in multidisciplinary interactive design, and has published a card game, several digital vignette games, and was the narrative designer and character artist for PS4/PC game SmuggleCraft.

Francesca’s background is in 3D art and digital game design, and is the 3D artist and narrative designer for the upcoming PC game Starcrossed. We’ve both dabbled a bit in experimental hardware design, but this is our first major alternative controller project.

On tools to make couch controllers

We used Arduino and Unity, and bridged the two with the Uduino plugin. The physical components are actually pretty simple—beyond the couch itself, we’re using LED lights and homemade pressure sensors. As cumbersome as the couch is, we wanted to make sure that the components were simple and portable so that we could easily rebuild it for on-location installations.

Embodying a role through alternate controllers

Unique controllers do a lot for games—they question the status quo and open up an exciting space for game design. Alternative controllers can encourage joyful and uninhibited play, giving players a chance to fully embody their role in the game. They can produce unique situations that bring people together, forge new connections, introduce new ideas, and inspire new ways of playing.

The couch was a fun place to explore all of these ideas—it gives a nod toward traditional “couch co-op” games, while subverting expectations by turning a mundane object into a completely new way to play with others.

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