French studio Pastagames wants to share the love with KarmaZoo, an altruistic platformer that's hoping to show how small acts of kindness are the way forward–both in life and across the title's platter of pixelated of levels.
Those hoping to make headway in the co-op slalom will need to leave their ego at the door. Here, patience and collaboration are the best weapons in your arsenal, with players needing to work together to deftly harness the unique abilities of 50 different avatars to overcome the trials and tribulations ahead.
Despite KarmaZoo looking decidedly zany (what else would you expect from a game published by Devolver Digital), the project was actually inspired by the people of Paris. Specifically, those who ride the Metro each day. During a recent chat with Game Developer, KarmaZoo creative director Nadim Haddad said he noticed how commuters would hold opens doors for each other in a wordless gesture of goodwill, helping strangers reach their destination that little bit quickly.
Haddad wondered if he could replicate that experience in a video game–despite the fact that conflict, in all of its guises, has become the medium's bread and butter.
Karma is the currency of kindness
"There are two mechanics that push players to play together and collaborate," he tells us. "The first one is the Karma system. The pitch behind that is 'help to score.' You have 50 different avatars, and each one has a different way to help. For example, if you hold a door for someone, you get a point. If you make a bridge for someone else, you get a point. Every new way you help someone rewards players with points. This naturally gets people to collaborate."
The other is the "Halo" system, which Haddad explains is based on the idea of "it's not worth doing if you can't share it" and encourages players to stick together by enveloping them in a empowering, protective halo that expands in reach as the group swells. Initially, the halo only provided players with a buff, but Haddad says that failed to dissuade some lone wolves from breaking off to showcase their skills–or, as he puts it, "brag."
"People would leave and try and solve problems alone, not understanding the goal is the find shared solutions. So we created this system in which, when you move away from the team, you actually die now. That's the new game over. If you stay alone for more than 10 seconds you lose."
Haddad says the team landed on that 10 second limit because it provides more daring players with enough time to discover new level mechanics without losing sight of their group, and by extension, safety. But to share any discoveries they find or teach newcomers how to tackle specific obstacles, KarmaZoo players will need to imbue the game's emote-based comms system with meaning.
Inspired by titles like Journey, which asked strangers who crossed paths to communicate using tuneful chirps, the KarmaZoo team shunned the written word in favor of a more abstract system. Haddad explains that decision was based on a few factors, such as the need to overcome international language barriers and the desire to create a safe space.
"The whole goal is to not have language in our game–partly to avoid instances of bullying. KarmaZoo is about playing with people from around the world, so if you start using language it reduces the ability to communicate," he says. "We wanted to help players come up with their own ways to communicate, so we put some tools in their hands. We have emotes and one of the main actions in the game is the ability to sing. That throws a cone of voice in a direction and can be used to activate certain mechanisms but also communicate and 'talk' with each other."
Collective survival through collaboration
Figuring out how to share ideas with others is fundamental to the experience, largely because KarmaZoo uses an algorithm to create "runs" comprising four handmade levels that cater to a group's unique makeup. Within those levels will be mechanics that correspond to specific party members based on their selected avatar. Collective survival requires a shared understanding of the different roles each avatar can play. "The elephant, for example, smashes through walls," explains Haddad, breaking down how the hulking mammal can use brute force to clear the way for fellow travellers.
Although the team had some rather utilitarian reasons for adding 50 unique avatars, creating such a diverse roster helped them imbue KarmaZoo with a sense of progression. "The game is about collecting all the avatars and going from the basic form (a humble blob) to the highest form, which is a glowing sherpa, and reaching nirvana almost," continues Haddad. "The sherpa doesn't touch anything but isn't hindered by obstacles," he notes. "You can help everyone and have more communication tools, so you have to really guide them."
Haddad hopes that, as players unlock more avatars, they'll shift from being "egotistic to altruistic." It's a mindset change the title gently encourages, with Haddad explaining the earliest avatars available to players, such as a triple-jumping frog or a dashing raptor, intentionally bestow them with a "private, personal advantage" before flipping the script.
"These are personal advantages, but then you go up one stage and you have the mouse. The mouse can run on wheels and open doors. You become the key to the lock," he says, noting how that trend continues as players expand their roster. By turning the act of helping others into a mini win condition (remember, each assist generates points), KarmaZoo actively encourages players to seek out newcomers rather than shunning them.
"You want to play with as many newcomers on your team because this will help you score a lot," says Haddad. "Lots of people do things for free because they're altruistic, but a lot of people do something for a reward–we don't care. As long as you're kind, even if you're doing it for the points, who cares?"
"It's important for us to nurture a community that's as welcoming as possible. We even have specific lobbies for beginners, in which we'll matchmake one sherpa with nine blobs. So, we'll have a group who have no special abilities and who just started playing with one super sherpa [who can show them the ropes]."
If someone has ascended to sherpa status, they might have nothing left to learn but everything to give. The hope is those players will remember those who helped them on their own journey and choose, like those commuters on the careening Metro lines of Paris, to pay it forward.
"Every little action is meaningful and so far the most memorable moments of the experience are when one player is struggling to understand something and nine other players are showing them how to succeed," he says. "It's funny to watch. There's this tension in the problem solving and then boom, everybody is happy."