This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.
Push Me Pull You was never supposed to be so disgusting. “When we first showed the game to people, I was always shocked at how gross they found it. We were totally blind to it,” says Jake Strasser, one of the game’s four designers. But ever since the small Australian studio House House pulled back the surgical drapes from their joyously bizarre sports game, it has drawn all sorts of stomach-churning comparisons, and for good reason. The game’s combatants look like internal organs meet American Gladiators. On screen, a pair of soft, squishy parasites are competing in the intestinal version of jousting.
It’s a strange and hilarious charade born out of the best intentions, honestly. Beyond its obvious gross-out qualities, Push Me Pull You shows how videogames can take the physical requirements of a familiar sport and contort them into all kinds of humanly impossible new pretzel-shapes. When dreaming up these alternative athletics, for instance, the development team first looked at the rules of soccer, then sumo wrestling. Their biggest inspiration was imaginary, however. “We love the idea of people out in the street playing together. We had this image of kids at sunset after school playing a made-up sport,” Michael McMaster, the second game designer, told me.
The design process got rolling when Stuart Gillespie-Cook, the game’s third designer, who also handles most of the artwork for the game, drew a picture of a flexible little bugger that resembles something like a bratwurst sausage with the face of an annoyed person on each end. “We had some other ideas, like a pair of bugs with a net stretched between them, but when we saw this, we were like, ‘Yeah, that’s perfect!’” says Nico Disseldorp, the final designer on the project.
The studio consists four people: two roommates, plus two friends who are over so often that they may as well be roommates. They met at parties in Melbourne, “a city of four million people, but if you’re 20-something and vaguely interested in art, you know each other,” they said. On a lark, they set out to invent their own competitive sport videogame, because why not? The reason the game features matches between a pair of two-headed creatures is simple: so each of them can control a head.
The object of the game is basically to hold the ball on your side of the court for longer than the other team, but the way the creatures can elongate and contract their bodies—stretching out with wormlike pliability, then getting knotted up in mildly nauseating fashion—is what makes it not only creepy, but also satisfying on a strategic level.
“Our favorite move at the moment is called ‘carousel-ing,’ which is when you wrap the ball up in a big loop, and one player shrinks as the other grows so you become an almost endless spinning carousel,” Strasser explains. Like all sports, the game breeds its own contagious game jargon, with plays like “carney-ing” and “getting in a snail,” which more or less looks like it sounds, they tell me. That’s the inner beauty of those weird, elastic bodies. “The game paints its playbook visually,” says Disseldorp. “It becomes this visual language for strategy.”
For all its abstract whorls of tan and brown, Push Me Pull You is not nearly as complicated as a sport like football or hockey, “which have a hundred years of context to them,” they tell me, one guy’s words running into the next. They sound eager to see how their strange beast will fly once they release it into the wild sometime in the near future. “I’d like to know what competitive play for our game looks like in five years, even if it’s egotistical to think anyone is going to be playing it in five years,” says McMaster. By then there could be a whole different horrible approach to stretching.
One thing’s for certain, though. It will still look ghastly.