For months, my wife and I played PixelJunk Monsters religiously—it was one shared ritual in the midst of two lives that were rapidly diverging. She did not like videogames, but the rich color scheme and the infectious, peaceful soundtrack drew her in. It was the relaxed but strategic cooperation, though, that hooked us both. With both of our avatars running around the screen, we would plan together daily, anticipating and responding to cute flying bumblebees and giant stone golems. Mutual success was sweet—we would march on with glee, taking on any grass field in our way. The game gave us a sense of kinship and camaraderie.
I quickly grew tired, though, of working so hard on a single level—running around and building towers only to lose and have to do it all over again. I simply didn’t have the patience to play the same thing for another 20 minutes. Months later, by the time we’d reached the second half of the Encore expansion, she would have to beg me to play with her. I would reluctantly agree. But I spent much of our time explaining why I disliked this game, and tower-defense games like it, rather than discussing strategy. After a while, she just stopped asking. We never finished Encore, a significant crime in the eyes of my wife, the perfectionist. I was used to giving up on games that were too frustrating. This was just something she would have to accept.
I was excited enough about Trenched, a new game from the Double Fine studio, and particularly interested in what a mech-style game featuring “mobile trenches” might be like. Still, as I played the first two campaigns alone, I found myself feeling guilty about playing a tower-defense game without her. After all, my argument against Monsters was actually an argument against tower-defense games.
And Trenched is very much a tower-defense title. It tasks players with defending a location from waves of enemies. They do this by placing turrets, and by acting as turrets themselves. Players must determine the best way to destroy various kinds of attackers—some fly; others march in single file; others charge the player directly and explode. In the case of failure, players must start from the beginning of the level, often losing up to 20 minutes’ worth of progress.
Still, Double Fine seems to be keenly aware of the downsides of the genre, and does several things to make up for those problems. For one, the ability to run and gun in addition to placing turrets makes for a more dynamic and varied time, even when replaying the same 15 waves of enemies. Guns and emplacements can be mixed and matched in ways that are significantly meaningful, though each battle often can only be easily won with the right combination. If this isn’t enough, you can always try the same challenge with up to three more players.
In fact, you probably should. In theory, all the wonderful things that Trenched does to breathe life into tower defense apply in single-player, but fall flat in practice. Part of the reason is that the game seems tailored specifically for multiplayer. The battleship is meant to serve as both the game’s front-end menu and its multiplayer lobby. Walking back and forth alone, in order to select your mission and customize your trench, only accentuates the loneliness, particularly when you notice the three empty trench loading docks. Even when the fighting starts, the feeling lingers. With every huge explosion and close call, I want to shout out, “Did you see that?” Adding insult to injury is the occasional moment when enemies creep up from alternate routes that I wasn’t watching, and quickly annihilate my base. For a single-player game, it’s a cheap shot. In multiplayer, my partner would have had my back.
I would have asked my wife to join me, and demonstrate the myriad of ways Trenched improves on the now-tired and flawed formula of PixelJunk Monsters, but I know better. For one thing, the game offers no local multiplayer mode, and like most normal households we own only one Xbox 360. Even if she could play along with me, Trenched seems hell-bent on being for “men,” whatever that means. The story and themes are about manliness and the different relationships that men have with one another. There are four manly avatars to choose from, but no women. Most crucially, the game doesn’t cater to the cooperative strategy that other multiplayer tower-defense games do.
Instead, it shines in another area. There aren’t many opportunities for cooperative strategy precisely because most of the game is spent showing off. Onboard the ship, you can not-so-humbly present your trench for the other players to inspect. Yes, that is, in fact, a magnetic grenade launcher that I have. Yes, I am wearing a top hat. Yes, I have painted my trench red. During the actual fight, meanwhile, you hope for your friend to screw up precisely so you can bail him out of his fix in masterful fashion. A group of four Blitzers, which will absolutely destroy my teammate, are running full speed toward him. I grin, sprint a little closer, and launch cluster artillery rounds that wipe them all out. He looks back at me in silent thanks, and I turn away. Time to get back to the fight.
When played with like-minded buddies, Trenched is epic and awe-inspiring. Playing leads to moments of humility, frustration, and climactic joy, each moment seeming undeniably earned. It boils down in a small way the mutual respect, glory, and brotherhood of war. It also encapsulates the competitive showboating that so many “manly men” thrive on. In spite of myself, I love it.
My wife isn’t interested in this kind of thing. She wants to feel like we are part of a team, not a pair of competitive soldiers who are both trying to demonstrate their superiority to one another. So for now, she reads in the other room, because the explosions are too loud. I turn the volume up, hunker down, and sprint over to help my buddy. He needs my help, and this is the perfect opportunity to show him just what I’m made of.