As you can surmise from the title, Push Me Pull You (PMPY) is about the delightful tension between polar opposite forces. Even the world behind this couch co-op game is simultaneously the same and exact opposite of our own world.
Because, you see, PMPY is populated by a very similar society with one key difference: people are joined at the waist to one another, turning the populace into a squirming pile of two-headed mutant tube creatures. Despite the body horror this image suggests, PMPY depicts a utopian society built around play, diversity, and a strong sense of community. For all its grotesqueness, this society of skin worms seems endlessly more charming and self-loving than our own.
The bond struck between each one—quite literally unbreakable—is also tested regularly in the sports arena where most of PYMPY’s action takes place. With the option of a two-player mode that lets you fight your own better half, versus a four-player mode where you battle the flesh of a rival sportsmonster alongside your partner, Push Me Pull You makes players both recoil and come together all at once.
The new trailer above announcing PMPY‘s May 3rd release date showcases a full range of strategies and body contortions possible in the game, from classic moves like “The Puff” to the unintelligible “
I Don’t Even Know What Even.” During GDC this year, I met up with House House, the young team behind Push Me Pull You, to throw down in a battle of the flesh—a battle I emerged from more wholesome, serene, and humbled than when I first entered.
Kill Screen: What audience were you imagining while creating this game?
Stuart Gillespie-Cook: The best outcome for us is if a mum or someone else with no interest in games whatsoever walks past ours, and it doesn’t look like a videogame, so they allow themselves to get interested, thinking it’s a kid’s show or some other funny new thing.
Nico Disseldorp: It’s kind of the local multiplayer game made to trick your friends who may not play the kind of games you want to play. It’s like a Trojan horse to get you into local multiplayer.
KS: The “elastic-feel”—as I would describe it—is so good in this. What was the process of getting it just right like?
N: It was actually really intense because the elastic feel is also the balance of the game. All those strategies that you can do, all the ways that you can hold the ball and move your body, they’re all tied to the sensation of elasticity. Like, as you pull apart from each other, your body gets thinner in the middle through an animation technique called conservation of mass. There’s lots of components to the elasticity. It’s like a big physics soup where you have to get the flavors just right, adding pinches and seeing how it goes. You might tweak the numbers to make it feel better, but now the strategy may not be as fun.
S: Yeah, one of the most important things for strategy in this is that your head is the strongest point of your body. So if someone’s pushing into the middle of your body, you lose your grip, and that’s kind of the basis for everything. That’s where it all comes from. Having to constantly shift around. There’s no optimal formation for every situation that emerges from that. You’re always able to flip it around and subvert another person’s move.
Jacob Strasser: It’s not just a tug of war where if you pull harder and harder, you win. You can reconfigure your body to get an advantage at any time.
S: Which leads to this big mess of bits.
KS: Who was responsible for these incredible sound effects?
N: That was a big team effort. We realized we had spent months and months on sound and hated everything we had. So we locked ourselves in Stuart’s parent’s holiday house and said, “We’re not coming out until we have the sound right.” The first morning was harrowing, we couldn’t get anywhere, tried everything. None of us had any experience with sound design, but we knew we specifically wanted a billowy, stretchy noise. Then we started making lunch, cutting up the vegetables, and it was a moment of epiphany. We were like, “Cut that again!”, scrambling to put the knife through the lettuce and cheering, ‘That’s it—yucky, but that’s good!’ We frantically ran back to the store, bought every vegetable they had, then sat around and, soon after that, we hit upon what it is now.
S: We’re pretty new to everything. This is our first game—our first entry into games. We’ve been very lucky to happen upon the right sounds, and the music from the new menu screens, that’s all one guy. He’s really gone above and beyond. We just give him vague ideas about what we’re going for and he just spins it into great stuff.
KS: What’s one of the weirdest things you requested of him?
N: We had a Skype call where he brought out his saxophone and one of the keys fell off. We got really exited like, “That’s it! That’s the sound we need! That’s what we want for Push Me Pull You.”
KS: So just anything that’s broken.
S: We always encouraged him to go flat on more and more notes, a little less polish, a little more fun folk-y kind of music.
N: It got to the point where he’d say, “I know this sounds bad but I know that’s what you want.” Just everything a little rough around the edges.
KS: What’s been your favorite experience while watching people play the game? What are the moments when it’s doing exactly what you want it to do?
N: I think our favorite is when it’s played by a non-games crowd. Like, a roomful of people who might be a bit scared of videogames, but start playing Push Me Pull You and have a really good time. We love that face people get when they’re playing a game for the first time.
KS: Have you gotten any, well, not negative reactions, but people who were confused or uncomfortable?
S: A couple of minutes ago, I watched this woman come up behind us and just go, ‘”Oh no, what?” In this really sweet, questioning way. She wasn’t unhappy… but she wasn’t thrilled either.
J: We designed Push Me Pull You to be as accessible as possible, though, so that any games-illiterate person could come, pick it up, get the basics, and just have some fun with it.
N: And I guess part of the reason why we did that is in line with the game’s theme, too: that sense of community, lots of different types of people being literally tied together, or just hanging out with each other.
S: It’s the reason why sports in our world are so great. It’s that super low-level community matches. Sure, it’s still competitive, but anyone can have a bash even if they’re not playing well.
N: There’s two excuses adults have for playing: games and sports. We wanted to emulate the lighter side of both. We’re used to playing sports videogames where it’s all like, “This is it: you’re at the stadium during the grand finale.” We wanted to get at the games you pick up on the street in front of your house, or at the beach with your family. It’s the version of sports that means something to everyone, even to people like us who can’t play sports very well or get intimidated by formal sports settings.
KS: I’m so curious about the world these creatures live in. How did you imagine it?
S: We think about it all the time. There’s so many little design decisions we have to be really careful about not giving too much away while also still staying in the realm of believability. We wanted to draw a car in their world, for example, and we had to rethink the concept of a car entirely. Because how would it work for them? What would it look like? Would it have two steering wheels, four pedals? We have to be so careful. We have to maintain the illusion that these things are human and relatable and live in the same kind of world that we do, but we just don’t want to explain too much. We definitely don’t want to start saying they’re genetic experiments gone wrong or anything like that.
J: In our minds, these people go home after playing these matches and watch the professionals play the same exact sport on TV.
N: Yeah, things like that help us find the midpoint in the Venn diagram of our world and their world. So on the menu screens, we show them sitting on a chair. We stressed out for a while about what that chair could possibly look like, and then ended up with a banana lounge. It’s the one chair we have where you can sit on it backwards and forwards at the same time. That’s just one of their many ergonomic requirements.
KS: This is a game with such a unique sense of body—of accepting your body in all its bizarre forms.
J: We went to great lengths to make a game about bodies, and that’s why we tried to be as non-prescriptive as possible when it came to the character creation.
N: Bodies are inherently political, so you have a responsibility to make a game about bodies in a way that accommodates all people.
S: That’s one of the things that draws me to videogames as a whole, too: abstracting your body in interesting ways, pushing and pulling, doing all of these crazy things with your fingers and seeing it mirrored in another world.
KS: What are some of the challenges these creatures face in comparison to the challenges we face?
J: Just being connected to a family member for your whole life seems like a big challenge. Having to live your entire life connected to your grandpa, your girlfriend, your mother, your father, your baby—any number of your relatives. We’re still not quite sure how those relationships would survive.
N: We constantly talk about scenarios they get into, like, “Oh, what if they’re having a big fight and they draw a line down the middle of the room—they’d have to draw a line down their own body. But yeah, in this world—if this was your life—you wouldn’t get along all the time. And that actually maps to co-op games pretty well, because as much as you and your partner sometimes feel like a perfect well-oiled machine, other times you’re just two people yelling at each other, really frustrated, like, “Why won’t you go the way I want you to go or why won’t you do what I need you to do?” That co-op approach to life, there’s a lot of communication to be found there.
KS: It’s easy to literally lose yourself in all the limbs during a match. When we were playing just now, you kept asking each other: “Do you know who you are?” A lot of the time we were totally wrong about who we thought we were on the screen. I love that. Existential, but still very silly.
J: I like the idea of managing your only resource, and it’s the elasticity of your own body.
KS: Have you guys ever considered any weird controllers for Push Me Pull You?
N: Yeah we had one made. It’s covered in, like, skin… I don’t know what it is. As far as I’m concerned, they’re skin controllers, and the guy who made them takes them out to bars and makes people play on them.
S: Somewhere in a warehouse, there’s also a controller that’s sawed in half because our initial plan was to stretch rubber bands between two people’s controller. So you’d have to share the controller with your team member while you played as a two-headed tube of flesh.
N: We got as far as sawing the controller in half before we remembered we didn’t have any electrical engineering skills.
J: Yeah so we ruined a controller, and then it got too hard.
KS: What’s the role of disgust in Push Me Pull You? Obviously there’s that initial disgust. But actually playing the game, it feels like ultimately an acceptance of it.
J: It’s how we feel about our bodies a lot of the time, I think. They’re gross things but beautiful in their own way.
S: We didn’t go out of our way to make this grotesque. Granted, I was always in favor of having them sweat a lot.
J: Yeah, Stu wanted the most grotesque bodies possible. It was a constant process of reeling him back. But, regardless, people react with a sense of revulsion to Push Me Pull You. Particularly on the Internet. And that’s not what we’re going for, so it might just be a byproduct of the thing that we’re dealing with.
N: It’s also that Uncanny Valley of body physics. Nothing we put in it is particularly gross. But when you see bodies put together by computers that also move weird, you can’t help but feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
KS: Do you have a name for these creatures?
N: A couple. We call them pempys, mainly. Pempys. Push-me-pull-yous.
KS: Come again?
J: It’s PMPY, but with an E. There’s PMPY the game, then there’s pempys the things.
S: Sometimes people call them sportsmonsters.
N: They would never see themselves that way, though.
KS: Of course not. They’re beautiful.
Push Me Pull You releases for PlayStation 4 on May 3rd.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.