A quick and dirty guide to playing games—any games—online with your friends

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Illustration for article titled A quick and dirty guide to playing games—any games—online with your friends

Screenshot: Nintendo

Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?

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If there’s ever been a time when the trivial has been more important than it is now, we’re too stressed to think of it; with a world simultaneously threatening—somehow—to both spin wildly out of control, and compact itself into the smallest space possible, the vital need for silliness has never been more clear. In this, gaming is quite possibly the ultimate ally. Sure, you could be spending your quarantine months playing through Pathologic 2 or That Dragon, Cancer (and more power to you if you are), but games are also incredible tools for both relaxation and connection—provided you have the base knowledge of how to get them up and running.

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Hence this: A quick and dirty guide to playing games with your friends. In the interest of accessibility, we’ll be staying out of technical waters—no talk of the dreaded port forwarding here. Instead, we’ll highlight some great games to play with friends on just about any system imaginable—including no system—along with a few notes on how to set things up, and the general complications of same. It won’t be exhaustive—we’re too exhausted to be exhaustive—but it should put you on the right path to digital socialization.


PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

What do you need? A pricey console, subscription fee, a library of games (although see below)

Sony and Microsoft’s flagship consoles both feature paid subscriptions to get access to multiplayer (so does Nintendo’s, for that matter, but more on that in a minute), making them best suited for households that were already at least moderately game-friendly. You don’t need to engage in the wild, child-filled West of Fortnite to have a good time with friends, though; both systems contain libraries full of great games with built-in online multiplayer modes.

Our go-to suggestion? Overcooked 2, a game that balances chaos and friendship in really wonderful ways. (Also, god knows we all need to get fully acclimated to cooking for ourselves.) If you don’t mind gunplay, The Division 2 and Borderlands 3 are both solid, shooting-based friendship engines. Xbox also has the fascinating pirate simulator Sea Of Thieves, which is a great, semi-violent way to hop on a boat with a bunch of friends and sail away from your problems. And if you just want stress-free laughs, it’s hard to beat games like the physics-heavy platformer Human: Fall Flat, where the whole point is that everybody looks like a total goober when they play.

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It’s also worth noting that the PS4 features Share Play, which, like the Steam Remote Play system outlined below, allows people who don’t own a game to join in and play with someone who does, as though they were sitting in the room. It does feature an annoying limit of an hour of play per session, though (although there’s nothing stopping you from starting another one up).


PC

What do you need? A Steam library with a healthy number of games—or a friend who has all that stuff, and who doesn’t mind sharing.

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PC gaming is scary. Patches, drivers, device conflicts, etc.: It’s enough to make anyone want to give up and leave it all in the hands of that one friend everyone has who’s really into PC games. Luckily, there are some features that have been added to online platforms in recent years that make it easy to leverage the keyboard-loving weirdos in your life for the greater good. Specifically, Steam’s Remote Play feature, which allows players to treat pretty much any game as though it had built-in online multiplayer. You just need one person to own the game, set it for Remote Play, and you’re in: co-op gaming, even for games without online co-op.

Happily, the PC has seen a huge surge in cooperative, couch-style games in recent years, so as long as you’ve got that one friend, you’re pretty much set: Want to have a high-speed swordfight in Nidhogg? A ludicrous robot basketball match in Regular Human Basketball? A rousing game of online madness with Adult Swim’s shockingly good arena shooter Duck Game? They’re all just a few clicks away. The system’s not perfect—slowed internet connections will grind things to a crawl. But for a set-up that allows four people to play together on a single copy of a game without leaving their homes, it’s pretty difficult to argue against.

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The Animal Crossing machine

Illustration for article titled A quick and dirty guide to playing games—any games—online with your friends

Screenshot: Nintendo

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What do you need? Animal Crossing, the Animal Crossing machine, an online subscription for the Animal Crossing machine

Formally (and formerly) known as the Nintendo Switch, the Animal Crossing machine has become one of the most important devices in a wide variety of player’s arsenals. Technically capable of playing other video games, it’s now primarily a way to work on your island, check out other people’s islands, meet Elijah Wood, and just generally chill with friends in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Nintendo’s game arrived at an imperfectly perfect time, giving people a way to connect and be cute with their friends without risking their healths, and if its “plant stuff, design stuff, pay your rent” gameplay appeals, it’s hard not to argue that it’s a great addition to any stress gaming regimen. Watch some videos online—they’re abundant—and see if the rhythms soothe. Then potentially take the plunge. We promise, you probably already have friends playing it. (Good luck finding a Switch right now, however.)

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Jackbox games

What do you need? An internet connection, a phone, and a single copy of the games.

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Jackbox Games’ various party game collections get special mention here because of the same revolutionary idea that’s made them so ubiquitous: Removing the requirement for every player to have a controller, in favor of allowing them to buzz in and play with their phones. Rating all the titles in all six of the extant Jackbox Party Packs is outside the brief of this piece—although watch this space—but the highlights are the ones that foster truly stupid moments to share with your buds: Joke-telling tool Quiplash, T-shirt-creation-simulator Tee KO, and, if you’re feeling a little more competitive, either of the jokingly blood-soaked Trivia Murder Party games. All of these games can produce big, wonderful belly laughs—especially if you’re playing with friends.

The easiest way we’ve found to do that? Discord. The free chat program includes very effective video-and-audio streaming options, so all you need to do is have one person purchase a copy of any given pack, share their screen, and you’re good to go. Pretty much nobody has done more to make multiplayer gaming accessible than the Jackbox folks, and this is a fantastic time to enjoy the fruits of all that hard work.

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Tabletop Simulator

What do you need? A computer capable of running Tabletop Simulator, a brain capable of understanding all the fiddly little pieces in Tabletop Simulator, a loose set of morals re: copyright and ownership

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In terms of cost-effectiveness, Berserk Games’ Tabletop Simulator is pretty hard to beat. The “game” itself is essentially just a sandbox, allowing you to set up a table and all the pieces you could want to play, essentially, anything. But the real value in the system is in its vast workshop of modded content, where fans have outdone themselves in recreating very nearly any commercial board game you might want to play. (Barring a few that have officially licensed versions, including a few heavy hitters like Scythe and Wingspan.) Combine it with the Steam Remote Play feature outlined above, and it’s virtually limitless.

The only real problem—besides, you know, the morals—is that Tabletop Simulator is kind of a pain in the ass to play, with a large learning curve getting in the way of the fun. Get over that hump, though, and there’s no reason game night can’t continue as though the quarantine had never set in.

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Nothing

What do you need? See above. And friends. And an internet connection. So: Some things.

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Not to get all Grinch here, but gaming has never really been about stuff. (We write, from an office festooned in Binding Of Isaac toys and a beadwork version of the hooded shopkeeper from Castlevania 2.) Gaming is an idea, a shared space with a magic circle drawn around it where we we all agree that we’re here to have a good time. As such, gaming demands no real requirements beyond having people to participate in it with, and a way to see or hear them.

There’s never been a better time to start that D&D campaign with your friends. (Either with official tools like D&D Beyond, or unofficial ones like Roll20, or just by telling stories with each other.) Don’t like fantasy stuff? Download a free one-page RPG, like Grant Howitt’s delightful “Goats infiltrate a fancy human party” game Goat Crashers. Play a screwy version of Jenga, where one player pulls blocks while their teammates yell commands for individual motions. Play charades with someone who lives 3,000 miles away. Play chess-by-mail with a pen pal.

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Play. You gotta play right now. Otherwise, you’re going to go nuts.