An aspiring filmmaker who made a documentary about heartbreak. An artist obsessed with making our lives malleable. A second artist who spent years drawing the human form. A game designer who transformed mathematics into a video game. Together these four individuals created Push Me Pull You. A video game about human beings made by human beings. It's disgusting.
Push Me Pull You is difficult to describe, but incredibly easy to understand in motion. That's how it was designed. Two teams. Two human beings on two separate teams attempting to control the position of one single ball. The twist? Those human beings are glued together in a shapeshifting exercise in grotesque body horror. Terrifying. But in a strange way, also quite cute. Often hilarious.
Push Me Pull You is a video game about collaboration. If you do not collaborate you will lose.
But Push Me Pull You is also a video game borne of collaboration. Push Me Pull You is grotesque. Push Me Pull You is comedy and theatre. But Push Me Pull You is also the story of four people coming together to create something special, almost completely by accident.
"Have you ever been in love?"
Those were the two questions Jake Strasser — the one who made a documentary about heartbreak — would always ask his subjects.
Before Push Me Pull You — before making video games — Jake went to film school. In his first year he made dystopian science fiction, as one does. In his second year he fell in love, and things got weird. "I started making psychedelic explorations of love in time and space," he explains. In his third year, things got weirder.
"The relationship fell apart."
Jake was destroyed. Jake was broken. Jake went travelling. When he returned he decided he would speak to 30 separate strangers about their own experiences with relationships. He would use this footage to make a documentary.
"I wanted to explore people's relationship with heartbreak," said Jake. "To try and understand it.
"For me, I had a lot of questions about my own relationship falling apart. I found it incredibly healing. It's hard to feel sad about something when you can put it in the context of all those other relationships."
Hardly the best grounding for a future career in game development.
But Jake was always talking about video games.
"Even in my first year of film school I found myself talking more passionately about games that I did about film," admits Jake. "I was the annoying guy in class saying 'let's talk about games!'"
Jake was always aware of the pull that video games were having on him.
Jake and Nico Disseldorp went to the same high school. They knew each other. 'Knew' might be a bit of a stretch — more like they were aware of one another. Nico remembers Jake: an unusually tall kid who was a-little-bit-good at basketball. Jake remembers being intimidated.
"Nico was always with the cool kids, or who I thought were the cool kids!"
But Nico is undoubtedly a 'cool' kid. Of the four involved in Push Me Pull You, it's easy to get the sense that he's the leader. If Push Me Pull You was a band, Nico might be the singer — at the very least he'd write the songs. More than any other video game ever made, Push Me Pull You is a collaboration — the game simply would not and could not exist without the participation of all four members — but when you ask a question about Push Me Pull You, it's impossible to avoid the obvious. Nico is usually the one answering that question.
Probably because — of the four — Nico knows the most about making video games.
Probably because Nico is the one who transformed mathematics into a video game.
Nico is one of those strange people who enjoys geometry.
"I put some puzzles in it and taught it to recognise if you drew a hexagon, a triangle or a square and so on, and how many moves you'd done it in, and made it remember your best scores. Then I realised that I had a cool game there."
That 'cool game' became Let's Play: Ancient Greek Geometry and, amongst a niche audience, it exploded. People loved this strange, completely unique 'game', borne of Nico's urge to fiddle with geometry.
"90 per cent of my followers on twitter are maths teachers," laughs Nico.
And that's how Nico Disseldorp taught himself the unique set of skills required to make a game like Push Me Pull You.
Michael McMaster and Stuart Gillespie-Cook both went to art school, but that's not how they met.
Stuart was already friends with Jake and Nico. One evening all three headed to a party and, upon realising they were hours early, bumped into Michael who was in the process of making the same realisation about the exact same party.
They could have waited. But nah. It was decided they would collectively bugger off and play video games instead.
The game they decided chose to play was Hokra, a minimalist sports game designed by Ramiro Corbetta — a game that would ultimately make it into Sony's 'Sports Friends' package on PlayStation. A four player game for four people who decided to not go to a party.
It was about as close to serendipity as you could get.
Jake, Stuart and Nico had been playing Hokra, and playing it seriously, for a fair amount of time. But Hokra was a four player game and they had long been on the lookout for a fourth player. Michael would become that fourth member and, as time went on, secure his place in the team that would go on to build Push Me Pull You.
"That should just be the game. We should just ignore everything else and make that."
Jake, Nico, Stuart and Michael came together over a video game. So they decided to make a video game. It made perfect sense. And as you might expect from a group of men dedicated to playing Hokra, their video game ideas sounded… a lot like Hokra.
They wanted to make some sort of minimalist sports game. Like Hokra. They wanted to make a four player game. Like Hokra. But then they began to dream bigger.
"We wanted to make a game where every time you started up a game the ruleset would be different each time," explains Jake. "We had a meeting and we created this massive list of ideas."
Amongst those ideas was a doozy.
"Maybe you get tied together with your partner?"
Those words were written down on some piece of paper, next to dozens of different ideas for games that were a little bit like Hokra. At one point Stuart piped up:
"That should just be the game. We should just ignore everything else and make that."
Everyone laughed. Then, a couple of days later, they stopped laughing.
"We thought it would be super easy to make," says Michael. They were wrong.
"We started to ask ourselves what that would look like," explains Nico.
"Someone decided it should just be about two people stuck together by their fleshy body," says Jake.
"And that it would be a bit like Noby Noby Boy," adds Nico.
Then as an experiment, Stuart — the one who had gone to art school — decided to paint a picture.
"It was a picture of how he imagined two people being stuck together would look like," laughs Nico.
At that point it was decided: this game had to exist. It had to be made. So all four got into the guts of making it.
In the beginning Push Me Pull You literally looked like two chunky tubes of flesh, expanding and contracting, tying each other in knots. There were no faces, no real visual signifier of where the flesh ended and where it began. Just flesh. Creepy, pink cartoon flesh.
"We'd get people playing in my room and they'd have immediate reactions," remembers Michael. "Urgh… God. What is this?"
It became a common reaction whenever Jake, Nico, Michael or Stuart showed the game to their friends.
"It's just bodies," laughs Michael. "Body horror. We've made a body horror movie."
Those early days were about as close to a high school band mentality as game development could possibly be. They worked in isolation, making each other laugh, surprising one another, completely oblivious to how anyone might react to the video game they were building.
"At first it was just let's try and make a game," says Michael. "Let's see if we can actually make a game together."
"We were in our own little bubble, doing our own thing," adds Jake.
The band metaphor works perfectly. A handful of friends had seen Push Me Pull You in action, but it was essentially a hobbyist game. Of the four, only Nico had any real experience of game development. Showing others the game was sort of like a, 'hey I'm in a band, wanna hear my mixtape' moment. No-one really expected anything to come of it.
"Working on this game is sort of like band rehearsals you have three times a week," admits Nico. "It's become something we show to our friends in the way you drag friends to your first show!"
Ironically, the first public unveiling of Push Me Pull You actually occurred at a music festival.
A friend of Stuart was running an event and — bizarrely — gave Stuart a slot. Literally, in between band performances, the team planned to show a crowd of music fans a weird video game about stuck together bodies playing a strange version of basketball.
What could possibly go wrong?
"We were just terrified," says Nico. "We thought maybe two or three people would come in, like our friends. Because they had to."
But people turned up. They began to react, at first with confusion. Then horror. Slowly, broad smiles appeared on faces. Slowly, a crowd began to build. Eventually, people began to cheer; they treated this game demo, in the middle of a music festival, like a bizarre sporting event, roaring in approval. Nico was confused.
"Even then we were still incredulous," he explains. "We were like, 'there's no way this game is actually fun. we don't know what we're doing so this can't be fun'."
But slowly, a realisation from the rest of the team. This game is fun. It's fun to play. It's fun to watch. They had something.
"We lucked out so much," says Stuart.
Jake and the team began making GIFs. Lots of GIFs. Push Me Pull You was perfect for GIFs. The art was clean, stark. The art was grotesque. When seen in motion, it literally takes seconds to grasp the core conceit of the video game. Even if you don't understand its intricacies, five seconds is enough. An eminently GIFable experience.
Just two weeks after releasing the GIFs into the wild, the team received an email from Brandon Boyer, the chairman of the Indie Games Festival. He wanted a copy of the game.
Momentum built from there. Push Me Pull You became a regular fixture on the indie games circuit. It was played widely at GDC, both at the show itself and — perhaps more importantly — at house parties after the show. People were talking about Push Me Pull You: this weird little sports game that was really an exercise in grotesque — yet strangely cute — body horror.
It became instantly apparent that Push Me Pull You was special.
"Push Me Pull You is a game where you have to talk to your partner," explains Nico. "It's impossible to play it without communication."
Strangers, upon being given the chance to play Push Me Pull You, will invariably invent their own language. This is the very nature and core of the game. They will scream at each other, they will invent strategies on the fly, they will invent names for those strategies.
"It makes perfect sense," says Michael. "The very earliest pictures we drew of our characters had them yelling at each other!"
Interestingly, Jake, Nico, Michael and Stuart have been very careful to not discuss any formal strategies for the game. Crucially, they've chosen to not give those strategies names.
"A friend of ours said that as soon as people started using terms and latching on to them, you could see the way they play would completely change," says Jake.
"For example there was this technique of completely wrapping yourself around the ball. People started calling it the 'snail'."
The team has no idea what will come next. What will happen when the public finally gets hold of this game? How will they access it? No-one has any earthly idea and they've stopped making predictions.
"We want to release it commercially, but we still have a lot to gauge," says Michael.
Will Push Me Pull You become a commercial success? It's difficult to parse. In its favour is that gut visceral reaction. That instant revulsion, quickly followed by a doe-eyed appreciation of its cuteness. Those two polar opposites when placed in close proximity. It does something to a person: it demands your immediate attention.
"People are always immediately grossed out by it," says Michael. "People laugh as soon as they see it. Always."
Jake remembers one particular moment. A student from RMIT decided to project a game of Push Me Pull You on the wall of a building in Melbourne. It was pouring outside, but Jake had gone outside to watch the reactions of the people walking past. A Portuguese family stopped in their tracks. Jake watched the daughter who — after two minutes of watching — was able to perfectly explain what was going on to her parents, who were just completely grossed out.
"The best part was she just kept saying, 'urgh it's so disgusting', over and over again!"