In Screencheat, you’re completely invisible. Sick strategy, right? Especially since you’re trying to find and take out your opponents before they can get you.
The only thing is, they’re invisible too. All of you are.
It shouldn’t work, and yet it does. Screencheat is a first-person shooter (and depending on your choice of weapon, perhaps a first-person hacker and slasher as well), with split-screen play, in which all the players are invisible.
So how the heck do you win? By screencheating, of course. The much-maligned practice of peeking at a player’s screen to find out where they’re hiding on the map became the core of Screencheat’s gameplay.
I got to play Screencheat at PAX South and speak to Samurai Punk co-founder Nicholas McDonnell about where the game came from and how it works.
Before Screencheat was Screencheat, it was a prototype at a game jam themed around perception.
“We had time constraints,” McDonnell said. “It was a 48-hour jam. So we wanted to make a cooperative game where players have to communicate information because they see the world in different ways. So this one’s colorblind, and this one is able to see things that are invisible to everyone else. But the thing was, why would people communicate? We wanted to make a game about communication, but why would people communicate what they see on their screen when everyone can just look?”
Planning the game devolved into bandying around memories of screencheating while playing games as kids. Rather than throw out the idea because of the screencheating problem, they decided to roll with it and make it the core mechanic of the game.
In embracing screencheating, they also thought about what they really enjoyed about those old shooters, like the Quake series. Above all, McDonnell wanted to avoid making a shooter that was just another repetitive, boring series of corridors.
“I’m fond of our levels because they’re really vertical, and I really hate shooters that don’t use verticality well,” he told me. Verticality in level design, “creates much more interesting and much more vibrant gameplay, and you can think a lot more.”
I noticed this as I played a few matches of Screencheat multiplayer on a couch on the PAX South show floor. The level we were playing was modeled after a museum, with four color-coded floors. A ramp ran from floor to floor, but there were also vents that you could run into, which would pop you out on a different floor. It was possible to jump from the top of the level to the bottom of the level quickly.
There were also a few dead-ends. This layout meant players could be constantly in motion, but ran the risk of backing themselves into a corner. It rewarded constant observation and mobility. This makes it sound impossible to find and take out your opponents, but you might be surprised. Throughout the design process, the Samurai Punk team found lots of ways to make gameplay not only possible, but fun and strategic.
“The first idea we came up with was to color-code the whole game. All the levels are split in quadrants. They’re all really vibrant, really strong colors. We used a range of primary colors and also things people identify very easily.”
After speaking to a psychologist, McDonnell learned that humans can recognize primary colors more easily than others. A level with a tan, brown, and black color scheme was attempted, and though it looked great, it didn’t work out.
“The colors weren’t high contrast enough. You’d look at a glance and you couldn’t quite pick it up. So we transitioned back to every map having really strong saturated colors.”
The game includes a mode for color-blind players, which adds contrasting patterns to the colored quadrants. Color-coding isn’t the only way Samurai Punk helps players navigate a world full of invisible targets. It’s also important that each level of the game be tight and contain recognizable landmarks.
“You need to be able to pinpoint players’ positions down to about the meter,” McDonnell said. “You really need to start thinking heavily: are they on the left-hand side? Near the wall, or in the open in this room?”
They observed that even habitual screencheaters aren’t necessarily good at Screencheat—not right off the bat. It takes a bit of practice. Still, I found that people got good at it surprisingly quickly (or maybe that 13-year-old who kicked my ass was just freakishly talented). A four-player round of Screencheat took only a few minutes to complete.
Each time you die, you have a chance to swap out your weapon for something new. The weapons are delightfully absurd. There are grenade launchers side-by-side with hobbyhorses, and an explosive teddy bear. Each weapon is a one-hit kill, so that players don’t have to trail after an invisible opponent with their cursors and kill the momentum of the game. Respawning happens immediately.
I played with three other people, but matches can take up to eight players, which McDonnell said stretches the concept a bit too far.
“It’s really fun, though! It’s a party game,” he told me. “So we have those elements that are not necessarily the best in terms of core design, really pure game design. But people still love it.”
I can imagine an eight-player match of Screencheat being ridiculous and chaotic in the same way that a match of Starwhal is. At that point, you’re not necessarily playing for skill and glory—you’re having a laugh with friends. With only two players in a match, though, Screencheat becomes a duel of strategy.
“Players’ movements are being read constantly and you’re basically playing a game of chicken with your opponent, because if you have absolute information, theoretically whoever gets in range first dies,” McDonnell said. “Or successfully wins.”
When they first released Screencheat on Steam, the team didn’t expect it to have the popularity that it does. They assumed its quirks would appeal more to game designers than the average player. Happily, I would put Screencheat in the category of party games that are difficult to master but easy to pick up.
It’s available on Steam for Windows and Mac for $14.99. Split-screen online multiplayer is available if you can round up a gang to play with, but the game’s true charm lies in local multiplayer. That being said, Samurai Punk has added AI and training modes so that the game can be played alone.
McDonnell seemed gently surprised and pleased by the game’s popularity. After all, it started out as a quirky idea at a game jam, a prototype where the player was an invisible capsule running around a small four-quadrant map.
“There are a lot of games being made that game designers love, and everyone else hates. They’re interesting, but not necessarily fun. I was expecting this to be a game picked up by people who are interested in tactical games. But it turns out, it’s just generally quite popular.”