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KarmaZoo Proves Online Gaming Doesn’t Need to Be Toxic

Play nice.

Originally Published: 
key art from KarmaZoo
Devolver Digital

If you look at the most popular online games, you might think all they can do is push players into an endless cycle of conflict and competition. Well, one new release posits a more harmonious way forward, and it’s a path with a lot of potential.

From developer Pastagames, KarmaZoo is a cooperative online platformer that doesn’t just encourage players to work together it requires it. At its core, KarmaZoo is a pretty simple platformer. You start as a humble blob, hopping over familiar obstacles like spikes and lasers to reach a goal within the time limit. Collecting fruit can earn you temporary power-ups, and a currency called Karma lets you unlock new forms, like a frog with a triple-jump or a lantern that illuminates secrets.

KarmaZoo challenges the selfish multiplayer paradigm.

What makes KarmaZoo so interesting is how it builds helpful interaction into every premise. KarmaZoo can only be played online, with between two and ten players who are literally tethered together. Every player has a tiny ring of light around them, which link together to form a larger halo when players are close to each other. Go just a few seconds without your halo touching another and you’re turned into a ghost who can no longer interact with the level.

Even something so simple as opening a door in KarmaZoo is usually a two-player affair at minimum. You can open doors by stepping on switches or singing to them — the only ability you start with — but they usually slam shut the second you move or stop singing. To get through, you need to keep the door open while a teammate finds a switch on the other side and holds the door open for you. Each time you help your teammates, you gain Karma.

The result is something I’ve never seen before — players falling over themselves to help each other out in pursuit of that sweet, sweet Karma. When I joined a game with only one or two others, we clung desperately together like mountain climbers pulling each other to the summit. In larger groups, distinct factions start to emerge, with some players focused on unlocking doors for everyone and others exploring to find collectibles, which are shared by the group. Whenever someone fell behind, at least one person inevitably put themselves on the line to link up with them before they perished.

Harmony is the key to success in KarmaZoo.

Devolver Digital

Because helping others also helps yourself, there’s no incentive to grief other players, and going off on your own to show up the rest of the team just means you’ll get eliminated first. In the time I’ve spent with KarmaZoo, I’ve only seen one person refuse to cooperate. In a three-player game, one perplexingly went off on their own at the start of each level until their halo popped, leaving just two of us to complete challenges tuned for three players. They would then follow us around as a ghost before doing the same thing in the next level. I don’t know who you are, Harry the owl, or what you got out of it, but we are enemies now.

If there’s one critique I have about KarmaZoo, it’s that I wish it had pushed its feel-good premise further. Everything you do for others in KarmaZoo also benefits you. Every opened door and alley-oop directly gives you currency to unlock new powers. So when you help people, you’re not doing it out of the goodness of your heart, nor are you giving up anything — you’re doing it to earn yourself a reward. If KarmaZoo really wanted to explore karma, I would have loved to see a system that encourages players to actually give something up to help the strangers exploring its world with them.

You can’t succeed alone in KarmaZoo.

Devolver Digital

I can’t really fault KarmaZoo for that. Designing a game to encourage self-sacrifice is a very different thing from making one around cooperation, and it does the latter extremely well. As someone who generally avoids online games specifically because of their overwhelming toxicity, I’m happy to have one designed intentionally to provide a more joyful experience with my fellow humans. Even in team-based games like Overwatch and the famously friendly Final Fantasy XIV, I’ve had abuse hurled at me by my supposed allies, especially if I dare reveal that I’m a trans woman. There’s no chat in KarmaZoo, so that’s not a worry, and I can’t help but hope that its pro-social design would make it less likely in any case.

Outside of Final Fantasy XIV, KarmaZoo is the most enjoyable online game I’ve played in a long, long time. Its real test will be if enough players are on board for a ‘being nice’ simulator to keep it populated. After all, online games live and perish by their fan base. I can only hope enough people stick around to keep KarmaZoo’s little refuge from online toxicity around for a long time.

KarmaZoo is available now on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

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