Hellcouch: Gluteal Exorcises at GDC 2019

While setting up our interview with designers Carol Mertz and Francesca Carletto-Leon, an Expo floor walker approached the pair and asked if the light-up, smoke machine-rigged, wailing, demon-possessed couch they constructed was available as a commercial product. The answer was a “no,” but it certainly got everyone thinking.

Hellcouch may not be available at your local Rooms To Go, but its appearance at this year’s Game Developers Conference heralded the arrival of butt-controlled gaming. Mertz and Carletto-Leon are both students at NYU’s Game Center MFA program, and with the blessing of instructor Bennett Foddy, the pair has lovingly crafted an ass-tastic experience for folks to try.

Foddy, of course, is a renowned game developer himself, having produced titles like QWOP and Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy. Those games are known for combining the darkly comic and brutally difficult. Hellcouch has traces of this DNA, but the design is squarely Carletto-Leon’s and Mertz’s. Foddy’s suggestion that the pair attempt a “couch co-op” game was a dark prophecy.

Mertz and Carletto-Leon are games industry vets at this point. Mertz is a multidisciplinarian managing an active itch.io profile and producing physical games like Pass the Buck: A Game of Corporate Responsibility Management. Carletto-Leon began her career as a community management specialist and 3D artist, but has since produced several compelling narrative and strategy games. The designers’ mutual interest in games with alternative control schemes (the game is part of the conferences alt.ctrl.GDC pavilion, naturally) got them thinking about execution.

Mertz contemplated yoga and other themes before writing down “hellcouch,” which grabbed ahold with a crooked, cursed hand and wouldn’t get go. The pair developed the central conceit, a game of activating pressure plates to quell the flames of demonic possession. The possessed item? A couch. The pressure plates? Under your butt.

Hellcouch players, upon sitting, are first introduced to the demon inside the furniture via so-good-it-could-be-on-a-Halloween-spookytimes-cassette-tape recording by Mertz herself. Players then have 90 seconds to evict the demon by sitting on corresponding hot zones (one of three cushions) indicated by red LEDs. Carletto-Leon and Mertz have created not only a game, but also an impressive feat of mechanical engineering. The revelation that a previous model of Hellcouch broke clean in half lead to the addition of five additional legs as reinforcement.

Lights and pressure plates guide the player, but what’s a successful exorcism without victory fanfare?

“There’s no way we can hack a fog machine,” Mertz declared. Foddy disagreed. And so it is.

If players succeed at vanquishing the cushy one, they are met with a final smoky breath from below, congratulating them on mastering gluteal exorcism.

Hellcouch is currently on exhibit at the GDC 2019 Expo until Friday, March 22.

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John Warren

I miss Texas sometimes. Wheelchair person. Professional wrestling is humanity's greatest achievement. He/his, y'all.

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