You can play PHOGS! alone, taking control of one of the two-headed dog-snake’s ends with each hand. Played this way, it’s a reasonable puzzle game, built around the gooey physics of a boneless Catdog-esque tube that can stretch, shrink, and grab things in its cartoonish teeth. When getting to grips with the game this way, by myself, most of the puzzles were straightforward. I noticed how certain elements that wanted to be grabbed or pulled could interact with things I could grab or pull with my other head. Levels had some variety, with simple questions of traversal interspersed between helping locals with picking vegetables or turning on their lights. It’s light, silly fun, if you’re into that sort of thing.
But I also played the game once at a trade show. I remembered it being much better there — enhanced by an added layer of communication and all the confusion and chaos that springs from two people controlling the same character. Combined with realizing that I heavily predicted the puzzles with my existing video game literacy, I wanted to recruit someone who did not have that knowledge and see how the game fared.
Luckily, the only person who I can legally play couch co-op with thanks to COVID lockdown is my 57-year old dad, whose only exposure to games is playing Mario Party every Christmas and that one time I made him come virtual mushroom collecting with me and he was very patient about the whole thing. (The game also has online co-op, but my friends didn’t have review codes, and anyway, they know too much…) So I invited dad to run through a level with me.
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He chose Food World, home of the garden-based levels with brightly colored citrus fruits and corn cobs making up the scenery. I realized a second useful aspect of having him along for the ride; the game is aimed at least in part towards young children with its playful aesthetic. Though my father is, as I said, 57 years of age, he is a close second best to a small boy. He immediately attempted to bite everything and everyone.
The dog heads will not latch onto anything they’re not supposed to, but each one does constantly make a sound halfway between a bark and a surprised ‘oh!’ that accompanied us endlessly as I dragged our Phog towards the puzzles themselves. This is another important note: one head can move the entire body, so most of the time I was able to guide us through the movement of the puzzles alone. But the weight and physics change if you hold an object in the other head. Which means cooperation is eventually required. And of course, the two heads can pull in opposite directions, leading them to instead sit motionless in the center. This happened repeatedly, usually on purpose thanks to at least one of us.
It was mostly because of this that I let my dad take the lead. And playing this way let me see the dioramas with fresh eyes — not simply zeroing in on puzzle solutions. We explored dead ends and played with purely decorative elements. More than once this meandering aimlessness led to an actual solution that I know I would have otherwise found obtuse.
At one point, when we were otherwise stuck, he tried bouncing on some tomatoes we grew together using our body as a waterspout. We stretched out in our most elastic form, just to see what would happen. It ended up working perfectly to reach the next part of the level. Though I am still not sure it was the intended solution. I explaining what I saw as flaws in the puzzle design: we tried similar things and failed. It wasn’t clear whether it was simply the wrong idea or our own poor execution. There was also a red herring of a post that I thought we needed to attach to in some way (which still makes me think that we did in fact do the puzzle wrong). My dad politely agreed, as he often does, but it was clear to me that he saw the playful trial and error as integral to the game. Eventually I began to wonder why I didn’t.
When we finished the level, we returned to the Food World hub. I struggled to explain to my dad that this was not itself a level; there were no puzzles to solve. I thought we were basically done with the experiment, but I didn’t cut him off as he kept exploring. We went for a dip in the pool and waterfall and accidentally discovered the hat shop where you can customize the dog’s two heads. Inside, he was convinced that he had discovered a way to make the dog cry and demonstrated it endlessly; I eventually realized he was just using the stretch mechanic, which causes sweat to leap from the dog’s brow when overtaxed.
Outside again, we found a strange mole-like creature also featured in the level, and again my dad started constant attempts to bite. In trying to get me to help, we discovered that if we both did it simultaneously the slight jump of the lunge combined into a kind of stuttering flight, about two inches off the ground, which he crowed about. Then he discovered that there were things he actually could bite in the level. The end result was eating an entire table’s worth of food. To me, it conferred absolutely no benefit. To him, it was thrilling.
Playing in the hub world was by far my favorite part of PHOGS!. Had I been working on this review alone, I would have beelined straight from level to level, checking off each puzzle like a to-do list. But the game is clearly intended for two — for exploration, inventiveness, and playfulness.