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Sea of Thieves - four players with the sun setting behind them Image: Rare/Microsoft Studios

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The essential 10 Xbox Game Pass games to bring people together

Game with the folks you may not be able to visit

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So many of us are lonely during this holiday season.

We may be sick, or have sick family members. Or maybe everyone in your family is healthy, and you’re being responsible by not having a large gathering. It’s going to be a difficult holiday without a safe way to see our loved ones.

Which is where games come in.

These 10 online games from Microsoft’s Game Pass Ultimate service all offer that sense of community and togetherness that we may be missing during this holiday season. A good game, played with friends and family, is a shared experience; you’re all (hopefully) emotionally invested in doing the best you can, and in finding a sense of meaning and belonging in the challenges the game offers you.

Many of these games are about spending time together, and being together in a way that feels better than just a phone call or a text message. We also attempted to avoid the most obvious choices here; it’s always nice to try new things, especially when the only thing you have to lose, thanks to Game Pass, is a little bit of time.

We hope you decide to give some of these a shot, whether you’re playing with your family group at home on the same screen, or playing online with voice chat.

Minecraft Dungeons

Minecraft began as a game of creation, imagination, and survival ... depending on which mode you were playing. Minecraft Dungeons takes the same blocky visual style and uses it to great effect on a hack-and-slash action game that is fun enough for die-hard Diablo fans but simple enough for younger players or those completely new to the genre.

It’s also a game that’s immediately satisfying. You’ll learn how to attack, heal, and earn loot in the first mission. After a few hours, you’ll pick up on the basics of building up your character with the best gear using different “enchantments,” which are basically random buffs added to weapon drops. The character creation screen allows for the sort of creativity that, in the original game, comes from how you build your structures.

Minecraft Dungeons was a great game at launch, and a consistent supply of new content and missions has given it some impressive legs. This is the rare example of a company taking the visual style of its best-known game and making it work nearly flawlessly in another, completely different genre.

Minecraft Dungeons is easy to begin playing, and it’s enjoyable for a wide range of skill levels. In a fascinating twist, it’s also a didactic game, teaching players how to take on other, more challenging and intricate hack-and-slash titles. It’s probably my favorite couch co-op game of the year, and it truly comes to life when everyone is playing together in the same space, yelling out strategies and discussing character builds.

Regardless of whether you have children in the house for the holidays, this is a must-try Game Pass game.

The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan

The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan is more like a four-hour movie, with a narrative that branches depending on player choice. A group of affluent young Americans, as well as their local guide and boat captain, are kidnapped and brought aboard the ghost ship Ourang Medan. Things are clearly not right aboard the vessel, and soon, players need to flee from both their desperate captors and some terrifying, seemingly supernatural monsters.

What makes this game truly exceptional is the Shared Story mode. Shared Story allows two players to play through the campaign cooperatively from different points of view — a unique setup that provides an interesting twist on the traditional movie night.

My group of friends and I all piled into one Discord channel, and I streamed my side of the story while my co-pilot streamed his. Our other friends could swap between the two streams, getting both sides of the story. Only the viewers got the full story, while my co-player and I had to make decisions based on our separate points of view.

At one point, I could have easily killed my buddy without realizing it, and my friends watched with bated breath. Another time, the audience watched my friend solve his task when I screamed over Discord chat, causing a stampede over to my point-of-view stream.

Man of Medan has enough downtime that we would excitedly chat between tasks and speculate as to the mystery unfolding on the ship. Our friends would comment on the clues we found, and we’d stop after every near-death disaster to decompress a little and laugh about how badly things could have gone. I’ve used the term “movie night” a lot to describe the experience, but we were both audience and director, and it proved to be a wonderful excuse to get on the horn with a few friends and spend four hours getting scared together.

While the follow-up Anthology game Little Hope spoils the fun with a terrible ending, Man of Medan is still worth your time as an interactive split-screen movie night experience. —Cass Marshall

Fallout 76: Steel Dawn

Bethesda has been patching and overhauling Fallout 76 since its 2018 launch, and there’s no online game that fits the same niche. Imagine if Animal Crossing: New Horizons allowed players to leave their cozy island abodes to go stab giant sloths in an overgrown swamp, or visit a city full of raiders and set up a heist on a government vault with a ragtag group of bad guys. That’s basically Fallout 76.

Appalachia is a big, open world with lots to explore, and going through the game with a friend or two makes it more fun. Even when the game was in its earliest state, my friends and I would make our own fun by combing through a school, mowing down ghouls, and splitting up the springs and caps among ourselves. There’s much more to do in the game now: daily operations, quests in the world, cannibal hotels, quest chains, and NPCs to meet and romance.

Even at its most action-packed, one of the things I treasure most about Fallout 76 is how it provides an avenue to shoot the shit with my fellow players. I’ve had wonderful conversations with friends about love, life, family, tragedy, great TV shows, great books — all while we’re running around pumping ourselves full of stimpaks and murdering raiders. It’s a game that makes for a great excuse to get online and just hang out, especially if you’re really into the CAMP building scene. There’s nothing like dressing my avatar up and walking down the street to my friend’s elaborate manor so I can admire his gardens and enjoy an impromptu jam session on the guitar.

It helps that Fallout 76 has one of the best communities in gaming. In Grand Theft Auto Online, players can get caged by hackers, blown up by flying bikes, or yelled at by rude teens. In Fallout 76, I’m more likely to encounter a helpful pal in Power Armor, a group of hardcore role-players, or a guy dressed as a clown running off into the woods and giggling over his microphone. There’s always something to discover and talk about, even when the game is at its busiest. —CM

Golf With Your Friends

The trick to good social games is to make sure that failure is at least tolerable, and hopefully part of the fun. Deflating some of the sting of losing is important if you want a game people can use to unwind while hanging out with other folks.

Golf With Your Friends is a mini-golf game for up to 12 players, and the controls are easy to learn: You just point the ball in a direction, select the force of your putt, and see how you do. Many holes in the game’s themed courses feel like they’re based on luck and timing as much as skill, so even the best players may find themselves flailing at getting the ball where it needs to go. The game can be frustrating, especially when it comes to the camera’s struggle to take in all the action, but it’s always ridiculous and lighthearted.

Golf With Your Friends may inspire some curse words, but the game is also simple and enjoyable enough to play that it can also fade into the background, allowing people to chat whether they’re playing couch co-op or online. Best of all, Golf With Your Friends emulates a real-world activity that must of us probably haven’t been able to do this year.

A Way Out (only on Game Pass Ultimate, via EA Play)

Who hasn’t wanted to be in a buddy action movie at some point? A Way Out is a two-player co-op story-based game where you have to work with a friend to first escape prison before continuing your adventure as fugitives in the outside world. The game shines brightest when its designers find interesting ways to split up the action, giving both players something to do when conquering each challenge.

“At times, A Way Out feels like a low-budget Uncharted game, in which driving, stealth and combat are paramount. At other times, it’s more like a high-budget narrative game, a kind of walking-together sim, in which the point is simply to discover through exploration,” our review stated. “There’s one especially stunning action sequence in which A Way Out flips from one player to the next, making full use of smart camera work to project urgency as each player fends off pursuers by using windows, drainpipes, air vents and disguises.”

This is one of the best ways to bond with a friend over the holidays, especially if you’re both interested in action movies. A Way Out’s clever use of co-op overcomes the sometimes rote action scenes to create something a little more special than your average co-op game, in which you often do feel like you’re reliant on the other player to move the story ahead. If you want to bond with a buddy, there are few more reliable ways than breaking out of prison together.

Human: Fall Flat

Human: Fall Flat exists in a world of untextured polygons and silly, bendable characters who are trying to do simple tasks to reach the end of each level. For example, you may be asked to create a bridge, or pull yourself onto a ledge, or aim yourself or a friend to land in a particular place after being shot from a catapult. On paper, it doesn’t sound hard.

But in action, you’ll always be fighting the imprecise controls and janky physics of the game’s world, and it’s in that barely controllable chaos where much of the game’s fun will be found. Figuring out what you need to do next is the easy part, but actually doing whatever that is — especially when working with up to eight players online — becomes an enjoyably finicky exercise in triumph or frustration.

It’s easier to forgive someone else’s mistakes when you’re also having issues doing the most basic things, and achieving something simple together feels amazing if you’ve both been struggling for a few attempts. The stakes are incredibly low here, down to the fact that falling off the side of the world only means you’ll fall back onto the same world from above so you can take another crack at it.

Human: Fall Flat does for basic co-op actions what QWOP did for running in a straight line, and the result remains one of the more oddly engrossing co-op experiences on Game Pass.

The Jackbox Party Pack 4

The Jackbox Party Pack series is like a portable game show wherein you and your friends — and anyone watching at home, if you’re streaming — can compete for points and bragging rights in a selection of silly multiplayer games. The presentation of each game, complete with effusive voice-over work by the host, is top-notch, and each one relies on a different series of skills, a different kind of knowledge, or just luck. In other words, it’s very hard to find a player who can dominate in all of the package’s five competitive games.

One of the “secrets” behind the success of the Jackbox Party Packs is the clever way in which they use a central display to give information to the players. Anyone can play by connecting to the game through a web interface on a phone, tablet, or computer. There’s technically no online multiplayer, but all you have to do to play with others online is stream from the system running the game, and anyone can play along remotely.

Get as R-rated or keep things as family-friendly as you’d like, get good at guessing or get creative at lying, and learn to play against the people you’re with as much as the game itself — and you just may win a round or two of this diverse selection of games. It’s a shame there’s only one Jackbox release on Game Pass as of this writing, but any entry in the series is a welcome addition to the service. The selection of games included in The Jackbox Party Pack 4 is nicely diversified, including an entry in the fan-favorite Fibbage series, in which writing believable lies is the key to success, as players must try to choose the truth among them.

Sea of Thieves

Sea of Thieves is a giant pirate-themed sandbox with piles of nautical activities. It’s a game where you can fish peacefully on the shores of an island, listening to the waves lap gently at your feet, watching the sun set on the horizon. It’s also a game where you and your friends can be sandwiched between a hostile galleon raining scores of cannonballs into your hull and a giant megalodon gnashing its teeth, preparing to take a big chomp out of you.

You know, whatever floats your boat.

Upon starting a fresh session at an outpost, a crew can pick a voyage of their choice, and set out to complete it. It’s rare that we go directly from point A to point B, though. A lot of the fun in Sea of Thieves is the diversions along the way, whether that’s another crew, a Reaper’s Chest spawning on the other side of the map, or a kraken suddenly appearing beneath your ship. Every other pirate ship is crewed by human players, but Rare has added monster ships to the game as well; these are derelict vessels crewed by skeletons, or spectral ghost ships that use screaming wraiths as projectiles.

There are two things that make Sea of Thieves better with friends. One, there is no grind, and the only rewards players can earn are cosmetic. Two, there’s a lot of built-in downtime. Players spend so much time sailing across the map, watching the winds and adjusting their sails. These are the times that I’ve had the most fun in the game.

As we travel, my friends and I fish or play elaborate sea shanties together with our in-game musical instruments. We joke, chat, and laugh about our lives. We’ve spent hours upon the seas together, and watched the islands build up to support new forts, threats, characters, and mysteries. For me, the most important ship in Sea of Thieves will always be friendship. —CM

Heave Ho (PC only)

You’re a head connected to two arms in Heave Ho, and you have to work together with up to three other people to reach the goal of each level while avoiding the hazards, including the ever-present fall into the abyss. You can move your little cartoon arms around and adjust your weight slightly with the analog stick, and there’s a button to hold down for each hand whenever you want to grab onto something. That’s all you need to remember, but it’s enough to create absolute chaos in the heat of the moment.

The challenge comes from communicating who needs to grab onto which part of the level and who should swing to the next platform, as well as trying to organize the proper times to grab someone or something and when to let them go. It’s as simple as things get, mechanically and visually.

It’s also bursting with personality and fun. You can customize your little character to stand apart from everyone else, and leaving the bounds of each screen means that blood is sprayed back onto the level from where you exited from view, as if you’re surrounded by spinning blades waiting to turn you into a milkshake. The sights, sounds, and little expressions from the characters — on top of the optional minigames to be found in the levels — are more than enough to turn a basic idea into an experience that will either bring people closer or tear them apart, depending on how good they are at listening to instructions or offering forgiveness when Josh misses his cue to fling you over the spikes, not directly into them.

Get your shit together, Josh.

Wilmot’s Warehouse

Wilmot’s Warehouse is much like Tetris: It asks you to create order out of chaos by organizing items in your warehouse. The problem is that coming up with a system that helps you organize, store, and collect all the necessary items is hard as hell.

“A shipment might come in with some red apples, a handful of trumpets, and an object that looks like a gate from a Japanese garden,” Jeff Ramos wrote in our review. “Based on that, it makes sense to make a section of the warehouse for food, another for musical instruments, and finally a spot for outdoor decorations. I make three piles near the back of the warehouse so I can deliver the items as quickly as possible, which is how I earn stars that I can spend on upgrades like the ability to do a quick dash to move faster.”

Things only get harder from there. “My next shipment has a symbol that looks like a skyscraper and another that looks like bricks,” Ramos explained. “By association I put them near the Japanese gate and consider that section for anything related to physical spaces. I also get green apples, which naturally go near the red apples. But then I receive some martinis and pills, which throw me for a loop.”

Trying to do all this while also communicating with another player as you both pile items together or bring the correct thing out is even more stressful. But you’re sharing the burden and working together to try to make the process easier for everyone. It’s a very satisfying task, especially when you and your partner find a rhythm that works for you. Organizing the warehouse is a job that feels impossible, but it’s all just a matter of teamwork and communication.

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