Kiwis are hardly the first candidates that come to mind for a post office gig. The flightless birds have a wingspan of around one inch, useless for any sort of manual labour, and a brain the size of a walnut, which isn't exactly ideal in the fast-paced, sensory overload of the modern working environment.
Jeff and Debra, the two playable stars of KeyWe, must hold exceptional resumes to have been hired at the mailroom of Bungalow Basin, then, in which Stonewheat & Sons' co-op caper takes place, but animator Joel Davis suggests the pair's unique taxonomy is exactly what makes them the perfect protagonists for keeping players entertained and amused.
"We liked the idea of postal birds who couldn’t fly," he tells GamesRadar+ ahead of KeyWe's appearance at the Future Games Show. "One of us drew a picture of a kiwi wearing a headset, and a few minutes later we’d decided on a co-op game with two little birds sending telegrams by typing with their butts. We loved all the funny questions it implied – where is this post office? Do they get paid? Who are their coworkers?"
KeyWe won't necessarily answer all of those perfectly legitimate questions, but it does promise to make you laugh and fawn over its adorably absurd conceit, and perhaps even help you reconnect with a friend or loved one in the process.
Pass the parcel
KeyWe's levels, playable with another friend either online or via local couch co-op, are each centred around different aspects of the New Zealand-set post office; one moment you might be ground pounding a typewriter to send telegrams, in another you'll be in the shipping room, making sure various parcels make it to the right recipient. The game's controls are intentionally simple, limited to simple navigation and interaction mechanics, as Davis explains the studio's intention to make a game that was easy to pick up and play from the get to.
"We knew pretty early that we wanted KeyWe to be accessible to families, and for parents and kids to be able to play together," he says. "We weren’t going for the super stressful, pull-out-your-hair, relationship-destroying chaos that can happen in some other co-op games. At the same time, we still wanted KeyWe to feel fast-paced and energetic, and to offer a solid challenge for players who wanted it. It’s really hard to have a one-size-fits-all difficulty, so our goal was to let players pursue the challenge level they want."
Davis points to KeyWe's ranked scoring system as an example of that balance. Players can experience the whole game even by passing the baseline Apprentice score on each level, but if you're hoping to achieve Postmaster rank for some extra rewards, you'll need to beat the set time threshold by mastering your dash ability, familiarising yourself with the environment of every stage, and co-ordinating with your partner to ensure that not a single second is wasted. Speaking of partners, you can also play KeyWe solo if you'd prefer, which – according to Davis – Stonewheat & Sons has included as a "totally valid way to play, and not an afterthought".
"Sometimes you don’t have someone to play with, and we knew we’d be excluding a lot of people if we made KeyWe two-player only. We have a 'hot swap' mode where you can switch back and forth between Jeff and Debra, which is how we typically play when playtesting alone. There's also a 'dual wield' mode where you can control both simultaneously, which is kind of its own mind-bending coordination challenge. We think both are a lot of fun, and hope our single-player pals out there do too."
Starting life as a hypothetical idea from the Global Game Jam a few years ago, KeyWe has since risen from the PC indie scene to become a hotly anticipated co-op experience now hitting PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Series X/S, and Nintendo Switch. It helps that the game is immediately appealing to the eyes, with a cutesy, colourful art style ensuring that various gifs of Debra and Jeff in action are all but destined to bounce around social media every few weeks. For Stonewheat & Sons, bringing KeyWe to each of these platforms has been a unique challenge all of its own, as Davis elaborates.
"It’s a big task, and certainly one that the three of us couldn't have taken on alone," he admits. "Sometimes, a technical or art solution that works for one platform isn’t as feasible for another, or a bug isn’t reproducible on console – there’s a lot to keep track of. Working with our publisher Sold Out, and partnering with an awesome team of engineers at Huey Games has been a huge learning experience, and we’re very grateful to have had the resources and support to make it happen. We’re putting a lot of work into making KeyWe look and feel as good as it can on every platform."
Keys to success
So, where do Jeff and Debra see themselves at this post office in five years? Davis stops short of revealing any potential post-launch plans for KeyWe, but doesn't rule out the prospect entirely: "We do have a ton of ideas about where Jeff and Debra’s postal adventures might take them, in Bungalow Basin and beyond, and we'd love to explore those someday."
"Long-term, we hope people connect with KeyWe as a warm, lighthearted, welcoming game that they return to with fondness, or break out to share with a friend. With so many games out there nowadays, in the years after launch we also hope it continues to be something fun that people stumble upon for the first time and makes them smile."
Regardless of how fit for office these two flightless birds may be (it's unclear how long the probation period lasts at Bungalow Basin), it's safe to say they've already filled part of the job description that Davis describes. Jeff and Debra have been making people smile ever since KeyWe was first revealed to the world, and it's hard to foresee a future without their joyous presence anytime soon.