Monday, September 15, 2008

Coop Mode

The moment I knew videogames would be an integral part of my life for the rest of my life went something like this. My family had recently purchased an NES and my brother had picked up a used copy of Jackal, a 1988 game about a your mission to save your POW compatriots by driving around in a jeep with a machine gun blowing up enemy tanks and the buildings that house your allies. You'd think you could honk for them to come out, but no, you've got to blow their roof to smithereens with a missile. Quite a wake up call.

The game has two-player cooperative mode which me and my brother played obsessively. After long hours of effort we had traversed all six levels, saved countless soldiers, battled many armored fleets and battalions, and made to the final boss. The city itself turned into a giant armored killing machine and only two jeeps stood in its way. Strafing left and right we dodged missiles and bullets and then suddenly my brother's jeep exploded and I was alone against a citadel. With all the concentration and dexterity an eight year old could muster I fought relentless through the bosses many phases and finally came out victorious. With a frenzied battle cry I avenged my brother and rejoiced, probably with a six-pack of Sunny D. What made this moment so memorable was not the stunning graphics, oh no, it was the teamwork involved.

It was the strategic bomb and dash, cover me, veer left, pull back, watch out!, panic attack gameplay of Jackal that I adored. It was all about the cooperative aspects of the game that gave me so much pleasure. Playing through a game with a friend is whole other experience and can make you feel as if you are playing a different game. All of a sudden, legendary mode in Halo 3 becomes a challenge you can actually overcome. What were once frustrations become merely mental obstacles, nothing cooperative planning and team tactics can’t overcome.

Teamwork has long been a part of First-person shooters via LAN or online gameplay. Importing capture the flag from the sunny out doors of childhood into the landmine strewn battlefields of videogames was a genius idea. If we can somehow incorporate monkey bars and four-square into Call of Duty we'd all be the better for it.

However, though I adore multiplayer combat in all sorts of games, there are some important differences between multiplayer mode and cooperative mode. For one, multiplayer combat isn't always cooperative: unruly and uncooperative teammates are often to blame.Most importantly however, cooperative play usually implies participation in what is normally a single-player story campaign.

A friend can get involved in a number of satisfying or terribly unsatisfying ways. Mario Galaxy has cooperative play but if you are not Mario you're a entirely unnecessary star whizzing about the screen at best obeying the commands of whoever is in control and at worst getting in the way. Though it was difficult to get three friends and some hand-helds for The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, the game promoted cooperation and competition alike. Likewise, coop Halo 3 nicely adds that helpful hand, or battle rifle as it may be, to story progression.

Though playing through these cooperative games is a blast, I can't help but notice that coop mode gaming feels artificial to me. I prefer a friend by my side than an incompetent AI, but too often a teammates death will slow my story progression. Their inclusion is also awkward in stories that focus heavily on one characters actions. Without realistically incorporating the addition of another sentient player character into both the gameplay and the story a second participator is distracting and counter-immersive.

But is this even feasible? Can we actually share a story? Well certainly MMOs have incorporated large numbers of players into broad worlds with rich lore. If you're a demophobe, or if you're looking for an in-depth personalized storyline, an MMO just won't do. It's hard to feel special when millions of other players are accomplishing the exact same goal.

What I might need to satisfy my craving for dynamic coop gaming is a story arc with multiple protagonists. Maybe it's a universal desire to be egomaniacal, but games rarely have more than one playable character. I'm sure the reason is a game design issue: if you are on your own, bouncing around multiple characters and environments can be disorienting.

Indigo Prophecy includes a playable cast with significant narrative roles, but the game plays more like a film than a videogame. It would be interesting to see developers innovatively incorporate multiple protagonists into game while maintaining their participation in the narrative. This could lend itself well to cooperative gaming.

In the meantime, there are some hopefully advancements in my cooperative tag-team cage match of a day dream. In Fable II you can give your team-mate the opportunity to participate in your single player environment, making them more than a bench warmer. While they play individually within your shared world, their interactions and decisions will directly effect how your own story can progress. This can even result in soap-opera like drama. If your suave compatriot seduces your wife the protagonist can add alimony bills and maybe drinking problem to his inventory. I love it.

Valve is also rolling out another intriguing game with their uber-cooperative Left 4 Dead. The "4" alludes to the number of players required. I know, clever right? This game is marketed and designed for those itching for a cooperative experience. Supposedly if you don't work together during the inevitable zombie uprising, you're zombie food. From the look of it, covering your pal's flank and blasting them off your fallen allies isn't suggested, it's required, at least if you're hoping for some reciprocity.

In addition, the game features dynamic hordes that react to your group and what valve calls "four" movies in which you participate. Unfortunately, this is likely over-hyped. Valve's Chet Faliszek was quoted saying "We didn't want to have the game gummed up with a story line… It's about killing zombies, not some fable on the reconstruction of humanity."

If developers don't shy away from a challenge, I thinksome amazing stories can be told in a cooperative setting. I'd really like to see if a group of friends or strangers can build a story together, and actually have it mean something. I'd like to come back to this idea of sharing a story next week as well. In the meantime, I'll be trying to imagine what a shared story might look like and whether or not if once created it would be desirable.


  1. So it appears I am determined to not get any work done today, but instead I am enjoying sifting through the Experience Points Archive, specifically, going through your oldest posts dating back to 2008 - as a side note, an early Happy Five-year Anniversary! A very impressive achievement.

    In my perusing, I was intrigued to see this post on co-op mode, as this is something that has also been integral to my gaming experience. I also think it is interesting to think about your comments from five years ago and to consider what progress (if any) has been made since.

    To give a little background, your recounting of your introduction to gaming hit very close to home for me. I am the youngest of four (three girls, one boy) and my brother was desperate for a little brother. Although I am sure he was initially disappointed to have yet another sister, he made do. He got me into video games starting in the 1980s with our NES as well as our awesome 1984 Mac (loved that green screen!) and progressed in the 1990s with our SNES, lots of PC gaming and weekly visits to the arcade.

    Co-op was a staple of our gaming no matter the platform and is a tradition that has continued to this day, most frequently (funnily enough) with good ol’ Left 4 Dead 2. Working together surviving wave after wave of the zombie horde is a typical Sunday evening for us (something I would highly recommend for anyone with an appreciation for a real co-operative experience – for, as you rightly predicted, you will fail if you do not work together).

    In that vein, I found it interesting reading your prediction for the original L4D (as it came out a month after your 2008 post), for although you seemed intrigued you also seemed a little skeptical. Did you end up playing either of the L4D games? Any thoughts five years on?

    One other issue that you raised that jumped out for me was the need for “a story arc with multiple protagonists…[as] games rarely have more than one playable character.” Sadly, even five years on, such games are still somewhat few and far between. This is something that is frustrating for my husband and me, as couch co-op games are the dominant game in our house and it is way more fun when we each have our own character (both of us playing as Master Chief is jarring and quite frankly stupid – Reach worked better in this way). That being said, I do think there has been some progress.

    As you raised, L4D is indeed a good example where each different character has equal footing (same goes for its sequel). I think Gears is also a good example. My husband and I have beaten each of the first three Gears twice and are currently making our way through Judgment, which I think is the best example of what you were hoping for five years ago. There are four playable characters each with a different story. Of course (like all of the Gears games), the game is not perfect, but it is at least a step in the right direction and is certainly an improvement from before. [Confession: I hated being Dom (“Mariaaaaaa!” Harumph!).]

    Anyway, I would very much so be interested to hear your thoughts
    on co-op five years on.

    So, there you have it, another epic post. I promise this won’t
    be the norm, it’s simply the result of my procrastination.

    - Katie

  2. Going back all the way to 2008 to read our writing? You are a brave soul Katie! Turn back now, before it's too late!

    In regards to your comment, I absolutely love the L4D series. I'd go on further, but actually, I think this comment is a good topic for a podcast, so look for that soon!