Friday, September 25, 2009

Plays Well With Others

I have always thought of myself as a solitary gamer. The mental image of playing a video game elicits a similar feeling as the mental image of reading a book.

However, I can feel the ideological ground shift beneath me. Co-op gaming has ruptured my self-styled image of as a "lone wolf" gamer, and I fear I am becoming dependent on the company of others, regardless of what game I am playing. Our story starts in the wild, wild West.

As we discussed in our last podcast, neither Jorge nor I enjoyed Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. In addition to its numerous mechanical quirks and its many thematic cliches, the game seemed to taunt us with the fact that we could not play it together. The addition of a co-op mode would probably have left us with a much more favorable impression, even if every flawed aspect of the game was left intact.

The genius of co-op is that it can be fused onto mediocre or rehashed gameplay and serve to make an otherwise underwhelming game engaging. Call of Juarez's cover system was not as fluid as Gears of War's, its control was not as precise as Call of Duty 4's, and its storytelling was not as good as Bioshock's. However, had we been able to play together, the experience of cutting a path of destruction from Appalachia to Mexico would have been something Jorge and I would have talked about for months.

As I write this, I can think of a host of games in which the simple act of including another player within a proven framework drastically increases my interest:

1. Resident Evil 5

In many ways, I consider RE 5 a step back from RE 4 in terms of inventory management, weapon options, and boss battles. Jorge forthrightly asserts he would have never finished the game had he been playing solo. Despite these gripes, fighting against the deadly (but repetitive) zombie horde together has become one of my favorite RE experiences.

2. Scribblenauts

Like many folks in the community, I was perched atop the Scribblenauts bandwagon. I am now back on the ground, smarting from the abrupt blow dealt by reality.

Save for its expansive dictionary, everything that could have gone wrong with that game did: The control scheme falls into the trap of over-utilizing the touch screen. Most of the time the sloppy hit detection and character movement feels like it was implemented as a hasty afterthought. The items rarely interact in the way I expect them to. I thought liquid nitrogen could freeze just about anything, but I guess bears are more resistant to cold than I thought. The puzzles and objectives are exceedingly vague and are liable to be solved more effectively with repetitive, brute force techniques, rather than wit and creativity.

The main reason I am still playing the game is because of a co-op patch Hanah and I created. Elegant in its simplicity, we huddle around the DS and stumble through the game together. My reliance on dragons usually proves less effective than her skill with a fishing rod, but we are making steady progress by doing a couple levels every night.

3. Professor Layton

While word problems, geometric visualization exercises, and jig-saw puzzles remind me of standardized testing, the prospect of sitting down with another player has convinced me that perhaps it is worth a shot. While I am more naturally inclined to get my video game-British-gentleman fix from platforming, perhaps Professor Layton will keep my mind as fit as Sir Hatsworth keeps my thumbs?

4. Army of Two: The 40th Day

I scarcely believe I am writing this, but it just serves to demonstrate how big an influence co-op gaming can have on a game. After hearing rumors and promises that the game will present the players with situations that have multiple solutions, I am hopeful that the game will emphasize actual negotiation between the two players. Theoretically, if a mission to assassinate a Bad Guy can be accomplished by either blowing up a building or by a precise sniper shot, the players must come to a consensus on how important collateral damage is.

Like RE 5, it is the external game dynamics (the interpersonal relationship between the players), rather than the game's internal dynamics that create novelty. While the graphics, story, music, and general "bro-ishness" of the game leaves are cringe-inducing, I cannot help but be interested in how the co-op experience will shape the game.

5. New Super Mario Bros. Wii

Despite one of the most generic titles of all time, this game promises to do something that no other Mario game has ever done: Simultaneous Mario platforming will become a reality.

After playing this game at PAX, I realized that it might better be classified as a "competitively cooperative" game. Players are able to jostle each other for position and snatch items away from one another, but to clear a level, at least one of the four must make it to the end. This means that while griefing Luigi might be hilarious, a player must balance this fun against the cost of potentially spending a 1up that may very well become the difference between seeing the flag pole or seeing the game over screen.

So there you have it: I admit, venturing out of my single-player cave is sometimes a necessity, and many times an enjoyable one. What do you folks think? Do you welcome the apparent rise of co-op gaming? Which (intentional or otherwise) co-op games are looking forward to? What lackluster games have been saved by the addition of more players? How must we change the way we evaluate games now that the experience often depends so heavily on the availability and uniquely personal interaction between players?

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to decompress from all this socializing with a game of solitaire. But then again, I bet co-op solitaire would be pretty fun...


  1. Have you ever played Four Swords Adventures? It was an excellent example of exactly this sort of co-op experience being attached to an already effective single player formula. Too bad it relied upon expensive peripherals...

    Hopefully we'll see a sequel on Wii. If Nintendo insists on making it a portable/console link-up game, at least this time it won't require special cables.

  2. 'Splosion Man is quite fun in the co-operative multiplayer mode. Two player platforming where you really do need to work together: you're only going to get to that high ledge by exploding together; you're only going to get one of you across that acid pool by punting them...

  3. The only interesting thing about Army of Two: The 40th Day is that Alex Hutchinson formerly of EA Maxis went to Ubi Montréal specifically to work on this. He was the lead designer on Sims 2 and gave a great talk on social mechanics at GDC. After seeing that, my interest in 40th Day went from zero to significant.

  4. That's supposed to be "Another interesting thing" not "The only interesting thing." Catty Freudian slip, perhaps?

  5. @David

    Never played Four Swords Adventures, but I always wanted to. As you point out, the hardware requirement was a real barrier to entry.

    I think it's a very cool idea though, especially since Zelda is usually such a solitary experience.


    That actually sounds pretty fun. I'm imagining the line between co-op and griefing hilariously thin.


    Hah, the unintentional burns are always the best! :-)

    I find it really interesting when designers work on hugely different games. Maybe 40th Day will have a "woo-hoo" option?