Sharing is Caring
Think of your most important multi-player game experience over the years. How you define “important” is up to you. It could be most exciting, most enjoyable, most intimate, most eye-opening, or most something else positive that I haven’t mentioned. Who was there? How many people were there? Which game were you playing? How long ago was it? But, most importantly for this discussion, how many controllers were there?
I recently began playing through Red Dead Redemption again. It wasn’t long before my roommate plopped down on the couch next to me and asked me what I was playing. He had heard of RDR but had never seen it being played before, so he sat and watched me play for a few hours. We both laughed at the comical characters and exclaimed at the stressful parts. We experienced the game together although he was only spectating. Sure, he wasn’t physically pressing buttons to make the player move, but he was helping me make decisions. And, most of the time, I’d do what he asked me to. Could we consider this a form of cooperative multiplayer?
After all, there are a lot of people who post playthroughs of games online, and they receive many views. The player enjoys sharing their experience with others, and the viewers enjoy piggy-backing on the player’s experience. Since games are an incomplete art form without the player, the viewers can experience the art being completed without needing to play it themselves.
See, a long time ago in a galaxy that is exactly this one, co-op gaming didn’t exist. Well, at least it didn’t exist the way it does today. Super Mario 3 was the first game I can remember playing with someone. It’s a take-turns version of co-op, but I think it still technically qualifies as co-op since each player is working toward achieving the same goal of unlocking the path to the castle. (I understand Super Mario 3 also had scores which represented a competitive component as well.) The more modern understanding of co-op is two (or more) people playing simultaneously in order to achieve the same goal. It wasn’t until recently (for me, the Halo: Combat Evolved) that this simultaneous version of co-op had made its appearance.
I can remember going over my friend’s house, putting in Silent Hill 2 (along with many other games), and playing it together by passing the controller back and forth. This rarely happens anymore thanks to modern co-op, but it’s something I miss. The two of us shared the exact same victories, the exact same curiosity, the exact same surprises, the exact same fears, and we completed the game together.
At certain moments in Silent Hill 2, a new monster would appear and scare the @!#$ out of us. Some giant, demon, baby face with tyrannosaurus legs would peek at us from around the corner and start charging. This nearly always prompted whomever was playing to pause the game and throw the controller at the person on deck. Sometimes “I’m not playing this part. It’s too scary.” was a comment made. (I could get into a whole new talk about how cool that quote is.) In other games it was “I can’t beat this part”.
But, no matter what the reason for sharing a controller like that was, I feel like it was usually a more intimate experience than playing a co-op game with two controllers. When playing simultaneously, it always feels like the other person has too much of their own thing going on to be able to experience the same exact emotions I am. Maybe it’s just me, but when I play Gears of War (I haven’t played 3 yet… yet!) co-op with someone, even a friend of mine, it’s difficult for me to keep up with everything they’re doing. I’m constantly preoccupied with keeping myself alive and gunning down enemies. The most interaction I normally have with my friend is if I get lost and forget which direction I’m going, or if there is a split path which requires one person to help the other out. (The first game did a much better job at the split paths than the second, imho.)
Gears of War is a series designed specifically to accommodate modern co-op well. The characters talk back and forth to one another creating the illusion that the characters are paying attention to one another. (The game/characters will always do a better job at that than humans will.) When an ally goes “down”, you or one of the NPCs will need to rush over to your “downed” teammate and help them up. This promotes teamwork, but why doesn’t the combat? I still feel like I’m playing my own game next to someone else who is playing their own game.
The squad based combat ruins the very thing that modern co-op gaming was created for. NPCs are programmed to take the exact same role your friend would if they were playing in game. Because of this, it’s hard to tell how your friend is contributing since it doesn’t look or feel any different than when you were playing alone.
It’s not very rewarding to play co-op when your experience is exactly the same as playing solo. Proof of this to me is when I was playing on xbl with a friend and he said “Alright, I’m back” out of the blue. I had no idea he had even left. Tell me thats never happened to you.
Even Halo: Combat Evolved allowed for some turn-based gameplay. Come on. We’ve all done the “I’m gonna stay back here while you go and clear the room out so when you die you’ll just come back to me.” thing. It was a cheat, but admit it, some part of you enjoyed sitting and watching your friend play. Unlike GoW, H:CE was more of an experiment in modern co-op than a “polishing” of it.
You had your own thing to do in H:CE, but I feel like it was easier to interact with one another. I think a lot of this had to do with the well executed pacing of the game. You weren’t constantly bombarded with enemy wave one after another, but were instead met with exploration in between waves. The balance of combat and exploration is what makes the game enjoyable for longer. Too much of one, and the excess becomes stale quickly. But, I suppose that rule is true for playing solo as well.
In short, I’m torn. I think that co-op gameplay could be just as rewarding as “pass the torch” gameplay, but there are very few good examples of this. Am I missing something, or is the old school co-op just more rewarding? Did adding a second controller for campaigns help us enjoy a game together more, or did it separate us?