I want to talk a little bit about co-operative gameplay and what it means to me, what makes it unique from all other video game systems, and why I think it is poised to make a strong resurgence into the gaming sphere and possibly beyond (and likely already has). I have been finished with game development on our latest project for a few days now and have had some time to meditate on gaming and my own aspirations in the field, so beware: this might get nuts.
My infatuation with co-operative gameplay runs deep. Very deep. My SynerSteel fellows can attest to the fact that it goes beyond infatuation for me. It is a full-on obsession. And this obsession goes back to my early childhood when, like a lot of early 90’s nerd-children that I knew, life in the lower-middle class was difficult, parents were gone to work 12 hours a day, and I hated sports and socializing. I always preferred to stay inside during the day and read books, or go outside at night to look at the moon through my telescope. But the majority of my time was spent playing video games with my brother Nicholas. Although I preferred my alone time, I grew extremely close to my brother when our parents bought us a Sega Genesis with bundled Sonic the Hedgehog 2. This completely changed my life.
This was in 1993 when I was in 3rd grade and Nicholas was only 5 years old, but I will never forget sitting side-by-side with him as I played Sonic and he controlled Tails, and just trying our hardest to get through every level of that game together. An interesting mechanic of Sonic 2 was that the second player (in this case, Nicholas) could cause Tails to fly in the air, enabling Sonic to jump up and grab onto his hands and thus be flown around the level. Certain parts of the levels in Sonic 2 were only accessible this way, and this was very intriguing to me at the time as it was essentially adding a bit of adventure to an otherwise linear side-scrolling platformer.
I didn’t realize these terms and genres existed back then, but I caught the feeling of the mechanic rapidly and afterward playing the game without Nicholas was never up to par.
Over the years we both gradually gravitated toward 2-player co-operative games. X-Men (Genesis, 1993), Forgotten Worlds (Genesis 1990), Alien Storm (Genesis 1990), TMNT: The Hyperstone Heist (Genesis 1992), and one of our all-time favorites and a cult classic: Gunstar Heroes (Genesis 1993). On Christmas a few years later, maybe 1995, we were gifted a Super Nintendo and added a few more co-op games to our collection.
TMNT: Turtles in Time (SNES 1991) and Donkey Kong Country (SNES 1994) were just two of them, but even then the majority of our co-op experiences were on the Genesis. It is most likely a large amount of bias, but the co-op mechanics were better, more diverse, and more numerous on the Genesis. But I’m probably very wrong, as I had a lot more time to devote to Genesis than Nintendo.
Anyways it dawned on me over those years how much I truly preferred time with a partner inside the rulesets of these games. I owned several single-player games in that span of time and beyond, but the two-player moments are my most cherished and best-remembered. The fact is that unless the story of a solo game was extremely detailed or otherwise extraordinary in some other way (Metal Gear Solid, for instance), I simply don’t remember it. All of my potential memories of solo games are overshadowed tremendously by even my most mundane of two-player romps and run-throughs. I don’t particularly know why this is, beyond some random intersection between my own neuropathy and upbringing, but this is simply how it is. Give me Witcher 3 or Left for Dead 2, and I will pick Left for Dead 2 every time. Give me Mass Effect or Streets of Rage, and I’m gonna be looking for my fingerless leather gloves to start crushing some skulls. For the record, I clocked about 5X more playing-time in Mass Effect 3’s Co-Op mode than I did in its single player campaign, and I beat that game three times, start-to-finish.
And don’t get me started on Destiny. I had to hide my Xbox for a year just so I could get work done with SynerSteel. Story-mode (or lack thereof) aside, the devs had the road-map to my soul and I had to drop some chaff to get them off my trail.
But why do I feel like this? Or, rather, what *is* this feeling that overwhelms me when my girlfriend looks over to me and says “let’s play some Tiny Tina: Assault on Dragon’s Keep again…”? The feeling, for me, is the extreme anticipation to write our own story. Allow me to explain a bit.
When you play through a brilliantly written/designed game, like Last of Us for example, you exist within a single-use environment that was molded precisely to elicit the reactions from you that it expects to elicit. Even when it’s done absolutely perfectly, at 10/10 levels (Last of Us, Witcher 3), the story is single-use. This is done by design because, simply put, the developers have to work within the objective confines of the physical universe (not the game’s universe, our universe). There is only so much time in the day and so many developers available and so much efficiency you can get out of a 300-developer studio. Even running flawlessly, every engine loses a lot of its kinetic output to heat, and the same goes with developer studios. Every perfect mountain, every witty one-liner, every normal-mapped suit of armor or shotgun takes X-amount of time and that particular piece is designed to elicit from you, the player, the kind of emotion that you will statistically and probably give back to the game. This is true across the board with all single-player story-driven games, and only begins to get a bit wobbly with the recent uptick in the “survival” genre, but even survival games have their singular purpose of focusing on the player while the player focuses right back. In other words, this all can get boring fast unless the amount of effort put into those single-use experiences is increased. In Single-Player experiences, there is an endless unbroken feedback loop between the player and the game that wobbles and breaks the more the game developers drop the ball or miss their desired marks. And once the player makes it to the end of that game, the loop is permanently broken. The rest is just tallying the score as the player goes back through the game to try to pick up the pieces she missed the first time, but that original feedback loop is gone.
Adding a second player, or third, or fourth, into any game experience, no matter how intricate the world, immediately sidelines that world and those intricacies in favor of the feedback loop between the two players. Not totally, not completely, but significantly, relative to the strength of the shared bond between the players. When a two-player option is added, and when the players select that option, the loop that was once between player-and-world is now transferred to player-and-player. No matter how silent. No matter how subconscious. This is why Halo is not the same without a co-operative partner. Every other piece of that game remains exactly the same with or without a partner. Voice-overs, weapon loadouts, enemy placement, environment art, sound effects, mountains, trees. The controls are perfectly responsive and the gameplay mechanics remain exactly the same. But when a co-operative partner, your aunt, your sister, your boyfriend, your brother, whoever, drops down next to you and begins co-ordinating flanking strategies with you, negotiating loadouts (“I’ll be Sniper, you grab a Shotgun and go in”), or arguing over who gets to drive the Warthog, the story you are now writing for yourselves is taking the place of the game’s external story written for you. The players are adding meaning to their experience beyond what the developer would have, or could have added. When the co-op aspect is removed it leaves a mammoth void, and every experience after that is lessened in emotional value.
That’s how you can approximate the impact of co-operative play. Add it, then remove it, and see what happens. This is true for Halo, as it is for MineCraft, as it is for Diablo. The largest developer team on the planet cannot give a better experience to two people than they can give themselves within any given ruleset. A well-written narrative is fantastic, side quests are very fun, beautiful aesthetics are useful, and single-player games can be breathtaking masterpieces, but co-operation lends an infinitely complex and emergent experience that cannot be designed. The best games in almost all metrics are multiplayer experiences, most of them co-operative (two decades of chart-topping MMO’s anyone?), and this is not incidental.
And this leads to my final point. Co-operative gameplay is bubbling right beneath the surface of the current “Indie Boom” in the mid 2010’s. Every Reddit “r/gaming” thread consistently has people requesting or pining for more co-op in games, most of whom specifically desire a return to couch co-op for consoles. Once developers at large begin to take better notice of this and learn how to take better advantage of the video game medium for emergent co-operative gameplay, I predict we will see co-operative gaming growing ever-closer to the forefront of video gaming. Large open universes built boldly and beautifully by hundreds of brilliant developers, universes not unlike Elite: Dangerous, or the upcoming Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky games, with mechanics that enable even greater precision, communication, and interaction between its inhabitants so that they can forge bonds and write stories between themselves that no developer can chisel into stone. We are poised on the edge of a video game revolution. Perhaps the advent of true VR technology like the Oculus will open the floodgates. Perhaps it will be indie studios like SynerSteel and others who will study the field and help usher in this change. Who knows.
All I know myself is that the greatest memories of my life are of sitting on a bare carpet floor with my brother navigating the blue pixel skies of a video game, discovering the world together. It would give me no greater pleasure, no greater honor in my life than to enable two more siblings to share the same. And I cannot write that for them. We cannot write that for them. Only they can.
Keep playing and keep sharing.