Co-Op Horror: The Holy Grail

"ObsCure," co-op survival horror game available on Steam

I have enjoyed horror games for as long as I can remember.  As a 32-year-old gamer, countless terrifying nights of Doom, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill sit fondly in my memory.  More recently, Amnesia and Dead Space carry the torch from those early days of digital terror.  There is something extremely seductive about the promise of visceral horror that composes our very genetic makeup, that reaches out to us through eons of evolutionary time, and the greatest artists and designers of our generation have honed that swath of emotion into a knife’s edge of emotional magnetism.  You are either directly attracted to perfectly-toned experiences of horror, or you are immediately repelled by it.  I personally love this black-and-white duality in our species because it is unlike almost any other experience that we have.  You either enjoy being terrified, or you abhor it.  It’s a realm almost completely devoid of nuance, and this is refreshing for someone like me because it’s in those moments of horror when I can relinquish my complex and tangled thought process and just ride the hum of a single wavelength.

Fear.

But there is a problem in the video game world when it comes to horror games.  And that is: there are no co-op experiences in the genre.  Rather, there are attempts, but the experience is always distinctly muted in effect from its single-player counterpart.  So muted, in fact, that I consider those attempts outside of horror altogether, and firmly in the action genre.  I do not count games like Resident Evil 5 and Left 4 Dead, wonderful mechanical experiences as they may be, as “co-op horror games” in the way I count Dead Space as a solo horror game.  In Dead Space I would stand for whole minutes staring through a doorway leading into black oblivion, my Plasma Cutter straight out in front of me as its turquoise laser disappears in the distance, my mind focused and waiting for… something… anything… to pounce as I walk through the doorframe.
 

KEEP IT AWAY!  KEEP IT AWAYYY!

Those minutes spent waiting, tensing, coiled like a spring in a jungle of predatory wildlife hellbent on rending the flesh from my bones, are part-and-parcel of the horror experience and the lifeblood of all horror gamer’s fantasies.  This is in precisely the same way that leveling-up and allocating skillpoints to individualize a character is for any RPG lover.  And I can say, after countless hours in Resident Evil 5, Left 4 Dead (and Left 4 Dead 2), and many others, these experiences rarely, if ever, exist.  They are absolutely wonderful games, and are deserving of all the accolades that they have attained, including the money I’ve paid for them.  But they are decidedly not wonderful co-op horror games.  They are something else, something faster, occupying a much different part of the brain and a much younger version of the human genetic code.  They do not incorporate fear, utter gut-sinking terror, into their gameplay, and I think for reasons that are exclusive to multiplayer.

This area, the elusive “co-op horror” genre, is perhaps the Holy Grail of co-operative experiences.  Every other genre, from sports to racing to rhythm, has achieved enjoyable co-operation with varying degrees of success without removing itself from its own boundaries, all except Horror, which find themselves veering into Action territory.  It is an untapped resource that I am particularly intrigued by because not only do I believe it has yet to be done, but I believe it can be done, AND I believe the time is finally here for game developers to pull it off.

But let's back up and examine the problem a bit.

In an earlier blog post I touched heavily on the focus of immersion in single player experiences, in particular the use of many developer resources to craft a singular world in which a player is devoted.  In this world there are no distractions save for poor game design and bad implementation of mechanics.  If the player can maintain control within the system, and if the system is coherent, then the player becomes invested merely by focusing her attention on the game.  Adding a second player (or more) introduces distraction by fiat, and a large amount of your resources are now muted or outright ignored by the shared story the players intrinsically develop for themselves merely by nature of their communication.  You can see this play out if you've ever played Destiny (or any MMO) by yourself, and then in a group without a headset (no direct communication), and then in a group with a headset (direct voice communication).  There is a gradual-but-obvious shift in focus from the world itself, to the team dynamic, and the shift occurs faster as communication fidelity increases.  The more players can interact with one another, the less they interact with the world.  And this happens in all multiplayer games across the board.

So there's our problem, and it is especially destructive to horror games.  Place two players in a world that requires focus and immersion to be terrifying and it becomes less-so merely by virtue of the dyad.  It tears the experience apart.  The players become distracted by one another's presence and are lifted away from the construct built for them on the screen.  They may even joke around with one another to lighten the mood, and the experience melts away into pure mechanics.

Don't you dare look away...

But what if they couldn't leave the construct?  What if instead of looking over and seeing their friend on the couch, or hearing them clear-as-day through their headset, they looked over and saw a stone wall covered in dried blood?  Or listened intently for their friend but heard only an echoing whisper reverberating through endless hallways?  And what if the louder they spoke to one another, the more difficult the game became… the more creatures stirred in the darkness beyond your flashlight or the flickering flames of your torch?  What if you were there together in a world that you could not ignore?

Enter the Oculus Rift.

Our gear for our holy grail adventure

New technology debuting this year, specifically virtual and augmented reality, blow the doors wide open to the possibility of co-operative horror experiences.  I’m talking true horror, wherein the addition of a second player, or even a dozen players in a haunted moonlit forest thick with fog, do little to lessen the players’ immersion in the designers’ world.  In fact it goes beyond possibility into the realm of probability, in that it will most probably happen, and that in a very short time.  And we can owe this to a little cognitive phenomenon called “Presence.”

Presence, short for “telepresence,” is the trickery played on the human brain to make it believe, utterly and truthfully believe, that it is someplace it is not.  It is a visceral feeling that leaves many people sweating and crying, not from any side-effects like motion sickness, but from the overwhelming emotion of believing they are in a different world altogether.  There are several pieces to the puzzle which must be in place in order to achieve Presence to higher-and-higher degrees, to tap deeper-and-deeper into the brain, but the Oculus Rift has so far come the closest to flawless.  There are plenty of examples of how superb the immersion has become with this cutting edge technology, and as it becomes cheaper and more ubiquitous, game designers and developers will take greater risks with greater rewards for the players.

In virtual reality, there is no screen.  You cannot turn your head to distract yourself from the experience, and the sound effects and voices in your ears are filtered (or able to be filtered) through augmentation to make your partners sound somewhere else entirely.  To give you an example of how terrifying Presence can be in a horror game, Ben Kuchera of Polygon wrote a beautiful review of Alien: Isolation’s Oculus Rift mode, and he literally titled the article “An Hour In Hell”, at one point writing:

 You can't look away from the TV to remind yourself that you're back in your house and not in space, because turning your head just means you're looking at the wall. Having to flick your eyes from your motion tracker from time to time to make sure nothing is creeping up on you means you can't always be watching what's in front of you, and the near panic of trying to find the alien when you have a ping can be overpowering.”

If this isn’t enough to get your mind wandering at the possibilities, I don’t know what will.  Horror-based co-operative games are the Holy Grail of co-op, and I’d bet real money that it’s about to be found at last.

But why am I so obsessed with Horror-based co-op?  Because it is the deepest level of co-operation that humanity can ever, and has ever, attained.  When we are alone we are terrified, and when we are terrified we seek companionship to combat the fear because there is strength in numbers.  The more real the terror becomes, the stronger the bond between the people needs to be in order to combat it.  The better their communication, the more efficient their movements, the smarter their decisions.  Everything about survival in a terrifying environment is substantially heavier and requires more skill, more teamwork.  One player will not go gung-ho, guns blazing because he will be terrified to do so, because it taps directly into that part of the cerebellum that makes him believe that he should be terrified.  There is no camping in that world.  There is no kill-stealing, no hack-and-slash.  There is only crying, shrieking, and rubber diapers.  There is no comparison to this experience I’m describing because no horror-based co-operative experience is yet sufficient.  But I firmly believe that co-op games in this genre will not only break the mold, but they will be the co-op games of the near-future.

If you do not believe me, keep your eyes on SynerSteel.  You may be pleasantly terrified…

Keep gaming,

~Anthony