Good Co-Op, Bad Co-Op – what exactly is co-operative play?

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Modern co-op gameplay tends to bring to mind voice chat headsets, paid subscriptions and getting cussed by teenaged strangers. It doesn’t have to be that way. The co-operative experience is as varied as the people who play games, and can be wonderfully satisfying in many forms.

I probably represent a very niche market. I’m a woman with a full-time, demanding job, and a fairly main hobby of mine is playing console games. I’m married to another woman who plays even more games than I do (and much better than I do, darling). She’s player 1, I’m player 2. I’m Tails to her Sonic. Fettel to her Point Man.

I don’t have the time or patience to develop a thriving list of online contacts to play games with. If you’re in the same boat, pull up a beanbag and let’s play.

Like many couples, we look for games we can play together. I’m not beyond watching her play through a particularly juicy 1P title, but we have the most fun when we can take up controllers as a pair and lay down some smack. It’s become such a habit for us that we trawl Co-optimus for titles earmarked as sofa or couch co-op and buy them on release.

I don’t really want to lift the rug on the online co-op world too much. I’m no expert on it. It is a dark and stormy place that we avoid, because, well: a woman in group online play is often met with derision, double that and add in the fact that we’re married and it’s derision squared. When we got free XBox Live Gold for a weekend we were treated to an incredulous 14-year-old American boy feverishly shrieking “ARE YOU BRITISH? ARE YOU LESBEENZ??” like he’d won some kind of pubescent lottery.* Plus, as adult women we don’t have many friends who game as often as we do. Our friend lists are pitifully short.

But I love the atmosphere of sofa co-op play. Cursing and rowing over the puzzles in Portal 2′s co-op mode. High five-ing each other and coming up with utterly obscene trash talk that we crow at the telly. It brings back memories of youthful times, where playing a game together pretty much meant going round to someone’s house. Shooting the breeze while pummelling LEGO scenery into a million pieces brings us together where 60 hour first person shooters, though satisfying, leave the other person mooning about on their own. Difficult in a small flat.

I’m still the the kind of player who needs a bit of help. I can’t cut it next to my wife on first person shooter games, and I get very little joy from trying – even on easy. I dislike playing titles like Gears of War or Halo because they demand skills which I don’t feel motivated to pick up, probably because I find the games humourless and samey. I also don’t care for characters who are clearly designed for newbs, tokens to keep them quiet while player 1 rips through the scenery. Don’t just turn everything down to 1 for me and have my partner play at 11. Making it easy doesn’t make it satisfying; that’s boring for everybody.

Of course, I love a character who has separate and complimentary abilities that don’t require the same amount of dexterity and experience as P1 (see the deliciously insane Paxton Fettel in F.3.A.R. for an example). But these are few and far between on Xbox 360 and PS3. (In fact, if you know of any that you’d recommend, please comment!) For developers, I represent is a small percentage of their player base. And yet I’m willing to bet most people don’t have someone of equal ability who is going to play through a whole game with them – certainly not in their house.

I was really interested to discover the recently relaunched Ask About Games this week, which encourages families to make informed decisions about game playing in the home. I love the images of average families tucking into some 4-player DS together like they were enjoying a family meal. As parents are encouraged to buy in to co-gaming with their children, maybe we’ll see a swing to more sofa co-op titles for players with multiple skill levels across all consoles, and a future where families will consider playing games together the same as breaking out a board game or watching a film.

Peripherals like the Kinect are breaking down the barriers for group play, but removing the controller severely limits the range of games you can enjoy all together in the traditional sense of multiplayer. You’re still faced with the moment of graduation to a game with complex controls, and and up freaking out while your character spins round on the spot shooting at their feet.

You don’t all have to have a controller in your hand to have a co-operative gaming experience. I came up watching my Dad play games like Donald Duck: Quackshot on the Mega Drive (yeah, badass), helping him remember which ammo to use where and when to jump to avoid baddies. My 11-year-old sister-in-law was telling me the other day that she wanted to join Caesar’s Legion in Fallout: New Vegas because it has a different narrative tree that she hasn’t seen before – she’s the evil mastermind/architect of her Dad’s save file. Another sister-in-law used to watch my wife play Bioshock and would not only decide whether to harvest or save each Little Sister, she would also groan, “No! No! No, no!” in time with the Little Sister as you did it. Creepy. But genius. To them, it’s way more interesting to watch a game being played than a film.

I would encourage anyone to engage in longer co-op campaigns than the occasional party mode Rock Band session. Arrange to meet with friends and play through a title over a few weeks, or grab a housemate/family member and make decisions in the games together. Pick a game that anyone can play – especially easy if you’ve got a Wii. If you want good co-op, look for sofa co-op games that level the playing field for both players rather than trying to squeeze 2-player entertainment from titles that can’t afford to offer real quality. For your 60+ hour solo campaigns, there are plenty of games with stories worth watching. I recommend giving your sofa buddy the power of life and death at your elbow.

*This is stereotyped and complained about to the point of seeming like it shouldn’t be true anymore, but every single experience I’ve had bears it out. Except of course for Journey, which tore up the book on how you work with another player by firstly silencing them and secondly removing any possible opportunity for them to kill you.

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