Imagine you’re delving into a dark labyrinth. You’re exploring the endless hallways, looking for a path leading deeper into the ruin when you’re ambushed by a dozen demons both ahead and behind. You’re certain this is the end… but then you realize your partner was trailing a ways behind you, and by now she should blasting her way through the enemies attacking from the rear. Thus assured, you unsheath your sword and charge on ahead… This is the magic of cooperative gaming.
I find it hard to get into any competitive game (with the exception of Smash Bros). The idea of playing against other people just isn’t as fun as playing alongside them. I tend to find cooperative games much more enjoyable, but it’s a much under-appreciated genre. Before the release of Half-Life, Valve promised cooperative play in the game but never delivered, instead creating only an online deathmatch mode. Now, Sven Co-op, a fan-made mod created for the express purpose of adding that feature is one of the more popular Half-Life mods out there.
Even in the NES days, good cooperative games were at a premium; most multiplayer games were turn-based. River City Ransom was the only simultaneous cooperative game with any appreciable depth. I still wonder why cooperative isn’t a more common genre, though it’s certainly less rare these days. Dynasty Warriors is one example of a very successful cooperative series, while the hugely popular Halo games also have high-quality cooperative play. That said, there hasn’t been a lot of progress in some genres. While Secret of Mana is considered one of the best games on the SNES – largely because of cooperative play – no especially good ARPGs have come out in quite a while. A sad state of affairs for a coop junkie, though Dragon Quest IX should be enjoyable.
The question, of course, is “Why is cooperative gaming so much fun?” The answer may be a bit tricky. It’s fun to share the experience of a game with others, but there’s a fuzzy feeling that’s lost if you’re playing against them. Cooperation builds a sense of camaraderie, while competition can remove that feeling and replace it with tension.
Take the example of one of the better coop selections around: The Halo games. Co-op is fun because there are all kinds of interesting situations and you can devise strategies together; “You distract the enemies and I’ll snipe them from behind”. At the same time, you know that if you happen to die, you can (generally) rely on the other player to help you get back on your feet. Meanwhile, I just can’t enjoy Halo competitive games, because there’s none of the good-natured feeling of cooperation.
Cooperative play is possible in several different genres. Gameplay-wise, action games are the simplest – your ally will probably be covering your back, and you will cover his, with little strategy involved. Action RPG games which allow you to pursue different characters will allow you to plan out strategies; this is particularly evident in PC games like Diablo II – I have had friends make characters incapable of defending themselves that became essential to the party. Strategy games are probably the best for deep-think mode; in a game like Civilization or Alpha Centauri, you can plan out research or expansion well ahead of time, while in an RTS you can pick complementary strategies.
The standard RPG is one of the few genres where this play style seems impossible. I tried Final Fantasy 3/6 cooperatively, and it was terrible. I think the main reason for this is that one person still has control in most situations, so the other player is likely to get bored quickly. One possible solution to this is to have simultaneous mobility in towns a la the Ninja Boy games. Alternatively, split-screen could be an option. A simultaneous-entry ATB style system would streamline battles and keep the game interesting as well. It hasn’t been done yet… but it’s certainly possible.
“But,” you say, “there are MMORPGs with thousands of people you can play alongside!” While these games are enjoyable (usually only if you know other people playing), I would not consider these of the same caliber as normal cooperative games. You just don’t know most of the people you quest with well enough. An exception to this might be guild play, but it’s apparently fairly rare to see a guild that cohesive.
Cooperative play will also make particularly scary games more palatable. Take System Shock 2. I’ve only played the game multiplayer, because its atmosphere and style are on the frightening side. I just was never able to muster the willpower to play it alone. In multiplayer, however, the game becomes a lot more fun – you can still experience the atmosphere as the PDA recordings unfold the plot, but since you aren’t alone, they aren’t as utterly frightening when combined with the bizarre and varied enemies. Exploration is easier, but combat is still intense.
Meanwhile, in a competitive team game like Counter-Strike, you’re playing on a team. I love the cooperative elements – planning out a strategy, picking out complementary weaponry, et cetera – but when it comes to the competition aspect, there is a lot to be desired. Humans are better opponents than computers, but a lot of people have a rough time admitting when they’re beaten, usually leading to complaints of lag or “cheap” strategies. Arguments tend to flare up pretty often as well, generally leading to ill feeling all around. On a lot of servers, it isn’t too long before everyone is hurling more insults than grenades.
Cooperative play is comparatively more serene. Everyone’s working toward the same goal, and in the end everyone wants to work together to beat the crud out of whatever baddie is thrown your way. Even in a game like Crystal Chronicles where each player also has their own goal, the general atmosphere is positive and light-hearted.
Generally, a game played with a friend becomes easier. Even tough games are much simpler when you have someone else covering your back. It’s not very often that cooperative gameplay makes the game a joke, though. It may not be as intense as it normally is, but at the same time you don’t have to be on your toes as much. It makes a game more relaxing and, to me, more fun – in that games are meant to be enjoyed and not just thoroughly beaten.
Despite the increase in cooperative games, there are still myriad untapped genres. What’s holding back cooperative Zelda (though I hear Four Swords was good, 3-d would be even better)? Imagine how much more interesting puzzles could be in even a 2-player system, particularly if each player could explore different areas of a dungeon. How about cooperative Trauma Center or Resident Evil? Control complexity and screen real estate are an issue, but they’re not impossible to overcome, particularly with the emergence of good online play. Even the Action RPG genre hasn’t had any really good cooperative games since Secret of Mana, even though it’s been heralded as one of the best games of the SNES era, in large part because of its excellent coop play.
Cooperative gameplay and the relaxed, laid back feelings of camaraderie that stem from it, have come a long way, but there is still some work left to do. Can’t we all just get along?