Those of you who have me on your friends list may have noticed that I’m not on Xbox Live so much these days. Don’t worry – it’s not because I don’t care about you anymore. Despite the wealth of great Xbox games that I have sitting on the shelf and all you guys on BXB crying into your controllers waiting for me, there’s one thing that the 360 just cannot compete with: my best mate.
He has a PS3. He doesn’t have a 360. It’s probably no coincidence that despite owning each current platform, I spend most of my game time on the one console we share. So what is it about friendship that makes me neglect some of the best games of this generation? As good as the 360’s catalogue is, I am increasingly finding pleasure in traversing game worlds with collective objectives. Not with abstract personalities that I only know online, but with real, tangible people.
As in life, the things we do are affirmed and validated through mutual experience. There are all manner of challenges and tasks in the realm of videogames, but conquering them has traditionally been a solitary pursuit. Of course, I’m not forgetting Double Dragon, Gauntlet and the countless other multiplayer games that have always been around. Yet arguably, multiplayer games have often been stripped of any personal perspective, reducing the experience to something akin to conjoined twins.
The sharing of one screen is the most obvious cause. Exploration and interaction are substantially impaired by the single-screen solution; your objectives must always be the same and wandering off the screen is usually punishable by death – in a sense, all players are extensions of the same experience, controlling avatars that are distinct only in appearance rather than functional intent. Like when the Power Rangers join up, but less gay.
Split-screen? Yes, there is that. Ostensibly it offers to accommodate the individual freedom I’ve been talking about, but does it deliver? Not really. It’s a crude solution that, while untangling you from your cohorts, it sacrifices your clarity of vision – not the extra pair of eyes intended, it is often more like sharing a pair between you. This does nothing to help facilitate your suspension of disbelief – since videogames make their connection primarily through visual means, the imposing perspective of another player is detrimental to your own experience.
What’s exciting about modern co-operative games is that the personal experience can be preserved without such compromise. In recent years, co-op gameplay has grown and flourished in the online infrastructure that we now take for granted. MMO-style games in particular show that a game can live beyond the completion of its narrative arc or its value as a technical example of hardware potency, as long as people want to play it together.
On consoles at least, Phantasy Star Online was one of the first games to incorporate traditional personal goals with the option to meet others and work together. You need not have had the same aims – maybe you were after a rare weapon and your team-mates were just levelling up. Maybe they would help you, or maybe they would leave you to fight elsewhere. Despite being a single-player experience of dubious quality, the online mode of play created a narrative of its own.
Following this path, Realtime Worlds showed us what personal and co-operative endeavour could be without any significant narrative at all. While Crackdown followed the lead of Grand Theft Auto in offering a cityscape sandbox, it riskily abandoned the rich but scripted characterisation of Rockstar’s franchise in favour of a purely collaborative and freeform experience. The result was a game which, although requiring more than one player to be truly fun, let you into a world which was at once open to camaraderie, yet very much your own.
That’s not to say that narration is out of place in multiplayer experiences. The Gears of War series and, to a lesser extent, Resident Evil 5 have been successful in marrying a story (the admittedly questionable quality of which is another story in itself) with shared goals. The difficulty is in finding that balance between the constrictive flow of narration and the freedom of a co-operative experience, without compromising on personal choice.
No game has yet achieved this. Marcus and Dom might sometimes take different paths, but they’re never very far apart. What if someone else could play Gears of War simultaneously, but from a completely different perspective? What if someone could play as Dom’s wife? The ultimate co-operative experience is one that imbues the player with a credible and compelling character, yet offers parallel narrative strands for other players, enriching the experience for everyone.
It’s a lofty ambition. Even with the experience and resources behind someone like Infinity Ward, for example, they are neglecting to include co-op play in the next Call of Duty title, Modern Warfare 2. Until there is the bravery and will to commit to co-operative play as the central focus of game design, we will not see its full potential. But who knows: with the likes of Left 4 Dead 2 and many others on the way, that potential may not be so distant.