We can be a fickle bunch sometimes, us gamers. No sooner has a new style or game mechanic become all-the-rage than we grow weary of it and start to regard it with the sort of scornful scowl normally reserved for a parent at a birthday party. You know: the kind of goofy dad who needs to drink up and leave so that the rest of us can kick back and start having a good time. Right now, cooperative play is enjoying a certain flavor-of-the-month status and developers are falling over themselves to include it in their games, even to the extent – in some cases – that it takes priority over single-player gameplay in terms of design theory and development time. Not too many complaints have been heard just yet but is it possible that co-op might soon go the way of previous fads like (cover your ears, kids) the dreaded “QTE”?
Comparing the joys of cooperative play to the humble and often ridiculed QTE might seem a stretch at first. The ability to play cooperatively with our friends gives some games a whole extra dimension of fun. Who can forget, for example, their first glorious blast through Left 4 Dead with three chums in tow and the joyful sense of sweaty euphoria it no doubt delivered? Then again, it wasn’t so long ago that devs were itching to spice up their cutscenes with arguably pointless milliseconds of interactivity and we were happily lapping it up, seemingly having forgotten that we’d realized instantly upon playing Dragon’s Lair in 1983 that QTEs were as dull as scripted dishwater.
The trouble is that this is an industry with a tendency to gorge itself. “Everything in moderation” might be a sensible maxim but we’re all hedonists at heart and the publishers know it. If something fresh is introduced and the gaming public gives it the thumbs-up, you can bet your bottom dollar that the idea will rocket from novelty to near-ubiquity before you can shout “MOTION CONTROL!”
Sega’s much-loved and much-debated Shenmue was one of the first titles to popularize the Quick Time Event technique, although the roots of QTEs go all the way back to 1983 and possibly beyond. By the time of Treyarch’s ill-fated Call of Duty 3 in 2006, QTEs seemed to be everywhere and gamers were starting to get bored. We appeared to have reached the general consensus that if the cinematic spectacle of wrestling a German soldier to the ground moments before he sticks a knife in your face had to be marred by a big flashing X button, the compromise between drama and interactivity just wasn’t worth it. After all, if we didn’t want to dispatch the heinous Nazi ourselves, we may as well go and watch Saving Private Ryan.
Of course, a more detailed look at this phenomenon of gaming fads might suggest that what we’re dealing with here is a cyclical system of tastes rather than a series of simple rises and falls. When GTA popularized the concept of sandbox gameplay, linearity suddenly became a dirty word and anything that wasn’t open-world was regarded by many as not only intolerably dull but as belonging to a bygone era. Sure, many of us had a great time with the plethora of open-world games thrust onto the marketplace, whether we were running down hookers in Vice City, crashing helicopters in Stilwater or chatting up dark elves in Tamriel. But even amongst those of us with a fondness for messing around in a sandbox, there must have been at times a longing for a few more great new linear games to play, with all the drama and precision that an open world necessarily removes.
Over the last couple of years we have seen this trend begin to reverse a little. Back in 2006, the aforementioned Call of Duty 3 might have drawn criticism from some reviewers for its unrelenting linearity but by the time Alone in the Dark surfaced in 2008, we were starting to question whether everything had to be set in an open world. After all, some games just don’t work as well in a sandbox as they would in a linear game world. Edward Carnby’s comeback might have contained more bugs than an obsessive hoarder’s butterfly collection but the inclusion of a dreary recreation of Central Park and the necessity of trudging around it in your choice of cack-handed car certainly didn’t help matters. Indeed, survival horror fans might be forgiven for offering a silent prayer of thanks to Remedy for having the sense to ditch their previous plans to dilute any chance of exciting pacing and suspense in Alan Wake by throwing open the borders of its levels.
So what now for co-op? Is the gaming public starting to tire of it? After all, you might argue that it is beginning to spread uncontrollably into games that would be better off without it. Sure, Left 4 Dead was a lot of fun but the co-op mechanic was at its heart as its very raison d’être. Did Resident Evil 5 really benefit from the co-op craze? Or would we rather forego the opportunity to clumsily stumble around Africa with a buddy in tow in return for the promise that we just might be able to enjoy the game as we always did before: on our own, without a tediously incompetent AI sidekick wasting our ammo and expecting us to yell appreciative inanities with a bash of the B button?
In recent years, many of the biggest franchises in gaming have succumbed to the co-op craze. Activision has begun to incorporate co-op to a greater extent than ever in their behemoth CoD series whilst the single player campaigns churned out by both Treyarch and Infinity Ward have grown ever shorter. Lost Planet provided decent value-for-money to lone players with its extensive main campaign as well as a tasty slab of online multiplayer goodness. But will Capcom’s insistence on building the upcoming sequel around an admittedly intriguing four-player co-op mechanic leave their devs short on time and resources to flesh out other areas of the game? Whilst Gears of War and Halo might have been successful in offering a slick co-op story experience on a par with strictly single-player shooters, other titles haven’t quite cut the mustard. Playing Saints Row 2 or Fable 2 with a friend at your side might have sounded a good idea in principle but it seems doubtful that too many gamers were hugely enamored of the rather broken experiences offered by both games after a lot of big promises and a fortune spent on PR.
Left 4 Dead wasn’t the first co-op title by any means but it was in many ways the start of the current craze for gaming side-by-side. Valve’s stylized zombie massacre was smart in both conception and delivery: it knew exactly how best to stimulate gamers’ oft-neglected ability for teamwork. Crucially, nothing suffered as a result of Valve concentrating on optimizing the collaborative experience because collaborative play was the experience. It’s all very well attempting to give gamers more of what they want but if your game doesn’t lend itself to cooperative play, does it really make sense to sacrifice development time and resources to a pursuit of the zeitgeist? Too many developers, no doubt under pressure from their publishers, seem to think it worth the risk. The question to ask is this: do you reckon Valve will try to shoehorn cooperative play into Half Life 2: Episode 3? Of course they won’t – for fear of endangering the drama and intrigue of Gordon Freeman’s masterly tale. Perhaps it’s time for a few other developers to follow Valve’s lead in recognizing where co-op play is best employed as well as where to draw the line. Otherwise we’re in danger of sacrificing the possibility of a suite of games finely tuned to one particular playing experience in favour of a market full of jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none.
What do you think? Is co-op set to go out of fashion or will it run and run?