Co-Op Considered Harmful?

So I played some co-op levels of Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days this evening. It was definitely a good experience to play through some game with someone else, an antidote to the hours I’ve been putting into Mass Effect of late (actually, I finished that game today). It’s nice to play while talking to someone else, whether you’re talking about the game itself or other, inconsequential things as you proceed through the levels.

One interesting thing, though, is that the game warns you about playing co-op before having played the single-player version of the game’s scenarios. There’s literally a textual warning about this. I found that kind of inspiring, because I tend to agree that playing games with other people, particularly narrative-driven or atmospheric games, can be pretty harmful to the experience.

Harmful in the sense that I generally feel that I don’t get the “target experience” of the dialogue, the plot, the characterisation, and so on. I can’t focus in on the game and listen to what’s happen because I am – quite reasonably – interested in keeping up my side of the conversation. Further, of course, much of the conversation is inevitably about the game, which raises play to a meta level in which you’re not, say, “living” the game, but definitely “only playing” it.

What you end up with, then, is a fun and social way to spend time – perhaps bitching about particular sequences of play, or being amused by glitches, or joking around – but also an experience quite far removed from the world of the game. There’s nothing wrong with that, obviously, but I think it does make the warning Kane and Lynch offers quite reasonable. You do heavily influence your experience of the world by playing in it with someone else. Unless you’re some D&D buddies determined to really immerse in the game, you’re going to be drawn away from fiction and more toward a meta-playing, I feel.

Further, of course, once you’ve played the co-op version, going back and playing the same levels in single player – perhaps in an attempt to regain some of that less meta feeling of play – will now be coloured by having already experiences the levels mechanically. You’ll know what’s going to happen and when, and thus the words and worlding that go on in the game will sound and feel a little hollow. You need the warning because you’re irrevocably changing your experience of the game in a number of important ways that you might want to think twice about.

Maybe it’s like the Neverending Story, with Co-Op being the evil black holes that suck the life out of the beautiful, fictional world.

Maybe not, though. Maybe not.

8 September 2010
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