Co-Op Considered Pleasant

I’ve complained in past posts about the influence of various kinds of multiplayer on my involvement with the narrative/fictions of the video games I’ve played. I haven’t actually played a lot of multiplayer, so my experience is limited to recent playings of things like Red Dead Redemption, Gears of War 2, and, most recently, Kane and Lynch 2. I feel a bit about going on about how playing with others draws me out of the experience I feel like I “should” have, so I wanted to also say some good things.

One thing that I’ve particularly enjoyed about co-op play in both Red Dead Redemption and Kane and Lynch 2 has been its role in a kind of “light socialising” or something along those lines. You ride your horse around, or you shoot various generic bad guys, but all the while you’re chatting to a friend who is sharing the same experience. By and large you end up talking about the specifics of the experience you’re having, either within the fiction (“there’s a guy behind you”) or outside it (“this game it so glitchy”). But there’s something about it that I find very appealing as a way of “hanging out” with one or more friends.

It’s definitely true, in my case, that this chatting and socialising draws me away from experiencing the fiction or the world of the game. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but when I’m talking to someone I know, the game is very strongly positioned as a game we are playing, and not as a world of its own that I can lose myself in. Perhaps it would require me and my co-op partner to role-play the characters? Or perhaps we’d have to not talk to each other at all? But of course that would completely detract from the elements of co-op that I actually enjoy – that of casual conversation in a particular game context.

That I have this experience leads me to believe that others do too, and this leads me to wonder about how the developers of these games actually approach co-operative play. Are they think about the idea that the people playing co-op are likely to be removed from the fiction of their game in important ways? In Kane and Lynch 2 that doesn’t seem to be the case, as the co-op is exactly like the single-player, and presents the narrative and world in the same way. In Red Dead Redemption, on the other hand, I get the impression that there is an awareness of the dissociation from the world of the game – the missions you complete in co-op have the most tenuous of fictional contexts, and are instead more or less entirely focused on the actions you need to perform as a group. This leads them to feel a little like a team sport, rather than a collaborative, fictional world.

Playing co-op and chatting to a friend really appeals to me. I’m not much of one for talking on the phone, for example, but I find talking while playing relaxing and enjoyable, not unlike talking while playing a round of pool, for instance, but perhaps more so because the things you’re doing tend to be rather trivial – not necessarily easy, but trivial – in a way that pool-playing doesn’t quite match (I want to win at pool, importantly). These games create an interesting context for that interaction between people – the “game as world” is backgrounded in favour of the “game as game”, something I’d ordinarily dislike a lot, but in this case find enjoyable.

So the next time you and I talk, it’ll be while we crawl through the jungle with our rifles trained on an enemy camp, or while we carelessly drive our cars around a virtual Manhattan. We can talk of many things, we’ll just go along for the ride.

15 September 2010
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