Friday, September 23, 2011

Thinking: A More Co-operative Future?

I've been playing by myself (quiet at the back there!) a bit more recently since winding down by World of Warcraft time, specifially playing a lot of Deux Ex: Human Revolution,  and I've noticed a marked change in my gaming habits of old. I've lots of fond memories of playing games for hours at a time, lost in some virtual world, but these days after about an hour or so i'm losing my focus. Strangely, with all the co-op gaming i've also been doing - Terraria, Borderlands, Section 8, Sanctum, etc, I've not found that to be the case. Its not a reflection on the game, as DX:HR is fantastic, but I do I really need people to keep me interested. And more the point, isn't that the way it should be?

LFG Hengsha Docks, Needs Hacking, Elbow Swords

Gaming has a reputation in the wider media as being a somewhat anti-social activity. Its raised every time another report comes out saying our kids are too sheltered, or too fat, and it's apparent in the way that the recent drive towards "family" products on games consoles post-Wii are tilted at the allegedly revolutionary idea that people may play games with each other but actually it's not like that at all. The more I've been thinking about it, the more I realise I've been gaming socially for a very long time indeed.

Way back in the day, before we all owned three consoles each and no time to play on them, PCs were rare in my circle of freinds so we tended to end up sharing; huddled around watching and heckling and occasionally trying to "do it better" on the one or two PCs we had available. Even once we started to get jobs and disposable incomes we'd still be largely playing the same games, at the same time, then sitting around and swapping notes and stories when we weren't playing. The periodic LAN parties and massed sessions of Unreal Tournement, Diablo 2 and so on were precursers to the modern internet age and whilst many of strongest gaming memories are of single player experiences, part of the strength of those memories is the shared nature of being able to swap them with people who've had them too.

The point here is that even single player games are social experiences rather than some sad, solitary isolated thing. We talk about them, blog about them, rant about them. Even when they're designed to be something between the player and the game, we take them outside of that direct experience. Being able to play with other people has been around for a long time, but it's often been specialised, or PvP focused, or just plain difficult to make work. Consequently, the more recent innovation of varied and accessible co-op modes in pretty much everything, instead of a being fortunate rarity, feels like the industry finally catching up with what we've been doing for years.

There is no quicker way to start an argument than to 'accidently'
drop your wife in a pit full of acid when she's just solved the Test Chamber
A lot of these games are good in their own right but hugely more fun in company. Borderlands is a decent shooter with loot-hoovering and levels added on but it's an absolute blast with four people shooting through it with all the attendant cursing and swearing and loot-stealing that adds to the mayhem built into the game. Left4Dead goes the other way, requireing keen teamwork to survive which really isn't the same with AI controlled teammates who don't screw up in any of the inventive and original ways human beings can. So not only can I talk to my mates about our parallel experiences on these games, we can all create those stories together.

I'm not saying that I think the single-player experience is a dead end - there are enough great, compelling games that only work by capturing you in their atmosphere and crafting your experience. It may be a neccessity to tell certain types of story - can you imagine co-oping Bioshock with it's faded grandeur and terrifying isolation? No, me either. But reading a book is a solo experience and yet when a few of you have read it it's a social one and the same applies, for all I've yet to see an article in the press bemoaning that kids spend too much time reading instead of playing in the streets.

Is there an answer to why I can play longer in company than solo? Well I don't know - there is always the worrying possibility that I like being with other people more than just being by myself. But I also think its the surprise factor - I've been playing computer games for decades and really there is very little in modern gaming that can really surprise me, but other people are a constant source of randomness that never seems to get old....