Importance of local Co-Op innovation in modern gaming.

Welp, another E3 has come and passed, and (like every damn year) events have led to me being really bloody delayed in actually getting any writing done about the event. Like, really delayed this year in particular, to the point where we completely missed last week’s upload.

I won’t waste everyone’s time by going over every little thing that was shown: this year’s line up was on the whole pretty decent, and there are quite a few games I’m looking forward to, such as the new Wolfenstein and the ever popular ‘Dad of War.’ Additionally, there were quite a few surprises this year, especially in the area of long dead game series being resuscitated from the brink. I genuinely hope the fans of Beyond Good and Evil can glean some joy from the much awaited sequel, and that fans of Metroid can celebrate the series’ unexpected return, though I unfortunately can’t say I’m a personal fan of either series. One of the three biggest surprises this year for me was the Mario and Rabbids cross-over, because what!? The other two, and the focus of this upload, were A Way Out and Hidden Agenda.

The thing that connects those two games is that they’re both experiments on implementing a local Cooperative experience in unconventional ways, especially considering local Co-Op games aren’t as common as they used to be. First, let’s look at A Way Out.

Coming from the development team behind Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, A Way Out is a story set in (assumedly) the 70’s, of two prison inmates looking for…well, a way out. The duo main characters are as different as night and day, with one being a cool-headed thinker and planner, whilst the other is a violent and reckless scrapper. The partnership they form to escape from their imprisonment, and to deal with the obstacles they face even beyond the prison walls, is the centre of the story. This already sounds pretty interesting, but the big selling point is that the game is a dedicated Co-Op story. That means there is no way to play this single player, you have to cooperate (or at least try to) with a player 2 to get through it. Likewise, it can’t just be a random matchmaking: you have to organise it with somebody else to play the game. This seems to be done to make sure you have to actually communicate and be in contact with whomever you’re playing with, which is likely a necessity when trying to make decisions as a team. This is understandably important as, if the details the developers have discussed so far are true, decisions need to be unanimous, and that different choices have fairly disastrous consequences.

All of this is really intriguing, even if just from the angle that someone is actually bothering to make a dedicated couch Co-Op game in this day and age, but it’s of especial interest to myself. I was lucky enough to be blessed with two brothers and to have a childhood in the golden-age of local multiplayer games, and I try to keep my ear to the ground for new games that will appeal to all of us whenever possible. However, a minor issue to that scheme is that I’m also a big fan of games with strong narratives, and while it’s not impossible to find multiplayer games with good stories, they’re definitely uncommon. So to have a game that has a strong narrative focus, is built from the ground up as a co-op game, and comes from the developers behind Brothers seems like it can only be a good thing.

Actually, let me back up a moment and explain where Brothers fits into this whole thing. Brothers is, officially, a single player game, since you control two characters at once by using the two thumb sticks on a controller to move each, with both having singular ‘interact/do a thing’ buttons rather than more complex controls. However, just for laughs, my brother Max and I managed to make it into a two-player game. All you need to do is hold the controller between the two of you, use only one hand each, and balance the controller via your team effort.  It wasn’t even the first time we’d done something like that: one of the crowning moments in my gaming life was when we managed to beat the final boss of the second Onimusha using the exact same method.

I imagine Brothers was intentionally designed to be playable in such a fashion, considering how the controls are extremely simple and almost more intuitive if you only have to control a single character each. Likewise, it cuts out the worry of not having enough controllers to play together, since you would only need the one. Regardless, a story about two brothers going on an adventure is certainly more effective when you share it with your actual brother, and the ending (which I won’t spoil) hit me like a runaway dumpster truck because of that fact. I think the game has a lot to like about it besides that fact, such as the game being astonishingly beautiful and being able to tell its story using only visual and Simish-esque gibberish. The main point, however, is the same one that I made in the piece on The Last Of Us 2, namely that I experienced the game in possibly the most optimal way. If the assumption that the game was intentionally designed to be two player friendly, it would certainly explain the mandatory Co-Op for this next game, with the only difference being that it’s not optional. While the early trailers and such suggest that the two main characters aren’t exactly as buddy-buddy with each other as the brothers, time will tell if their journey won’t end with them feeling the brotherly love.

I encourage the idea of not getting too hyped before the game comes out, since it’s easy to let your ideas run away with you, but I’m happy to see someone taking the risk of experimenting with local Co-Op. Couch Co-Op has waned in use over the last few years, mostly because the higher definition of modern games make it difficult to integrate split-screens, and there’s money involved in making multiplayer online only (since each person needs a copy, rather than just using a shared single one). While there’s always a few top-down multiplayer games coming out, such as the recently released Alienation, these games tend to put story and narrative on a lower place of importance. To that end, it’ll be interesting to see if A Way Out’s experiment of putting narrative focus and dedicated multiplayer together will pay off.

Interestingly enough, the other game that focuses on a more local multiplayer experience shown at E3, Hidden Agenda, has a lot in common with the above example. Developed by Supermassive Games, the group behind Until Dawn, Hidden Agenda seems to be set during the late 90’s/turn of the millennium, and during a horrifying murder spree. Like A Way Out, there are two main characters, although by sheer coincidence these two are on the opposite spectrum of A Way Out’s male prisoners: one is a female homicide detective and the other is a female district attorney. It’s pretty amusing that fate had conspired to make two games so similar and yet so different in the same period of time. For extra fun, A Way Out’s director has said that he’s not overly fond of the PS4, while Hidden Agenda is a PS4 exclusive. You seriously couldn’t make this kind of stuff up.

Hidden Agenda apparently came about because the developers saw how much their acclaimed horror game, Until Dawn, was enjoyed by groups, as well as individuals. Like A Way Out and Until Dawn, it’s also a very narrative heavy game, and one that will see the respective players trying to choose between different decisions to affect the outcome of events. The main difference is in the fact that, rather than two players controlling one character each, a whole group (up to at least 4, maybe five) all control and make decisions for a singular character at a time. Likewise, each player will have an ‘agenda’ which they need to follow without alerting the other players, hence the title.

Proving that there are no coincidences in this world and that fate is guiding me into the perfect position to write these articles, I was involved in one of those group playthroughs that inspired this game. Namely, Max, our older brother Ben and myself all sat down to play Until Dawn together, continuing our trend of never playing a horror game solo. And honestly, I reckon playing it in a group is indeed the best way to experience that game. It invokes the sensation of gathering everybody up to watch the schlocky b-horror movies that inspired the game, and making a decision in a critical moment becomes a hell of a lot more tense when you’re trying to all shout out what to do at the same time. If Hidden Agenda can take the core of that same experience and build upon it to make it into an officially supported gameplay experience, I’m all in for it.

(Slightly off topic, but has anyone else had a chance to play ‘Eon Alter?’ It’s a multiplayer focused RPG that uses a similar system as Hidden Agenda, in that each player uses their phone instead of a traditional controller. It’s actually pretty good, and has some really nice world building mixed with some decent combat; would heartily recommend, if you have a few friends to play with.)

While this is only two out of the mega-ton of games that were talked about and unveiled at this year’s E3, I see this as maybe a hopeful sign of things to come. These two games have a fair amount of funding behind each respectively, and yet both take the risk of being heavily focused on local Co-Op. I’m not saying that this is a sign of the Co-Op golden age coming back to us (unfortunately), but could be a sign of more developers being willing to experiment with an area of gaming that is often overlooked. If nothing else, it might help to show that even having multiple players being involved doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t also have a great story in a game.

Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. If there is any other E3 related stuff we need to catch up on, we’ll get one top of it by next week, otherwise we’ve got another review in the works. Thanks for the read, ya’ll!
Side note: I hope that Sony was telling the truth that they were withholding their best stuff until this year’s PSX, because seriously, I know those gits have Death Stranding SOMEWHERE.

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