Let Off Some Steam: Single Player Plus… What?

Let Off Some Steam: Single Player Plus… What?
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It’s been a while since we’ve posted a Let Off Some Steam column but now, thanks to Patrick Stafford, we have an absolute humdinger. As games move towards a more social experience, even in single player, it seems as though co-op is becoming more common – but are developers taking advantage of the narrative possibilities this creates? Patrick doesn’t necessarily think so…

If you don’t have any friends, now isn’t a good time to be a gamer.

Of all the trends flooding the gaming industry, by far the most prominent and powerful is socialisation. The social gaming movement, which has sparked the creation of dedicated app and game developers, has crept into the mainstream in a big way.

It seems that before every triple-A title is released, gamers scream out for a co-op mode. They want to be able to not only play with their friends in a multiplayer environment, but have dedicated levels and campaigns designed purely for completion with others.

It would be foolish to assume this is another trend that will pass as quickly as it came. Valve chief Gabe Newell recently said that not only will his company – which has incorporated co-op into its few most recent titles – continue to focus on partnership modes, but also signalled the dedicated single-player campaign won’t necessarily be the main focus of future titles.

As reported by The Escapist, Newell said:

Portal 2 will probably be Valve’s last game with an isolated single-player experience.”

It’s not about giving up on single-player at all, we actually think that there are a bunch of features and capabilities that we need to add into our single-player games to recognize the socially-connected gamer.

Every gamer is instant messaging, every gamer has a Facebook account. If you pretend this doesn’t exist you’re ignoring the problems you ought to be taking on, so it’s ‘single-player plus,’ not ‘no more single-player.

Valve is nothing if not forward-thinking. The co-op feature of Portal 2, (full disclaimer – I have not completed it), was one of the most talked-about features of the game before its release, and the company even used it in the pre-release marketing. But Valve’s newest game isn’t the only title to feature a co-op campaign as a main feature – Modern Warfare 2, Dead Island, Fear 3, Fable 3 and Brink are just some of the already released or upcoming titles that feature and highlight co-operative gaming.

But questions remain about how this trend will not only impact the mainstream solo gaming experience, but the act of story-telling within these new types of games that speak to multiple different players. Initially, the concept of a co-operative gaming experience shouldn’t be a problem when integrating with a story. After all, games already have multiple characters, just like any other narrative medium, and there doesn’t need to be any issue by having another player take control as well. Introducing a co-op element could also help with the players’ emotional connection to the story.

Often players encounter a heightened sense of responsibility when working with another – after all, no one wants to get their partner killed. If you’re battling against waves of enemies in Modern Warfare 2, you may get frustrated by yourself if you die, but often it won’t matter because you can just try again. If you mess up and have your partner killed, then the frustration is much greater. The concept of working for a shared goal is more motivating than simply working by yourself, so a co-op campaign has the opportunity to feed into that, with various narratives, backgrounds and exposition that could push the players forward.

It seems there are two very different types of co-operative campaigns being developed now, and two recent games exemplify the pros and cons of both approaches – Modern Warfare 2 and Portal 2. Both represent either end of the spectrum when it comes to co-operative story-telling. One is heavy on exposition, context and dialogue, while the other is stand-alone, more focused on the goal than the telling of the story.

But perhaps this approach ignores narrative opportunity.

The co-op campaign in Modern Warfare 2 was a welcome addition – more content for the same amount of money. The campaign itself is divided into a few dozen missions you play with another gamer, focused on overcoming military objectives. Some include a snow-mobile race, a level in which you must protect some computer hardware from waves of different enemies while some more complicated missions have one player in an aircraft direct another on the ground away from enemy troops.

It’s a fun campaign, but lacks context. None of the missions are put together in any kind of format story-wise, and the only hint a player has about what he or she is doing is that the co-op missions are often versions of those found in the single-player campaign.
There are goals, yes, but there is no reason for why the player should be accomplishing them, as opposed to more lengthy co-op campaigns like Left 4 Dead. There is simply no narrative structure here.

On the other hand, Portal 2 doesn’t necessarily take gamers through a set, constructed story, but as Valve demonstrated in the first Portal game, the story is told through atmosphere and dialogue. Exposition is handed over to GlaDOS, who tells the robots why they are there, what they are doing, and then urges them to continue.

She says things like “this facility was originally built for humans”, and makes random comments about how human test subjects need to be taught how to cooperate, and so on. These hints give the player the idea there is much more than what is going on around them, and that they are part of a much bigger world.

To be sure, the motivation for completing these test chambers is a thin one – “for science”. But it’s arguably better than not even knowing what your motivation is, i.e. a grunt with a gun.

The nature of co-operative campaigns naturally restricts the amount of story-telling available, and of course the extent to which narrative plays a part in each will vary greatly. But unless co-op modes are the main feature of a title, games like Portal 2 and Modern Warfare 2 share something in common – they are of a much better quality when handing over exposition.

Of course, there are arguments that co-op campaigns aren’t designed for stories and are just a bit of fun.

But many of the arguments against co-operative gaming with regard to story-telling don’t actually have to do with the game itself, but rather the gamers’ reaction to it. For instance, it’s easy to speak to a solo player. They are likely to be concentrating fully on what’s going on within the screen, focused on whatever the developers want them to focus on.

With multiple players, the likelihood of concentration declines. Players will likely be speaking over headsets, coordinating different movements, chatting about their last kill, raid or success, and won’t necessarily be listening to an NPC describing the context of the next objective. Of course, the argument against all of this is that gamers don’t really care about context when they’re playing with their friends – they just want to have a good time.

But I reject that premise. This isn’t a team death-match situation here – both gamers in a co-op campaign are working towards a common goal or purpose. They are focused on an ending point, and need to overcome obstacles in order to get there.
How is that not a narrative structure?

Games need to move forward as a medium. They need to incorporate better stories and narrative in everything they do. If co-operative campaigns are here to stay, than companies like Valve need to keep doing what they do best, and developers like Infinity Ward need to follow their example.

Otherwise, well, what’s the point?


  • The MW2 example isn’t exactly a “campaign.” It has no narrative for the reason that it isn’t intended as a furthering of the game’s canon. Infinity Ward actually omitted a co-op campaign mode, and the resulting mode was Spec-Ops.

    Spec-Ops was more fun based, mini-bites of single-player campaign sections in a competitive, or cooperative setting – not intended to provide any extra plot; unlike the Portal 2 co-op campaign which does, albeit not well, give P-body and Atlas some kind of place in the Portal timeline.

    So I just think the MW2 example isn’t a great one given it’s not actually a story-driven campaign and was never intended as such.

  • The latest Call of Juarez game being made atm is a three player co op full story campaign. The developers are saying that playing only one of the characters will only give you a third of the actual story, and to get the while picture payers will need to play each cheater in seperate playthroughs.

    The way they plan to do this is by splitting the players at vital points of the story, isolating them from each others situations and then I assume provide a cutscene or reveal specific to that character.

    I think this is the kind of story-based cooperative play the writer here is talking about.

  • I haven’t played Portal 2 yet (actually it’s in the mail right now), but when I heard that there was a single player mode and co-op that are separate of each other, I thought that was pretty damn good value. In fact, the version I’m getting is for Xbox, but I’ll be selling that and purchasing the PC version so I can do co-op with my housemate.

    Needing ‘friends’ for co-op I don’t think is necessarily true. Resident Evil 5 was all about co-op, even with the AI. And to get past the harder difficulties, it was nearly impossible with the AI. A human player was needed, but you could join someone else’s game and not know who they were.

    One feature of co-op that I really like is consequences. Sure if your partner dies, that’s a consequence. But I like seeing the other decisions you need to make as well, like who picks up a health pack, or who needs ammo more.

    Co-op games are a great idea, but shouldn’t take up 100% of the first or third-person perspective games. And needing ‘friends’ to play shouldn’t be an issue with how expansive multiplayer gaming has become.

  • I actually think that MW2 was a good compromise. They didn’t go and create a whole new co-op campaign, which would have been pretty resource intensive and they didn’t do the cop out and just tack on co-op to the single player. Instead, Infinity Ward created a “mission mode” type situation where you could have short bursts of fun with your friends.

    It relied on the idea that people aren’t necessarily going to be available for long stretches of time, but could sit down for half an hour together and get stuff done. That style of play does not lend itself to a narrative.

    I much prefer what Valve has done with Portal 2 and Left 4 Dead, but Modern Warfare 2 catered to a certain niche with its co-op and I think they did it very well.

  • So, in summary, if you’re going to add co-op then it shouldn’t be a tacked-on afterthought? So the exact same argument that applies to single player games getting crap multiplayer incorporated to “add value”?

    Personally I’m not too fussed on multiplayer. If I wanted to play something in a social environment I’d still be playing WoW instead. Give me a quality single player game. If you’re going to do co-op, look at the way that Halo or Gears of War do it. You’ve always got a partner with you, and the second player controls that partner. And that second player should be able to be played by someone sitting on the same couch as you – I am so sick of games requiring me to tell my friend to go home and play on their own machine with their own copy.

    If Portal 2 had just been the co-op element, I wouldn’t have bought it at all. I will most likely never play it co-op. The instant I am reliant on other people playing with me in order to be able to enjoy the games I pay for is the point at which I stop being a gamer at all.

    • Some good points, especially on splitscreen.
      Halo’s co-op is entertaining and functional, but the narrative failing to ackonwledge anyone besides player 1 makes it feel somewhat tacked on.
      It doesn’t make sense to see 4 ‘Rookie’s in ODST or 4 ‘Noble 6’s in Reach. Doesn’t really bother me though.

  • Trjn,

    I think you’re quite right in that there is definitely a market for two different types co-op campaigns, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be any story context at all.

    For instance, you could have all the missions in the co-op mode be part of the same over-arching objective, broken up into tiny pieces. You could have a character shout out at the start in one line what the objective is. During the loading screen, you could have some information about what it is you’re trying to do as a team and what the motivation is.

    Modern Warfare 2 is a great co-op mode, but it could be made even better by just adding a few little details like this.

    Love these thoughts from you guys though.

    • Trying to justify the situations in the co-op mode of MW2 and wrap them up in a plot seems unnecessary to me. Most people would have just ignored it anyhow because it was a very arcade style gameplay.

      Not every game or style of game needs a plot, in MW2 Spec Ops mode, it would have just slowed the action down.

  • The sad fact of co-op is you need friends to make it work to its full potential. Publishers might harp on about ‘play with anyone!’ but have you tried playing something like Borderlands with total strangers? It’s a complete mess because 99% percent of people just pissfart around or are out for themselves and any sense of purpose to the co-op instantly dies.

    Co-op is great in theory but in practice, unless it’s under some very specific circumstances, its goes unplayed.

    Perhaps that’s just my opinion because I may have sufficient friends but only one with a 360 and another with a PS3. And they never connect to the internet. *sobs*

    • Maybe it’s a console thing then – but organising multiplayer over Steam or the PC in general is a far less arduous and far more rewarding process.

      • Definitely a console thing. Put a team-based FPS infront of an average console FPS gamer and they’ll invariably try and deathmatch or essentially play like idiots with absolutely no communication or coordination. Maybe it’s just a case of exposure, or that the consoles attract a different sort of person, but you don’t get this anywhere near the same on the PC. It’s why a game like Team Fortress or Enemy Territory is a terribly frustrating hit & miss on consoles, but great on PC.

    • I agree. I’m really itching to try the co-op on Portal 2, but the sad fact is, I don’t have friends who play.
      I have it on Steam, and I read about a way to hook up split-screen co-op on the PC, so I will be trying that with my partner at some point.

      I could jump in with randoms, but as you said, it’s just a mess. Having no friends makes things difficult.

      • Yep. It saddens me to see game reviewers regularly bang on about the co-op in games being totally awesome and you totally have to play it. I think they sometimes forget not everyone has a 100+ friends list packed to the gills with other game reviewers who also have every console/game.

        • Not trying to sound like a dick here, but unless you’re a total loner who lives in a tiny town where no one else plays games, is it really that hard to find a friend to play co-op with? I’m not the most popular guy but I’ve got a fair few friends who are willing to play games with me at just about any time, and plenty of others I’ve met on the net who do the same. If you’re having that much trouble organising co-op, you’re doing something wrong.

    • Agreed, I will only play co-op with friends. The few times I’ve done it with strangers (eg firefight matches in Halo Reach) has been kind of awkward and not fun. Like one time I was playing with a friend and some random guy from New Zealand, which was all fun and good until he starts going on about “those ****ing asians” and “you’re not homos right?”. We quietly disconnected and blocked him.

      So yeah, co-op with friends or not at all.

    • You just need to find some good online friends. Now if only there was a site nearby where there were loads of friendly, likeminded, non-trolling people to play with…

      Seriously though, wade into “Talk Amongst Yourselves” and you’ll find there’s heaps of great people ready to play coop with you on just about anything. I’ve added about 30 XBL friends this way, as well PSN and Steam!

  • RaygunBrown,

    I was actually going to address this in the piece but I felt it was a bit off-topic.

    I hope the growth of co-op doesn’t actually reduce the length of single player campaigns, because that would be a great shame. Some people have more friends than others, and as you say, playing with strangers can be…interesting.

  • I think the best co-op experience I’ve ever had was with New Super Mario Bros Wii. 4 player co-op was absolute mayhem and endlessly fun. I guess because it doesn’t have a real story to go off, it leaves you just to have fun.

    The Lego games are also quite fun to play in co-op, especially with young family members, etc. Again, probably because inside the levels they don’t need to tell a proper story and they’re easy to guide people through (the main thing I hate about co-op is playing with someone who has absolutely no idea :P)

    I’m hoping to play Portal 2 co-op now that PSN is back up, as well.

    • Loved New Super Mario Bros Wii. That game was perfect because it allowed you to help and baby new players in a way that was clever, fun and rewarding.

      Such an underrated game.

      • Actually, I reckon the Wii has some really underrated co-op campaign games. Donkey Kong Country Returns, for me, was a shining example of just how good co-op modes can be. In fact, I think the only way you could get through half that game without throwing the controller across the room was by having the second player flee from danger while you brought yourself back in a DK barrel.

  • Multi-player and co-op is all well and good but sometimes you just want to game by yourself.

    Whether or not you can achieve the same immersion when playing with others there are still going to be times (for me at least) when I just want to go it alone. Just like there are times when I just want to listen to music or read a book or go for a walk or draw a picture or whatever. I can do all these things with others if I like but there are times when I just don’t want to.

    I’m all for multi and co-op but I certainly don’t agree that that is where the entire gaming industry is going.

    • Totally agree with you there; and lets face it, multiplayer is a bit of a hit and miss with randomn ppl “from the internet”. Co-op is fun but look at games like GTA, Fallout and Oblivion and then tell me one more time that multiplayer is THE WAY to go.

  • Co-Op was dropped from Bulletstorm because it turned the game into a speed run.

    I genuinly believe Gabe to be wrong about this.
    I dislike co-op and off the top of my head the last game I played co-op was Perfect Dark on N64.

  • Anyone know any decent pc fps’ with an option to play a co-op campaign? I have the l4d’s, borderlands, the unreals and rs:vegas 2.

  • Saints Row 2 has the greatest co-op aspect ever. It doesn’t change any of the storyline or cutscenes. There just happens to be 2 characters at each time (a few missions take this into account).

    eg) In single player when you’d normally shooting on rails, in co-op one person drives.

    But the fun you can have by messing about. I reckon most open-world games (not all) could do with a co-op feature like this.

    • GTA needs this.
      Rockstar ‘borrowed’ the mission replay feature and the cellphone from Saint’s Row; hopefully they’ll ‘borrow’ co-op for GTA5

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