Real Horror Games Don’t Need Co-op

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I’ll be the first to admit that my opinion on Dead Space hasn’t massively updated since the last one came around, but one thing you should know about me by now is that I am a tremendously petty as well as a tremendously bitter man. I’m quite prepared to stand on the same crumbling pillar as always and loudly complain about people coming and taking more and more rocks away to add them to other, much bigger and better-served pillars.

Yes, as if it needs repeating, it’s a shame the mainstream triple-A industry doesn’t seem to be capable of actual “survival horror” anymore, with everything having to occupy the same centralized “action-adventure” bubble lest it not make enough money back to appease the corporate god. But I can’t say I was ever actually expecting Dead Space 3 to go back to being survival horror – or indeed, start being survival horror for the first time ever – when they seem to be perfectly happy with what they were already doing. That is, incredibly gory action games with a severe sensory overload problem.

So, fine. Maybe sawing the legs off monsters while it and fifty different musical instruments simultaneously scream at you holds more appeal with the larger audiences. Me, all that unending noise and intensity tends to put me in a trance, but then I could just be too old. Don’t let me get in the way of all the fun you’re having with your sloppy screamy action shooter. If I haven’t totally given up on mainstream horror games then it’s long since time I damn well should have done.

I’m not even particularly down on the co-op focus in itself. I mean, it may completely fuck up the horror, which is one of the simplest formulae in modern storytelling – 1. isolate, 2. separate, 3. pursue, and having another person constantly around fucks up two thirds of those right out of the gate – and maybe we should have figured this out around Fear 3, but as we have now established, Dead Space is an action shooter and so co-op is fine. Even if it were a horror game, I understand that there are plenty of people with much smaller and wimpier bollocks than mine who may need a friendly hand to hold. It’s like some kind of optional pussy mode.

And I did appreciate the way the story was tweaked in the single player game so that the co-op partner dude was always somewhere else, rather than tagging along as unnecessary NPC support, which I was afraid would be the case. Maybe I did feel a little cheesed off when optional missions only for co-op players appeared, but I suppose you have to throw in a few rooms where two switches have to be pulled simultaneously or people might start thinking the co-op feature wasn’t utilized to the full. And by then I was bypassing all the optional missions anyway because I had deadlines to meet.

So the co-op made sense for the most part. But there was one aspect of it that properly cheesed my nachoes, and it was unrelated to whether or not Dead Space is a horror game: it was the fact that there are story elements that are exclusive to the optional co-op missions. How it works is Isaac Jr. or whatever his name was has some tragic backstory that from what I understand only gets explored in the co-op-only bits for obvious reasons. And it’s not like I was massively into the character, but it would’ve been nice to have some context for the quite frankly baffling decisions he makes in the big payoff finale.

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My position is that any aspect of the linear plot saved exclusively for the players of multiplayer mode would be wasted on them. And I don’t say that because people who play multiplayer are more likely to be ignorant shits who can’t pay attention, although that may frequently be the case; it would have been wasted on me, too, if I’d played the co-op. Because I know what I always do when I’m playing a game with someone and a cutscene starts – I immediately turn to my colleague and chat about something. Because that’s what you do in a social situation. Right? I admit I’m kinda new to them. There’s a reason why they have to turn the volume up and the lights down when you go to the cinema, because when you have lots of people in close proximity you can only make them concentrate by pinning them to their seats with noise and spectacle.

I can give the recent example of playing Aliens: Colonial Marines co-op with a friend (review coming very soon!), and at one moment when two female NPCs were having an argument, I tried to get a laugh by positioning myself between them and going “LOOK I’M HAVING A THREESOME” because there were precious few other ways I was going to get any entertainment out of it. But the next day, when I was continuing the campaign in single player from where the last co-op session ended, I suddenly didn’t know what was going on because I hadn’t been paying attention. I also didn’t care, and now never would.

Multiplayer has its own way of doing story. Valve have the best examples, as is so often the case, with Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead. The characters have distinct personalities, they converse and interact and clash, but the actual plot – as in, the sequence of events – is organically left to the players. It’s more of an environment for story rather than a story itself. Cutscenes, arcs and beginning-middle-ends, these should be left to those in a position to concentrate and immerse themselves in them. Immersion isn’t going to happen when there’s some other gobshite there constantly reminding you what level of reality you exist on.

Let me reiterate an old point I made: that the videogame should consider the written novel to be its closest peer in the world of storytelling media. Both require a certain amount of participation from the person perceiving it and a certain amount of expertise, in reading or cover-based shooting respectively. And you’ll notice that books have never considered innovating their medium by designing books to be read simultaneously by someone sitting behind you, occasionally making snarky remarks about the grammar. Do not even get me started on the Playstation 4’s dedicated fucking “Share” button. Because I’m at the end of this column now and I need to save up my ranty juice for that one.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is

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