2,153 BC: A group of nomadic hunters banded together to hunt a wildebeest to provide food for their people. 1,274 AD: A cabal of noble knights united to rid the kingdom of the bandit menace plaguing the peasantry. 2014 (AKA, Present Day): Two intrepid explorers (colloquially named “Blue” and “Round Boy”) journeyed deep into the firey pits of hell to defeat King Yama in Spelunky.
Why are those events notable? Well, what if instead of hunting for a wildebeest, our ancestors ventured out to pluck some nice, juicy raspberries? Or, instead of dealing with those bandits, what if we have our knight pals saddle up to take care of a particularly boisterous rooster. These things aren’t noteworthy because they hold no challenge.
That, to me, is the quintessential nature of co-op gaming: teaming up others in order to take down a force greater than yourself.
Difficult games ask a lot of the player, or players if you happen to be slugging through it with a friend or two. They demand devotion and time, which is rare in a medium priding itself on fast-paced experiences and power fantasies. Hard games strip away the facade of games being a passive way to kill time. They challenge us by defeating us, by giving us something to earn. As humans we thrive on overcoming obstacles. Anyone can devour an easy game in an afternoon, no matter how much it cost to make, and never think about it again. But being challenged again and again, only to rise and finally master the game? There’s no greater sense of gratification in all of video gaming.
The recent success of games like Dark Souls and FTL show not every gamer want their hand held all the time. Different games provide different kinds of difficulties. There’s the standard “physically difficult” game, much like Ikaruga or Super Meat Boy that tests your reflexes and thinking on your feet. There’s the “mentally difficult” games, which makes you flex your brain muscles. These are games like Spelunky or Portal, requiring that the player internalize and master the design concepts. Finally, we have “emotionally difficult” games, much like The Walking Dead or Spec Ops: The Line which force us outside of our comfort zones via story or character actions. Unfortunately we don’t see too many of these in co-op games. The closest thing that comes to mind is Journey, though that game doesn’t necessarily pack the same heart-wrenching punch as those previous single player experiences.
For the record, there is nothing wrong with games not demanding a whole lot from players. Sometimes you just need something less demanding and low key after a long day at salt mines. I love the comfort of Minecraft just as much as the next million people, and no one should get mad because you and your friends had fun with Borderlands. Those games are fantastic and should be enjoyed for what they are.
I want to point out the difference between “difficult” and “artificially difficult.” A game which is challenging on the setting it was designed for is what I’m talking about here. Playing Civilization 5 on Deity level is pretty hard, but only because you begin the game by banging two rocks together and hoping they make fire, while the other Civs start with laser guided missiles. That’s not exactly fair, which is part of the issue.
“Tough, but fair” is a good measure of a game which is difficult without employing any sort of artificial difficulty filter. Any game can be hard, but that’s not what makes it fun. Seeing AI rubber band to negate your hard-won advantages is heart breaking. Grinding to goose the numbers in order to beat a boss, instead of utilizing thoughtful play, is wasted design potential. Neither of those are fun or interesting; it’s just the game stretching its mileage. Take Contra for example, a game so legendarily hard it required the developers to invent the famous Konami Code so they could beat it.
If I were doing a “Top Five of the Hardest Co-Op Games of All Time!” list, Contra might be close to the top, followed by a bunch of profanity. Contra comes from an era where deaths were paved in quarters. Riding the coattails of games where you dropped an extra 25 cents in the slot whenever you ran out of dudes, Contra throws two tank-topped marines against some pretty gnarly odds. Bullets come from everywhere, bridges explode without warning, and the mode of gameplay perspective changes at a whim. Combine these with the fact that it only takes one enemy hit to take a life, and your initial foray into Contra leads to something between “utter bewilderment” and “homicidal rage.”
Yeah, you can beat Contra with two players, except you aren’t necessarily relying on the other person. It’s more like synchronized swimming, where the two characters are working together to make something kind of beautiful, but the most you can do for the other person is maybe soak a bullet before they eat it. The design choices here aren’t surprising. Contra retailed for anywhere from $40-$50 back in 1986 money, which is a whole lot. The game is only 8 levels, so in order to prevent someone from dropping a huge amount of cash on something that could be beaten in an hour, the game had to be incredibly hard. With modern tools, we don’t need to make games cater to a 4 Mbit size, and can instead address difficulty as a method to make the experience more enjoyable.
If any game type out there requires co-operative play as a built in mechanic, it’s going to be “Horde Mode”. You know the type. You and your friends hunker down and eliminate an increasingly large amount of bad guys. Out of all the Horde Modes I’ve come across, Killing Floor is the stand-out there. Teamwork is key, as focusing on priority targets can change an inevitable death sentence to a full on zombie barbeque. The number of zombies (or specimens as the game calls them) scales with the amount of players, but the game remains challenging regardless of the number of your allies.
Killing Floor is tough, even for someone who's played it for years like myself. The grunt specimens don’t do much damage, but they hold you in place for their bigger, meaner, uglier cousins to turn your British Special Forces chap into BSF tartar. Counting on your buddies to free you, or freeing them from the (undoubtedly cold) hands of a specimen is all part of the plan. Because when the big guys come out, you need all the available fire power you can muster before they rip through your soft, human bodies like a garbage truck eating gingerbread men. And if you think for one moment you can take the Patriarch in a solo cage match, just be prepared to have little bits of you cleaned up afterwards by the janitorial staff.
It’s a game that rewards cooperative play without being restrictive about it. Sure, you can lay waste to hundreds of the little specimens by yourself without ever getting a scratch, and even some of the bigger guys. But when the time comes, you need to be ready to stand with your team.
That’s not a foreign concept. After all, if every little monster required the full force of your team, then you’re going to get frustrated when someone doesn’t put every single bullet between the eyes of some creep who deserved it. This is one of the tight ropes designers must walk when balancing difficulty for co-op experiences. Push too hard and it becomes a nightmare of coordination which can straight drink the fun out of any experience. Of course, being too lax has the same result: a mindless exercise in pushing buttons and wishing you were someplace else.
When Diablo III debuted on PCs back in 2012, it was met with praise by critics, but incredible disdain by exceptionally vocal players. While a 3.9 User score on Metacritic might amount to thousands of jerks with far too much time on their hands, there was an undeniable problem. The controls hadn’t changed, and there were more bad guys on screen than ever; so what was the problem? Some blamed the loot system. Others pointed fingers at the skill progression. I think the folks worked themselves up over the fact that Diablo III was brain-paralyzingly easy.
Starting up Diablo III back at launch meant you and your teammates had to plow through anywhere from 12-15 hours in order to get to the next level of difficulty. That’s just not acceptable for a game where you can punch the actual Devil. Bosses possessed unique abilities, such as creating pools of poison that made you take damage, or shooting lightning all over the screen when they got hit, like some sort of really, really staticy balloon. However, it didn’t much matter. Your demon-puncher could stand in the poison all day while it did negligible damage to their health, assuming your hero wasn’t stark naked. Additional heroes in the world did make the enemies slightly more difficult, but it just wasn’t enough. Beating back the forces of hell wasn’t difficult, and the game suffered for it.
Fast forward to 2014. Diablo III got a brand new loot system, and no longer requires the slog through Normal in order to play on higher difficulties. You can jack the thing up to Master with a fresh level one toon. Suddenly the game requires dexterity and skill. Standing in the poison doesn’t cause a mild rash anymore. Hang out too long in the green stuff and your Nephilim’s ankles will straight up dissolve. The game asks you to pay some attention, rather than snooze your way through hell before a big sign that says “YOU WIN!” scrolls past.
The game’s change from a mindless click-fest to a mentally engaging skeleton-killing romp definitely improved Diablo III’s standing. It requires you and your friends to communicate in order to kill a particularly monstrous boss which would eat you without any assistance. Could you die over and over again, and eventually whittle the beast down solo? Sure, you could, but then you’d look like a fool who refused to learn from their mistakes.
If you're incapable of turning those mistakes into lessons, you'd best run far away from the "mentally difficult" experiences. Defeating a hard game as a whole isn't the sole element that tickles our pleasure gland. Epiphanies abound during challenging opportunities. You know, those "ah-HA!" moments when the realization of what you've been doing wrong dawns and the path forward is clear. Successfully wrapping your mind around a puzzle in Portal, or downing a particularly troublesome boss in Dark Souls grants that empowering jolt many of us crave. Using knowledge to our advantage is the exact reason we've got those big fat brains. We might as well put them to use.
Spelunky tests the human mental capacity (and the boundaries of friendship) as well as any game could. It probably could have been titled Trial and Error in Caves: The Game. With tight controls and a cutesy, innocuous look, Spelunky keeps pulling back layers until one realizes they aren't looking at a difficult platformer at all. It's a puzzle game, stacking lessons upon lessons and forcing you to juggle all new information at once.
We toss around the term "Rogue Like" a lot these days, and Spelunky is more Rogue-ish in practice than most. You and your friends descend deeper and deeper into the caves, dodging increasingly nefarious enemies and learning from any sudden and explosive deaths you might endure. Lose your life, head back to square one. Putting your heads together (and giving you more than one life to play with) might see you further in the caverns than you'd reach by yourself, but your cooperative play might turn into a PVP experience with a single misplaced whip strike. Your friend meant to hit the bat, but instead lashed your intrepid explorer straight into a cluster of spikes where your lifeless body now lies. Hilarious? Yes, but also infuriating.
The magic of Spelunky not only lies in the difficult (but, exceptionally fair) gameplay, but also gratification upon reaching the end without having killed each other a trillion times. The co-operative gameplay not only requires an extensive knowledge of the game, but also trust in your partners as well. Relaying motives and strategies, working together as a team, and using your resources effectively are elements of working in harmony with your fellow players. It's a testament not just to your skill at Spelunky, but also your abilities to work outside the realm of the game in dealing with the human factor as well.
One of the strongest pulls in the medium for me is the human element. Experiencing new things with my pals, all of us progressing in skill at the current game we're all playing, keeps things interesting. Would it be nearly as much fun to play with friends if they didn't need to be there? If the games were nothing more than passive endeavors, requiring little in the way of skill or attention? Of course not. Your brain needs something to latch onto. It craves improvements and challenges, urging you to push forward and try something new. It's human nature that has brought us this far.
Games are no longer required to be difficult for the sake of being difficult alone. We don't need to offer a monetary sacrifice every time we lose all our lives, and games are (mostly) beyond imbuing themselves with near impossible challenges just to pad their lengths. Challenging games are coming back after too long of being away. After all, many designers grew up on those ridiculously difficult experiences. And while I might regret this later, I've only got one thing to say to those noble souls:
Bring it on.