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.