My wife and I have a perpetually watchful eye trained on the Steam new releases section for something which could be good co-op fun. We’ve worked our way through most of the classics that jump to mind whenever co-op PC gaming pops up its head during conversation and, thanks to the magic wizardry (albeit slightly glitchy wizardry) of the Steam Link, have also partaken in some couch co-op classics which might have previously been reserved for console gamers. A few weeks ago, whilst idly browsing a list of ‘possibly-interesting-co-op-games-for-PC’* I stumbled across an intriguing small title called “We Were Here” from “TotalMayhenGames”. It comes with the luggage tag proclaiming that it is a two-player asymmetric co-op game and a price tag reading ‘Freely available on Steam!’, so a few evenings later when we decided to fire it up for a run through.
The game drops both players in a mysterious abandoned castle in some frozen wasteland, the how, why, where, and huh? are never really disclosed; even the slim cutscenes which bookend the entire experience fail to reveal much more than could have been guessed. The more unique slant is that players are in different locations within the castle; one roaming through the rooms, and the second designated as the librarian who is largely restricted to the … library (I didn’t think that last part needed a spoiler warning). It only occupied us for a few hours from start to finish and, given the VR option, felt more akin to a technical demo of an idea than a fully fleshed out title. It did however have some neat ideas, most prominent of which was its asymmetrical nature; one player running around, moving through the castle, and relaying mysterious clues via voice chat, and the other trying to make sense of their descriptions to find some assisting clue within the library. It makes a nice change to the normal dynamic of everyone essentially playing the same game. Even class based titles generally revolve around all players being in the same place experiencing roughly the same thing but fulfilling different roles; in the case of ‘We Were Here’ both players have a distinctly different gaming experience.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to think other co-op titles that make use of asymmetry in such an effective way and I’m a little stumped. Asymmetry in competitive titles has certainly been done; recently in ‘Dead by Daylight’ and a little before that the monster hunting of ‘Evolve’. Both of these are team based survival/combat experiences on one side and a contrasting lone rampaging destroyer on the other. ‘Pac-Man Vs.’ also walked this ground in previous generations with an additional convoluted hardware aspect; one player as Pac-Man on the connect GBA and the others as the ghosts on the TV with a limited view… it’s something that I’d like to somehow give a shot one day despite owning neither of the required pieces of kit.
On the co-op side of things, there are fewer examples. Certain sections of the ‘Portal 2’ two-player campaign could possibly be considered asymmetric with one player pushing switches whilst the other navigates the environment, but it’s not a prominent theme of the game, nor is each player’s role set in stone. The thoroughly tense/enjoyable/infuriating ‘Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes’ is akin to programming an early 90’s VCR within a time limit having only a rabble of friends yelling instructions at you. Only one player is at the PC looking at, and manipulating, the virtual bomb, whilst the others have physical copies of the bomb manual to rapidly thumb through asking all sorts of fiddly questions like “if there is a serial number does it end in an odd or even digit?“.
I’m sure that I’m missing some obvious examples (feel free to comment if you can think of any), but it’s not a commonly used model for co-op gaming and that’s disappointing as there is boatloads of potential for cool gameplay. From a replay point of view it creates variety as players will want to experience the different roles/playstyles in the short term, whilst hopefully bringing together a tight team mechanic in the longer term with each player finding their own niche (… or just fighting over the ‘best’ one). It could expand the player base of titles by offering a different side of the experience to gamers who wouldn’t normally dive into that world. Imagine a space combat title where players can either be dogfighting in small one person crafts or directing the larger ships in an RTS style view of the overall battle. How about a stealth game with player A Solid Snaking into the facility, and player B at a computer terminal remotely hacking the system to help them. Or one player resource managing and base building from an isometric viewpoint, whilst another is engaged in an FPS battle to find supplies.
My naievity doesn’t stretch to why these titles arn’t prolific however. Game devs are unlikely to take on the extra labour necessary to essentially make two games for price of one, and overcoming some of the practicalities won’t be easy either. How to ensure that both players are equally engaged in the game and difficulty balancing jump right out, but there are also problems with matching pacing across styles, online matchmaking, and handling the almost necessary AI needed to accomdate games with empty seats. I do kinda hope that some developers try to tackle these problems in the future and maybe take those risks because the time we spent with “We Were Here” shows that it could be worth the gamble.
*May or may not be the actual title of the page I was reading