If I ask you to think about shooters for the Nintendo 64, I know what will come to your mind: Goldeneye. But while everyone else was still perfecting their pistols-only chops in competitive deathmatches in the Facility three years after it came out, I was at my friend Aaron’s house playing Rare’s next FPS, Perfect Dark, and I liked it even better.
Perfect Dark didn’t have the James Bond IP to drive its story (something about aliens pretending to be Scandinavian), multiplayer maps I could still navigate with a blindfold on, or the suspiciously sexy Xenia Onatopp to propel it to the top of the charts, but it had something more important to me.
Perfect Dark had a co-operative campaign mode.
Multiplayer modes in gaming started as value-adds to what had been a single-player-focused experience, but that was changing—more players meant more accessories to sell, and a multiplayer mode adds replayability, giving gamers more bang for their buck and letting developers get more mileage out of the same amount of content, as they were largely created by reusing assets from the “main” game—the single-player campaign.
For a medium and a genre trying hard to push the group, social aspect (something the industry has only doubled down on since the ‘90s), shunting friends off to a repetitive side dish instead of letting them experience the main course together never made sense to me.
Perfect Dark understood this.
By the late ‘90s, there were no longer technical limitations standing in the way of my friend and me clobbering aliens/robots/Russians together in front of the TV, so I was sure that co-op modes were going to become the norm. It just made sense: It’s the same game but adding in the ability for friends to come along exponentially increases the fun.
Years went by, and I was still waiting for co-op campaign experiences to become anything but the exception. I still am, and there’s even less excuse now, because you don’t have to be physically with somebody to play with them anymore. Developers have easy solutions with online gameplay and drop-in functionality, and an online multiplayer component is becoming almost mandatory nowadays. A simple single-player experience with no connectivity is rare. But proper co-op has still generally been reserved for MMOs, shallow beat-em-up games or instanced content, for some reason.
If you look back at the games that have embraced cooperative campaign modes, it might as well be a greatest hits list: Borderlands, Halo, Gears of War, Left 4 Dead, Vermintide. Diablo, Destiny and Phantasy Star Online fall somewhere between that and the MMO model.
The late-’90s isometric RPG masterpieces (Baldur’s Gate, et al) allowed group play, which was appreciated, though a bit more convoluted. Like their D&D roots, they in practice required players to consistently meet up for protracted sessions. In Borderlands, you could each select your character of choice, get experience, level up, complete quests, and if only one of you was there the next time, you could continue your journey alone. Or with a different friend. Developer Gearbox kept the benefit but avoided the restrictiveness of earlier co-op experiences in a successful effort to maximize the fun for the player.
Perfect Dark was a touchstone for me, and notable as a console game and comparison to Goldeneye, but 1993’s Doom deserves credit here. More than 26 years ago, id Software allowed players to slaughter demons together as various identical Doomguys over a local access network. There used to be a gulf between PC and console gaming, but that’s no longer as relevant. More games are released across platforms, and cross-platform play is even feasible to the extent that developers (and console-makers) want to facilitate it. Gone are the days of segregating shooters to PC LAN parties. No longer are sports and fighting games exclusive to consoles.
Some of my favorite gaming memories of all time center on co-op games. Scrolling through Gunstar heroes, Golden Axe, and Gauntlet Legends at a neighborhood kid’s house. Running from spiders in Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance with school friends at sleepovers. Culling aliens in Perfect Dark and Halo. Culling friends with swords in Halo 2. Striving for the optimal roster through Madden and NBA 2k fantasy drafts with roommates in college. Figuring out how to most effectively shoot a giant tree in Remnant: From the Ashes with online bros Gturtle and Sunshineduck. Trying to complete puzzles in Super Mario Odyssey while my wife flies Cappy off into the edge of the screen.
Social gaming has been an important part of every stage of my life. I treasure those experiences, but I mourn for what could have been and what could be. Why, in Dark Souls, am I only able to put down a sign and summon somebody for a boss fight or bits of a level? Why can’t we join up at the menu and play through the whole spooky world together? Why, in Shadow of the Colossus, couldn’t a friend join me in scaling those behemoths?
I’m issuing you a challenge, developers.
In Elder Scrolls 6, let two (or more!) of us work together to pilfer goods from shops or shoot guards in joints. In Pokemon Crossbow, don’t simply let somebody be a second pokemon in a fight (and unbalance the battle system), let them run around and play the game in my world like it’s Animal Crossing with children commanding cataclysmic dragons and living trash piles. In the next Zelda game, let somebody play as Epona. I don’t care. Give us freedom. Let us play together. You’re supposed to be creative; you figure it out.
When I screwed up two-and-a-half decades ago, Aaron could yell at me for it. The next time I boot up Call of Battle 18 and the grime fills my screen, I’m going to wonder why it’s a Jon Bernthal-voiced Major Bark Fearson filling my headphones with invective and not Sunshineduck.