Equality has been a prevalent and greatly important topic throughout the Western world for several years, shaking up how we see politics, religion, sport and practically every form of mainstream entertainment available. Gaming's going through a process of better understanding and balancing how it treats people who aren't white, heterosexual males, but as one of those myself I'm not about to comment further on matters that more talented writers than myself, better qualified and with a greater personal and professional connection to the topic, have already tackled at length (and continue to do so). Yet, there is a long-standing matter of inequality in gaming that I certainly can address, one that has directly affected me and, just maybe, readers who often share their game time with other human beings actually in the same room as them.
I recently got married to my long-time Player Two, and I'm incredibly lucky to have a wife that I can share my interest in gaming with. After work, there is nothing we like to do more than to settle down in front of the TV, grab the controllers and play something together. For the most part we're not big on playing competitively, so cooperative console gaming is very much the order of the day. However, there came a point a while ago where we noticed a gigantic gulf between the experiences had by Player One and Player Two – basically, one player's getting the good stuff that the other isn't, or is prioritised over their partner in a way that compromises the second participant's enjoyment. Don't quote me on this, but I feel this is an inequality in gaming that's been passing by relatively unnoticed by the media. But it regularly threatens to spoil our gaming time together, almost as much as the particularly ruthless games of Mario Kart 8 that cast a dark cloud over our newlywed bliss. Hell hath no fury like a woman hit by three successive green shells, seconds before the finish line, I can tell you.
This negativity stems from the mechanics of some cooperative games, which needlessly create frustration between players. A particularly irritating recurrence is the imbalance in modern 2D platform games, when one player is moving ahead a little faster than the other. Particularly nasty offenders include Rayman Origins and Legends, great though those games are, as well as a few Nintendo platformers. For some ungodly reason, in a growing number of games, once a slower-paced player is inevitably dragged off-screen, on their return they are trapped within the confines of some sort of bubble, egg or winged... thing, waiting for the not-so-delicate caress of the partner player's pixels. The irritating consequence of this can be that the lagging player loses a life or a useful power-up in the process, not only completely screwing them but also hindering the surviving player, who now has to retrieve or revive their comrade. Even the typically oh-so-adorable nature of Yoshi's Woolly World has fostered the kind of anger usually reserved for when I leave dirty plates on the kitchen table after breakfast. Again. For the third bloody time this week.
The obvious solution to this problem would be to play a split-screen cooperative game, which is a bloody great idea, thank you very much. If only there were more games out there that offered gamers the ability to have their own designated territory on the TV. I know online or networked gaming is de rigueur these days, but I'll be damned if I'm buying another television, another console and another copy of a game, just so we can play together (albeit in separate rooms, via headsets because I can't fit two televisions into the lounge). Of course, when we do find a worthy split-screen experience to enjoy together, 99 percent of these games have no consideration for screen estate. My wife is particularly pleased when her view of the action is obscured by subtitles, achievement notices or by a pop-up inventory menu initiated by myself. And by "pleased", I mean filled with the burning rage of a thousand suns. It has come to the stage where we now have to take turns being Players One and Two in order to make it fair, like siblings arguing over who gets the top bunk of the bed.
And if it isn't design missteps that threaten to put an end to our shared game time, it's a game's mechanics. Trophies and achievements are a constant source of fury in many co-op titles, with too many of them only giving level completion achievements to Player One, leaving Player Two understandably feeling left out. In addition, there are far too many games where Player One is clearly the focal point of the adventure, the character that gets to do all the cool things and have all the powers in the world. Meanwhile, Player Two gets to be the video game equivalent of Patsy from Monty Python & The Holy Grail, following the hero while clapping two coconut halves together (although, come to think of it, I'm surprised nobody's come up with that as an actual game mechanic).
Resident Evil: Revelations 2 was the absolute nadir of this issue, giving Player One an awesome and powerful arsenal of firepower and abilities, while the weaponless Player Two isn't even given the stick to get the short end of; the bottom-bunked player only able to point at things with a finger or a flashlight. Granted, the idea of different players having different abilities is great when it works well, but the core gameplay should still be empowering for both players. It's just not as enjoyable as Resident Evil 5's co-op, which we felt was absolutely great – enough that we put well over a hundred hours into it.
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Negativity aside, there are titles out there that get co-op gameplay exactly how my wife and I want it. Portal 2's split-screen cooperative mode has been a favourite of ours over the past few years, and it's easy to see why: here is a game that doesn't favour one player over the other, providing a separate story mode from the standard solo campaign, and gives both players identical abilities, as well as throwing them into the same puzzles together. It seems that titles with a first-person viewpoint are usually pretty good at offering the even gameplay experiences, with the likes of Left 4 Dead and Borderlands also putting all players on a single level of empowerment.
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The (what feels like) hundreds of LEGO games out there also remain a superb way to game cooperatively, provided you haven't tired of their endless licensed releases. This year's LEGO Jurassic World has brought us both back to the series and reminded us of how fun the LEGO games are as a whole. In all of these relatively simplistic titles, both players are given different abilities in the standard story mode and are able to switch between characters at will for the most part, so players are given an equal chance to shine. Most feature a dynamic split-screen mode that offers the best of both worlds – single screen gameplay for the most part, but the display splits into two individual perspectives when players go different ways. It's a simple idea that admittedly takes a while to get used to, but really should be implemented in more games.
Yet, it's just not enough. It feels like local multiplayer is a dying feature as it is, and despite the best efforts of companies like Nintendo – which these days seems to be the only place that consistently develops titles with local co-op in mind – more could be done to ensure that the huge gap in empowerment between Player One and Player Two is narrowed. We don't all want to battle online with strangers. Some of us would just like to sit on the sofa with a loved one, and play something that brings us closer together – or, at the very least, gives us both a fair chance of having fun.
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