‘Spiritfarer’ is a wistful meditation on the afterlife
‘Spiritfarer’ is a wistful meditation on the afterlife

Our poor housemates never stood a chance. The moment my best friend and I moved into our shared house in the second year of university, we occupied the living room, blocked out the windows and positioned a decaying sofa inches away from our third-hand television. The reason: Resident Evil 5. What attracted us to this zombie adventure through west Africa was not its bloody thrills, but the fact that you could play the entire main story co-operatively. In real life we sat side-by-side, muttering to each other about strategies and ammunition. In the game we raced breathlessly through townships and volcanoes, executing daring manoeuvres and lining up precise headshots to save one other from each necrotic zombie grasp. After three days we beat the game and finally opened the window, sheepishly allowing our housemates to re-enter.

I was clearly not the most considerate housemate at 19, but I have always found the draw of a great co-op game too strong to resist. There were never many of them around — I remember scouring the shelves of Blockbuster as a child looking for co-op games to play with my brother, but most multiplayer games were competitive, allowing you to play against your friends, rather than co-operative, allowing you to play alongside them. 

Co-operative play dates back almost to the dawn of gaming. Arcade cabinet classics such as Bubble Bobble and Streets of Rage allowed players to combine forces to overcome puzzles and computer opponents. Co-op briefly landed on home consoles, with fantasy role-playing games such as Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance or shooters Halo and Gears of War, but the feature was mostly phased out — developing story campaigns that could work for either one or two players was complicated and costly, while dividing the screen made modern games feel cramped. Developers assumed that if gamers wanted to play together, they would happily do so via the internet, from their own separate consoles, communicating via headsets. 

But this was never what I loved. I wanted to sit next to my friends, to unwind in the uniquely low-pressure conversational environment that gaming creates. To chase the co-op thrill, like athletic teamwork, of intuiting your partner’s movements, feeling two minds meld into one, chasing perfect harmony to achieve a shared goal. So when the pandemic hit, I began searching for what are now called “local” or “couch” co-op games, as opposed to online options, to provide some much-needed household diversion and bonding time.

While there are co-op games for serious gamers, from the forbiddingly complex fantasy of Divinity: Original Sin 2 to cartoonish shooters Borderlands and Cuphead, most co-op games are colourful and family-friendly. Platformers such as Super Mario 3D World, Rayman Legends and the Lego series all incorporate co-operative play, as does indie game Unravel Two, where players control cute creatures connected by a single thread of yarn. Co-op can also help introduce non-gamers to console play, such as the invulnerable helper role a second player can adopt in Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel, Odyssey. You might also split farmyard tasks in Stardew Valley, or enlist the help of a second player as a Persian cat in Spiritfarer, a wistful meditation on the afterlife.

Players work together in the culinary puzzle game, ‘Overcooked’
Players work together in the culinary puzzle game, ‘Overcooked’

The best co-operative games go beyond simply adapting the single-player experience for two people. Haven, a recent sci-fi game about a couple searching for a new planet to call home, incorporates the emotional dynamics of the protagonists’ relationship into the gameplay. Meanwhile innovative co-op mechanics define the work of Josef Fares, from his poignant fairy tale Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which can be played huddled around a single controller, to A Way Out, a prison-break adventure with an ambitious narrative that flips between players’ perspectives. His new game It Takes Two, due out in March, will allow gamers to play with friends even, unusually, if only one of them has purchased the game.

Co-op games can be relaxing, but sometimes the most stressful are actually the most fun. I have had nail-bitingly intimate moments with friends trying to defuse bombs in Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, and almost come to blows over culinary puzzle game Overcooked. The latter should be simple enough, asking players to just cook meat, chop vegetables and clean plates, but in practice it proves hilarious, challenging and even infuriating, with levels where chefs skate on ice or fling ingredients across roiling rivers.

I have, on more than one occasion, screamed something along the lines of: “What’s the point in me making all this sushi if nobody’s even cleaning the plates!” to an alarmed playmate, but it always ends with laughter rather than rage. Overcooked explicitly teaches the valuable lesson of all co-op games, something more relevant than ever in our times of close-quarter quarantine — that we can hold it all together, as long as we keep communicating.

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