One way of looking at storytelling as a historical practise is as a simulated socialization. Anthropologically, storytelling is a way to facilitate prosocial behaviour and ideation. The point being that stories are imagined social extremes where the audience can learn to become more empathetic or more socially competent. This view is, of course, limited, and it doesn’t address that different times and places idealize different social structures or that access to different forms of storytelling vary wildly. Limited though it is, I think the approach is a useful starting point of looking at storytelling. I say that primarily because certain forms of this supposedly social practice are structured to be engaged with in isolation. Dense prose demands quiet, bright light and a comfy but non-sleepy surface to lounge on; contrasting pretty deeply with live, oral storytelling, which brings people together and comes alive communally.
This is my thinking in approaching February’s Blogs of the Round Table feature for Critical Distance, ‘Buddy Systems.’ To me, the two most interesting ways games discuss sociality are single-player conversations that only really work in privacy; as narratives about characters coordinating under a single identity—as I discuss in my Plural Protagonism series on this blog—or games as social events in themselves. To keep the self-citation train rolling, I’ve written in the past that watching someone else play is a totally valid way of engaging with a videogame (Filipowich, Mark. “Oracle and the Non-Playing Character.” bigtallwords. Apr 28 2013.).
I don’t hold to the idea that games must be fun and, in fact, I agree with lots of really smart people who think that fun can be an imprisoning objective of game creators (Franklin, Chris. “An Aimless Diatribe on Fun.” Errant Signal. Jul 16 2012; Alexander, Leigh. “Playing Outside.” The New Inquiry. Jun 17 2013; Street, Zoya. “Should games be interesting or fun?” Medium. Jul 10 2014.). That said, there’s a place for fun, and it’s with friends. The waist-high mud run of Gears of War becomes a game of tactical leapfrog with a partner on the couch, the unforgiving platforming of Donkey Kong Country can be unbearable without a sidekick to commiserate and problem-solve with, the maps of Monaco are cumbersome without a group of co-conspirators to pull off each heist. Sometimes more is just so much merrier.
Somehow, sharing the burden of an obstacle can be more rewarding than achieving it. Wordlessly gathering into the perfect formation to merge a beam of energy in Magicka just as a boss monster pounces is nearly balletic, and the blast of unified force powerful enough to fell the creature in a single attack is the stuff epic poems are made for. But when that same formation of warrior mages is blown into bits of Wizard McNuggets by the one friend who just needs to know what the lightning spell does is ineffably hilarious (spoilers: I’m always the one friend). In fact, while there are a handful of people who still criticize the harshness of my tabletop game-mastering habits, I’ve never seen people unite so effectively than when the universe’s cruelty is personified.
Not to suggest that the further digitization of games hasn’t adding something good to them, but the mechanics of co-op games are, if not fading, becoming harder to balance. I don’t use the word mechanics here neutrally, either. Because as much fun as the New Super Mario Bros. can be with four players of equal skill threading their avatars through a level’s complex obstacle course at an even speed, one player stumbling can interrupt the whole screen’s dance. That is more frustrating than cooperative. Granted, maybe the point is that the dance flows better with patience than with speed, but it doesn’t facilitate friendly play because players must avoid one another. They share the same goals but they have to reach them independently. Something like Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Kirby’s Return to Dream Land or Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles (when I started this article I had no intention of leaning so heavily on Nintendo but so it goes) on the other hand, limit obstacles in a way that players must interact in a mutually beneficial way.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn doesn’t just allow co-op, it facilitates the friendship of players and their characters through play. Characters can interact with one another by standing on or throwing one another like in New Super Mario Bros. but, unlike Mario, it’s much more difficult to intrude on each other. Players are less likely to push a friend into a pit or steal a power-up. To intrude, one player must actively ignore the other player on the screen. Otherwise, levels are structured in a way that characters have to travel along similar lines, using one another as boosts or splitting up in brief, close paths that keep each character in the other’s sight. Also, characters can’t die, if a character makes contact with an obstacle, all their coins pop out of their point of injury, lingering for a while to be recollected. Because players only ever gain or lose a single resource and rarely do they lose it so severely that they can’t retrieve it, play always flows in the positive. Performance can’t ever fail, it can only achieve different levels of success. Therefore, failure is rarely someone’s fault since failure is rarely possible. Players separate or combine to collect a resource and only by playing selfishly can one player cause problems for the pair. In its bones, Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a friendly game.
Contrarily, in co-op games like DOTA 2 or most multiplayer shooters, aren’t exactly friendly even though teamwork is required to succeed because they have an internal competition for the best kill : death ratio. The team may win or lose together, but there is always an MVP and weak link in every match. That competition can be fun, but it is less friendly than the kind of play in Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Perhaps ironically, brawlers are also the site of friendly play. Dividing the screen in half in a quest for urban justice in Double Dragon or Streets of Rage and negotiating workloads as new enemies wander into punching range just feels badass. Where camera and time limitations make it difficult to split the hero-sidekick roles evenly in television or film, a good co-op brawler constantly switches the relationship between heroes, giving everybody a chance to steal the scene.
The narrative emerging out of brawlers, unless it keeps constant updates of how each is performing, is one of equal partners who, moment to moment, depend on one another while navigating numerous threats. Yes, in Marvel Ultimate Alliance, one player might still have the strongest attack, take the least damage or defeat the most enemies, but those statistics aren’t pushed in the team’s faces, they’re relegated behind the moments of overall cooperation. The team levels up nearly in unison and they each play a role in facing challenges.
Competition has its place, to be sure, but as it gets harder for everyone to find the time together, even online, it’s nice when the game encourages us to enjoy the time together. Looking deep into the sociality espoused by those lonesome, aging JRPGs is rewarding to me, but the trade off is that I’m starting to miss the pastels and cuteness of Kirby’s Epic Yarn. My wife and I can just pop in and run around like a cartoon playground built for us to get along. There’s a rare balance in friendly games but those that strike it really show the ways that games can bring people together.
Further reading: Berida, Joseph and Racine. “Sundate: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.” Kambyero. Aug 31 2014
Knepper, Amy. “Love, Games, and Cooperation.” Game Church. Feb 12 2015
English, Phill. “Player’s Choice: ‘Multiplayer’s Choice’.” Tim and Phill Talk About Games. Jan 13 2015