The art of designing for horror takes practice. I gladly applaud those not yet willing to surrender defeat.
The release of Dead Space 3 brings with it the well-worn discussion of cooperative horror games. For the first time in the series, Isaac Clarke teams up with Sergeant John Carver to offer players a cooperative xenomorph-killing extravaganza. For a vocal bunch of players, the additional company might be fun, but saps the game of its horror roots. Pushed by popular discourse, I fear we may settle on the false assumption that horror and co-op gaming are simply incompatible. While most conversations pit co-op play against “isolation” and “immersion”, I think we can find a place for multiplayer horror games by balancing vulnerability and mutual reliance in games.
A couple months ago, Josh Bycer wrote a Gamasutra article that blames the lack of horror in co-op games on what he calls the “Alpha problem”. Bycer differentiates two-types of horror protagonists, “Alphas” and “Survivors”. Unfortunately the divide between his two categories remains vague, but he makes a couple points worth isolating. As Bycer sees it, games with powerful protagonists have to use isolation to create horror, which breaks with the addition of another player. Therefore, games where players merely survive are more natural fits for co-op experiences.
Yes, co-op games remove isolation, but “isolation” is not descriptive of horror, it is a means to an end. Vulnerability is a far more useful term to understand this aspect of horror. When parents leave a frightened child alone, the child's fear does not stem from solitude (I had a twin growing up and was still scared of the dark). The fear comes from knowing how absolutely helpless we become without our protective parental force. Isolation is just a way to compound and evoke feelings of vulnerability. Co-op play often undermines our sense of vulnerability because we have another person on which to rely. Blunt or diminish the reliability of our cooperative relationship and you return the horror of vulnerability.
When I speak of vulnerability, I should specify that I speak of just one aspect of horror. Vulnerability relates more to feelings of persistent fear than to, say, tension or fright, two additional aspects of horror. Running out of ammo creates a sense of vulnerability, waiting for the reloading animation to complete while a necromorph charges you builds tension, and having an enemy burst out of the ventilation shaft right next to you evokes fright. All three may or may not contribute to a chilling horror experience and co-op play may positively or negatively affect all three.
Bycer is right to locate fear in “survival” games like Day Z. Scarcity, after all, creates a sense of vulnerability. Looking at Dead Space 3, we can see why changes to ammunition and the inclusion of co-op gameplay can undermine its attempts at horror. For the first time in the series, all guns use the same type of ammo. Gone are the disheartening moments of finding only shotgun cells when all you need are machine gun bullets. As a result, scarcity diminishes the sense of vulnerability. Having a co-op partner compounds this problem by allowing players to share ammo. Players can, thanks to liberal ammo drops throughout the game, faithfully rely on either finding more ammo as needed or taking it from a friend.
We can imagine a variety of ways to tweak this system to maintain a sense of vulnerability. Resident Evil 5 and 6 fail to evoke horror for a variety of reasons, but their ammunition system nevertheless evoked vulnerability beautifully. Players could share ammo, yes, but only when in close proximity and only by opening up the painful item management system while the chaos of the game continued. Sharing ammo mid-battle increased, not decreased, vulnerability.
Alternatively, Left 4 Dead salvaged vulnerability by making individual players extremely susceptible to incapacitation. In this case, the system creates moments of absolute reliance on others, which, depending on their own skill and game state, can prove deadly. F.E.A.R. 3 utilized another strategy altogether. Again, while the game was not particularly scary, it did create a sense of vulnerability by drastically differentiating each character’s ability set. Since each player has their own way of interacting with the world, they each suffer from a different type of vulnerability and therefore must each rely on the other constantly. Functionally, each player in the co-op game make up half of a whole, each vulnerable without the precision of the other. Likewise, each player’s actions are not entirely predictable by the other partner.
Lastly, Gears of War offers another excellent example of vulnerability in multiplayer environments. Occasionally in the series, a level will split off into two paths. In co-op games, one player takes each path, literally reinstating the vulnerability of isolation. On top of isolation, each pathway tends to vary dramatically in design. Marcus might be navigating a roof-top while Dom explores a basement for example. In this scenario, neither player can offer much guidance based upon their own experiences, which is a notable departure from the co-op experience. Even better, the series usually includes moments of interaction between the two players during these scenes of isolation. In one memorable set-piece, while Marcus fights a horde of locust, Dom fires mortars onto the battlefield from a nearby rooftop. Marcus, vulnerable to a large swarm of enemies and his ally’s own rocket-fire, must rely on a partner who has a completely different perspective on the battlefield and concerns of his own.
None of this is to say that Dead Space 3 completely flubs its execution of co-op gameplay and horror. The lighting effects in the game are gorgeous and each character’s unique color and light patterns on the wall contribute to an eerie visual treat. Likewise, the simple touch of fixed camera positioning while climbing stairs and allowing only one player to descend at a time brilliantly builds tension. Even the crammed hallways and corridors of Dead Space 3 create a sense of vulnerability when co-op partners get in the way of aiming. In fact, I think co-op in Dead Space 3 is one of the best things about the game.
That being said, the game also misses out on a lot of opportunities for horror. For a series undoubtedly inspired by John Carpenter's The Thing, I am shocked that your partner never runs the risk of becoming a necromorph himself. What better way to create horror than to make your reliance on another person a vulnerability as well. It would have also been great to have more control over resource scarcity in the hands of another player - nothing builds tension quite like interpersonal conflict. I would have also liked to see differentiating roles between the two characters that did not rely on weapon customization, which tends to create lopsided power relations anyway, decreasing, not increasing, vulnerability.
Creating horror, even in single-player games, is a balancing act. How do you light a room to make it navigable and unsettling? How do you design the architecture of a level to make it both foreboding and readable? How do you create jump-scares without making players feel cheated? Now, how do we balance cooperative gameplay with vulnerability? The art of designing for horror takes practice. I gladly applaud those not yet willing to surrender defeat. A great co-op horror game may be right around the corner.