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Co-op Horror and the Alpha Hero Problem
by Josh Bycer on 12/31/12 02:02:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


In horror design these days, the big push would have to be the inclusion of Co-op. Resident 5 and 6, Dead Space 3 and the latest Silent Hill game that was a top down dungeon crawler are leading the charge. While publishers and designers think that co-op can drive sales, there is one little tiny problem with how co-op is currently used: It DOESN’T CREATE HORROR.



The Alpha

When we look at both horror games and movies, there are two types of heroes: Alpha characters and survivors. Alpha characters are those that actively fight the monsters, characters like Ash from Evil Dead, Mac-ready from The Thing or Ripley from Alien. Survivors are people that are just trying to get away, or have no means to defend themselves until they find the key to stopping the monster. Some movies that go this route are: Hell Raiser, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th.

Both types of movies provide a different type of horror. Those with Alpha characters are about one person or small group fighting an unimaginable force where failure would mean the end of everything. While survivors are about seeing who gets knocked off first and figuring out who will be left standing.

When it comes to video games, because of how games are built around action, designers tend to create alpha characters. This includes everyone from Leon Kennedy in Resident Evil, to Isaac in Dead Space, and even the Doom marine. In these cases you're not supposed to be afraid because the character is weak, but because they have to fight an evil force alone.

Even characters that aren't considered strong, like Alan Wake or Isaac still fall into the Alpha category. As they alone must fight to save everyone from the evil using whatever tools they have.

Alan Wake's status as an alpha hero is an exception from other games, as it is a major plot point instead of as part of the setting.

However, my favorite horror games are about survivors: where they're not actively fighting the evil, but just trying to find a way to survive. Games like Fatal Frame 3, Haunting Ground, or Amnesia.

Where the player isn't trying to save the world, but just trying to escape the situation. Even if the player is given any weapons, they won't make the situation calm or downplay the horror.

Instead in these games, they increase the tension as the player knows that at some point they will have to fight and hopefully survive.  It's these types of games where I think co-op horror would work best, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

One Gun or Two?

The problem with the inclusion of co-op elements in alpha horror design is that they remove the main source of fear in these games: isolation. The player is just one person, stuck in a horrible situation; it's ok to give the player weapons and tools, as they are alone.

But when you add in a second player, that isolation is gone. Even if you raise the number of enemies attacking, the dread that you are just one person against the force is no longer present. Reducing the horror element and making the title play more like an action game.

For horror titles that deal with clunky controls like Dead Space or Resident Evil, the best strategy becomes putting your back to a wall and blasting anything that comes close. One idea that designers use is to limit ammo and recovery items between the two players such as in Resident Evil 5. But artificially raising the tension that way still doesn't produce horror.

What designers need to do in my opinion to have horror in a co-op setting is to change the type of horror that they are striving for.

Situational Survivor:

Being the lone hero (or heroes) doesn't produce horror due to the Alpha design, but when the player isn't that unstoppable force can do a lot to raise the tension of the game.

Very few horror games, much less co-op titles put the player in a survivor role.  But when it's done right, can make a situation scary no matter if it's just you, or a group.

Resident Evil 5 started the co-op horror trend and was noticeably less scary compared to previous games in the series.

One of the biggest successes this year of this style of design would be the DayZ mod for Arma 2. DayZ was a total mod conversion for Arma 2, which is a hyper realistic military shooter.

The mod takes the setting and puts a server full of players into the zombie apocalypse, while keeping the realism of the game.

What happens is that all the pressure of having limited supplies, accurate weapons and realistic damage, is applied to a world where the undead have taken over. And just like many of the zombie movies, sometimes the worse enemy is man, as the game has completely open PvP.

This is where I feel co-op can work in a horror setting: Where a group of players must watch each other's back and conserve resources while dealing with an overwhelming threat. Suddenly you can't just run into a group of undead shooting randomly like in Left 4 Dead. As one good hit could injure you or cause you to bleed out, or conserving ammo until you have no choice but to fire your weapons.

Something like a middle ground between Left 4 Dead and Day Z, where a group of players must escape a randomly generated area while being threaten from every corner.

The important part of the design is that the group should be more powerful then each individual member, making the times where people have to split up all the more terrifying. When this is combined with limited resources will force the players to make hard decisions about how equipment should be divvied up

Because we're dealing with survivors and not alpha heroes, the situation of dealing with a stronger force, or accomplish a difficult goal would be even tenser.

Co-op design can work in a horror setting, but not in the current template that designers use. Making the title less scary and more of an action game just makes it more generic. Just like with anything else, you can't just add a mode or design and force it into another game and expect it to work. Coming up with a horror title that makes use of co-op design, is going to require someone creative and a different view compared to what designers are using now.

Josh Bycer

Originally posted on my site: Game-Wisdom 

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Nick McKergow
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I'd like to see this sort of thing (survival co-op, maybe with perma-death) with asynchronous multiplayer mechanics like Journey. Anonymous partners with limited communication options (Dark Souls gestures come to mind). It might even be cool to use the seamless matchmaking in journey for pvp type encounters too. Imagine exploring an area with a co-op partner, unaware that another player is also on the same server, with that player similarly unaware if any victims might be around for him to stalk and prey upon.

Marvin Papin
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Also calmer areas with tension and melt down that atmosphere with restrictive gameplay (powerful ennemies...) and gameplay element which increase local tension : Who's gonna open that door with a little noise behind. And of course, you're stronger within a team.

Daneel Filimonov
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Asynchronous multiplayer and isolation-based objectives sounds like a good idea for a horror game. A game where you never know who's around the corner (think Journey) - and even if you are grouped, to be later isolated in order to progress. Like being on a derelict ship with a bunch of other random people both good and bad (think DayZ or Dark Souls), and finding others to help each other progress.

For example:
"Objective: Get into this vent and fix something" *vent shuts behind you, forcing you to find another way out while your buddy fights off enemies (to try and get to you) or escapes to find and alternate route (thus leaving you); eventually you two split far away enough and find others and group with those people, etc.*

Luis Guimaraes
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"A local-multiplayer two-player-only horror game in which one player holds a camera and the other fights the foes. The only view of the game is from the single camera, making a found-footage-like experience."

Paul Marzagalli
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I haven't played RE6 yet, but my friend and I enjoyed the hell out of RE5. When we played the original RE back in college, we talked specifically about the idea that one day we would probably be able to co-op a game like that. I found the RE games frustrating for a variety of reasons, but the ability to play through one with a friend made RE5 one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences of this generation for me.

It's safe to say that "being alone" both as a player and a character certainly helps with the fright factor. However, it's possible to create conditions that create legitimate tension and scares. I'll use two experiences from RE5 to illustrate the point.

Early in RE5, Chris and Shiva encounter some horrible bio-beastie that has killed one of their support teams. It's a huge hulking blob of black slime which chases you about. The key to defeating it is by luring it into a blast furnace and timing it so that the furnace seals itself while the creature is in there but the chased player is not. This requires one character to be bait and the other to man the button/time its pressing.

Of course, we didn't know that at first. When it first came at us, our initial reaction was "run away!" It took us making our way to the furnace room, interacting with it, and putting 2+2 together. From there, it was a matter of setting up the proper conditions and timing it all. There was true fright on our parts because in a game where every bullet and health item counts, making this all come to pass was no easy proposition.

Amusingly enough, my second example is one where Capcom undoes their good work and their original presentation was better. Having had such a great experience with RE5, we picked up the game's first DLC on the day it came out. This one featured Chris and Jill exploring an old mansion, very reminiscent of the first Resident Evil. The layout of the mansion lent itself to the players splitting up to explore on their own, and the experience directly harkened back to those mid-90s conversations we once had about the future of co-op. It was fantastic, and it was genuinely creepy.

We kept waiting for the other shoe to drop - that first zombie, monster, dog, flock of birds, whatever, but it never came to pass. At one point, we heard a crash and a piano playing in what we already knew was an empty room. We went back, both of us tense and at the ready (hashing out contingency plans on the way) only to discover...the room was still empty and the piano was silent when we entered. We looked around...nothing. We laughed - not because it was silly, but because we were happy to be so genuinely unnerved and on edge. Eventually, we descended into a mine beneath the mansion where the more expected RE experience began.

Where things get interesting is about a month later. We kept talking about how much we enjoyed the scenario so, on a whim, we decided to replay it. The first thing we had to do was run a patch. We replay the scenario and all is the same except this time when we go to explore the noise/piano, there - completely illogically - is one of the same lumbering monsters found below the house. We both let out groans of disappointment: the great ambiance and unease of the mansion undone by an out-of-place and ill-advised action sequence.

What I took from those experiences is that it *is* possible to do proper horror with co-op. In this case, among other things, it isn't the lone survivor/alpha, but rather the convention featured in movies like "The Thing" and "House on Haunted Hill": you get the group to split up, you rely heavily on setting/keeping the mood, and when you give them action, make communication a key component. In our cases above, we had to frantically think on our feet and try to get on the same page, which ratcheted up the tension. Perhaps disrupting communication or displaying different images to different players of the same situation are some of the ways to use the multiplayer element to create more confusion than a player on their own might have.

Josh, I really enjoyed the article. Thanks.

Josh Bycer
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"Where things get interesting is about a month later. We kept talking about how much we enjoyed the scenario so, on a whim, we decided to replay it. The first thing we had to do was run a patch. We replay the scenario and all is the same except this time when we go to explore the noise/piano, there - completely illogically - is one of the same lumbering monsters found below the house. We both let out groans of disappointment: the great ambiance and unease of the mansion undone by an out-of-place and ill-advised action sequence. "

I'm curious as I haven't played the RE 5 DLC, was the mansion by default supposed to be empty or was there a random chance of enemies appearing?

Paul Marzagalli
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Josh, I hadn't thought of that...if only because I don't think of RE games as being much in the way of random. I took a look into it, and if the walkthrough I found (via website gamershell) was correct, then you are on to something.

"The Guardian is not always guaranteed to make an appearance. His appearance is random per playthrough, but you won't fight it or any other Guardian in the mansion area on your first time through Lost in Nightmares."

So there you have it. Disappointing, really. I am not protesting the randomness element - in fact, that's probably a good thing (particularly in a co-op experience) - but rather the appropriateness. The combat went against the entire atmosphere of the mansion set piece, along with the mood-breaking question of how or when some lumbering creature managed to show up where it did. Changing things up is fine, but it would have behooved them to make changes which were in keeping with the area of the game the player is in.

Thom Q
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Sounds like Josh needs to play DayZ, I think he'd really enjoy it. Although Co-op is of course for games with a certain narrative, and a small number of players. DayZ has no narrative at all. Thats also a bit of it's charm..

Joe McGinn
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Great article. It's why Resident Evil 4 was the pinnacle of the series and it's been going downhill ever since.

Maria Jayne
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I think horror can work with co-op, firstly though you have to divide the players, you don't have to play together to play together!

I remember playing Hired Guns on the Amiga with a friend, he brought his mouse over and we played 2 characters Each. Now firstly we didn't know it was strictly coop, we spawn in different places and spent the first 10 minutes wandering around in our own adventures. Then suddenly out of nowhere this strange guy appears running toward me, I panic, and start shooting. At the same time my friend sitting next to me jumps out of his skin he's being shot at! As you may have guessed, that was when we discovered it was coop....I was shooting my friend.

The important point is that although we were playing in the same world, we felt alone and isolated right up until we got together. Unfortunately as much as I loved Hired Guns, it never gave us a reason to split up again and thus never capitalized on the tension that initial experience created.

So all you really have to do is isolate individual players and make them feel alone and threatened even in a coop environment. You don't have to be in the same place to play coop, you just have to work towards the same goals. The knowledge your coop buddy hasn't got your back is still powerful if you program for it.