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When Killing Monsters, 2 Heads Are More Fun Than 1

By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, December 7, 2006

You need more than an Xbox 360 and a plasma-screen TV to exploit the latest video games for their full entertainment value. These days, you also need a friend.

This week, my pal Daniel and I have been getting together online every evening to play Gears of War, the latest action game for Microsoft's Xbox 360. But we're not trying to blow each other up, as you would in online matches for many "shooter" games like this one -- instead, we're taking in the game's sci-fi storyline as we fight the alien bad guys together.

This cooperative-play buddy feature has been catching on in action games lately and is starting to show up in other genres, as well, from the kid-friendly Lego Star Wars II to the rock 'n' roll title Guitar Hero 2. These games are fun when played solo, but they're a lot more compelling if you can get someone to drop in and play along.

Here's how it works in Gears: In the latest chapter, my character -- a soldier named Dominic Santiago -- has been trying to lure a monster out of a building so that Daniel's soldier, named Marcus, can take it down with a special weapon. If Dominic gets killed in the game, then Marcus has to come over and patch him up. If they both get killed, Daniel and I have to start the level over again.

It's possible to play through the Gears of War storyline alone, but I'd prefer to have a friend along for the ride. The game's lead designer, Cliff Bleszinski, jokes that his title's two-player feature is "gravy on top of an already tasty meal." But I'd argue that the two-player option, which brings a fresh approach to a sometimes tired-seeming genre, might be important enough to be considered part of the main course. Or maybe, I suppose, it just depends on how you feel about gravy.

"Gaming is usually so much about the solo experience," says Bleszinski, who is known in the gamer community as CliffyB. "There's a certain magic to playing with a friend hooting and hollering next to you that you can't capture with solo play."

Co-op play also addresses another problem: "It's one way to bridge the casual person who just plays games every once in a while with the mega-hard-core gamer," he said.

Say you get together with a friend who wants to play a video game; one of you is, usually, much better than the other -- but most games only offer an adversarial or "versus" mode for two players. Inevitably, the more experienced fan always wins and the less experienced one soon just gets frustrated and annoyed. But, with cooperative games, designers can work around such situations.

In Guitar Hero, for example, players punch buttons on a guitar-shaped controller in time to rock songs from, say, Queen or the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

In the first version of the game, there was a two-player option that let players engage in dueling-guitar-solo showdowns. But in the recently released sequel, people can take collaborative roles in a song; one player can play lead guitar while the other takes the bass or rhythm-guitar part. Players with different levels of expertise can adjust their part of the song to "easy" or "hard" as they play songs like "Freebird." But if either player misses too many notes, the song comes to an end.

Try Guitar Hero 2 with a friend, and it's a little hard to go back to your solo career afterward. Somehow, the joys of brilliant fake musicianship just feel a little empty without a wingman.

My girlfriend's 6-year-old son and I have been taking on roles in Lego Star Wars II, working our way through storylines inspired by scenes from the movie trilogy. Naturally, he wants to be the star of the story, but we don't get anywhere unless we work together. (I swear there's a positive lesson in there somewhere.)

The idea of cooperative play has been around for some time in "massively multi-player" games such as World of Warcraft. But this approach among games for the popular consoles could help the industry broaden its audience even more. That play style fits better with how women, for example, prefer to learn and interact, said Sheri Graner Ray, a freelance game designer and author of "Gender Inclusive Game Design."

"Everyone seems to think that to get girls interested in gaming, you have to put out a game about fluffy pink kitties that go shopping, but that's not the case," she said.

Alain Tascan, head of Electronic Arts' Montreal studio, which is developing a cooperative-play game called Army of Two, says co-op titles represent a maturation of the feelings that come from playing video games.

"If we are not able to bring more emotions, we won't be able to make the medium evolve as much as we want. Cooperative game play is the path to achieve that," he said. "It's so much more interesting than 'Kill, kill, kill!' or 'I'm going to beat you!' "

Gears of War's Sensitive Side

Speaking of Gears of War, there's a commercial that features the game's main character running through the streets of a desolated town as a quiet piano song plays.

Most game commercials feature booming heavy metal soundtracks, but this one is striking because of its use of a melancholy cover of an already-gloomy 1983 song called "Mad World" from new wave group Tears for Fears.

The cover, performed by Gary Jules, was previously featured in the 2001 cult flick "Donnie Darko" and recently sailed up the charts on iTunes, apparently as a result of the commercial. Both the album and the track were on the top charts this week.

The usual jokers on YouTube have been remixing the commercial by seeing how its visuals play against other '80s-era hits from artists including Phil Collins and Men Without Hats. And another group has started slapping "Mad World" on footage of other games to explore the sensitive sides of titles with names like, um, Killzone 2.

"It fits in really well with this secondary theme of sadness that's in the game," said game designer CliffyB. "About 80 percent of the gamers love it; 20 percent of the gamers hate it and are busy remixing it on YouTube. And that's great. It only helps sell more games."

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