Americans spent over $11 billion in box offices in 2017, so why is our patience and investment in short bits of story so much more limited in a coop gameplay space?
Anyone that's played coop videogames with a friend has probably found themselves button mashing to end cutscenes, or played with someone that did. Despite people's best intentions and love for the title, they've probably blown through Deckard Cain's funeral, Vincent and Leo's bickering, or the narrative setup for your favorite MMO's fetch quest.
Many people are quick to dismiss the quality of the writing, production, and performances in games, but that feels a little unfair. Sure, you could make the case the Hollywood does it better, but take a look at some of the notable coop titles of 2017, and try that again in light of the $86 million that The Emoji Movie grossed domestically. Were entire theaters clearing out after the first 15 minutes?
I've heard some people make the case that gamers don't care about stories. I'm even willing to completely ignore that these "story-indifferent" gamers have never been show to represent any sub-population of the US that watches movies and TV, reads books, or listens to podcasts at any lower frequency then the rest of the population. Even then, that premise rings a little false when a quick scan of some of the most beloved franchises (exhibit A; exhibit B) feature titles remembered as much for their narrative as their mechanics.
So maybe it's multiplayer
After all, human beings are social animals. Ants and bees, up to canines and primates, eusocial animals band their collective efforts to achieve collective success beyond the grasp of any individual. And what is coop multiplayer if not the expression of that very same wiring in the form of play?
I know when I play coop multiplayer games with my friends, I slip into a distinct and particular mindset. That tribal part of my brain pushes me to do better, work harder, think faster, anticipate the actions and needs of my teammates, and instinctively shore up any weakness that I see if I can help it. It isn't negotiated, or demanded. It's offered freely with the only expectation that my teammates do the same for us within their own abilities. And in that flurry of action, functional empathy, and optimization, I know I don't want a story, no matter how good, to interrupt the yomi.
People that have played a team sport know as well as any gamer that there's something about a team that is so consuming and transcendent to our self that we're willing to do things that we wouldn't do otherwise. That chasm is the reason why you'll sprint up and down the field at practice until your lungs burn, but you can't bring yourself to go on a light jog for fun. In 7 Days to Die, I've spent several game days mining iron in a rectangular pit, hitting patches of ground for hours in the most mindless way possible, because I knew we needed it, and someone had to get it done. The weird thing is that it was fun.
It's different for multiplayer, and that's okay
So, is it that playing with others is so engrossing that narrative can't coexist with multiplayer? I don't think so.
I've clocked 38 hours in The Forest, and I think the story was not only engaging, but central to the experience of the game. As we fended off packs of cannibals, scrapped together the essentials for survival, and investigated the mystery of the inciting plane crash in terror-filled pitch-black caves, it was the subtle hints, markings on cave walls, clues in the forms of photos, recordings, and passenger mementos that drove us forward. Each new piece of story had us battle for the next moment of peace so that we could digest what we'd just uncovered.
I suspect that a solution lies somewhere in that experience. I think it's important to understand that the relationship between the story and the play in games can take many forms, and that relationship should be considered in light of the context it is destined for.
I feel like solitary games are uniquely contemplative and internal in a way that allows games to support a wider range of ludo-mechanical relationships. Some have mechanics that primarily serve to enhance the narrative. Others treat narrative as a reward for mechanical play. Yet still others have found ways to use ludo-narrative dissonance as the vehicle of presenting the game's central premise. And in a play context where the player and the game's interests are aligned in creating meaning for one, it's much more permissive of the full range of these type of relationships, as well as tools, to include voice overs, cutscenes, pre-rendered cinematics, world-pausing overlays, etc.
However, whereas a solitary game allows us to retreat into ourselves, coop multiplayer games demand that we exist outside ourselves. In this context, the story within the magic circle has to respect multiple people's sense of time, and space, and continuity. A player may be willing submit themselves to a flashy cutscene, but it goes against the spirit of play to compulsorily conscript others to the same.
When coop narratives works for me, it manages to be considerate towards what everyone wants. And if it exists outside of the play, it strives to make itself a welcome guest, and not an obnoxious intruder. It doesn't try to supplant the player's generated narrative, it augments and informs it.