Co-op Horror: Putting Fear into Friendship

Horror games are easily some of the most creative kinds of games around. This mainly stems from the fact that developers are always trying to find new ways to scare people! And through that drive we tend to get some pretty creative ideas. But there’s one kind of horror game that people really don’t seem to want to touch all that much. And that’s co-op horror! Something that doesn’t make sense on paper but I feel really has a lot of potential.

Now I totally understand anyone who thinks co-op horror games are a bad idea. In theory they are. After all, a lot of horror games specifically prey on the feeling of loneliness and that no one is coming to help you. And adding a friend to that completely shatters the horror as you suddenly have someone to talk to and pal around with. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What if having a friend there with you only added to the scares? Sadly there aren’t many examples I can give on how this could work but there is still one or two. Even more sadly than that though is the fact that the best example of a co-op horror game comes from a game that, besides the co-op, is pretty terrible. That game being Dead Space 3.

So I’m just going to address this right up front. Yes, Dead Space 3 is not a good game. It killed a very promising horror franchise mainly because of EA making Visceral Games, the developers of the series, add things into Dead Space 3 that did not work like crafting and especially microtransactions. But! The co-op missions are it’s one saving grace as they are done masterfully well and prove that co-op horror can totally be a thing if done right. And while I have talked about this in a previous post discussing unique kinds of scares in horror games, I wanted to go a bit more in depth here and talk about how others could take the ideas Dead Space 3 had and run with them in their own game. So! Let’s start by talking about how the co-op missions actually work in Dead Space 3 and how they manage to be the scariest parts of that game by far. And to do this I need to explain a bit of the lore regarding Dead Space.

Basically, to grossly over simplify things, everything in Dead Space revolves around an artifact called The Maker. The artifact causes people to go insane, using their own mind and memory against them to make them follow it’s directions, and a lot of those directions involve turning people into space zombies called the Necromorphs. And while the Necromorphs are cool and super terrifying, that’s not what we need to focus on. The reason why I drop that tiny bit of lore is to call attention to the fact that The Marker can manipulate people’s minds. This plays a big role in both Dead Space 1 and 2 where the main character, Isaac, has to get through some terrible situations while fighting off these hallucinations. But by the end of Dead Space 2 he manages to free himself from them, basically becoming immune to the affects of The Marker all together, sadly limiting some of the scares that can happen to him in Dead Space 3. However, that’s where John Carver, player 2 for co-op, comes in. See, Carver hasn’t really gone up against The Marker all too much meaning he can very much be affected by it. And this is where the co-op missions really shine!

Here’s a shot of Carver experiencing a hallucination where he sees his son’s toy soldiers all around.

As you might have guessed, the co-op missions of Dead Space 3 revolve around Carver and his hallucinations. Since Isaac has already over come his own hallucinations this means that player 2 is exclusively experiencing their own hallucinations which player 1 can’t see. It is such a cool concept! It adds on odd divide between both players as player 2 has to wrestle with what is real and what isn’t. And while you could argue that since player 1 can see what is real they can just tell player 2 but it doesn’t really take away from the impact of them whenever they show up. At least that’s the experience my friend Ray and I had while playing through the game together.

All throughout our play through I was playing as Isaac and Ray was playing as Carver. We both got very lucky as well since we didn’t have the fact that the co-op missions were based around Carver’s hallucinations spoiled for us despite how much it was promoted in the marketing. Meaning I had no clue what was going on with Ray as he was seeing all this crazy stuff. In fact, I simply assumed he was just trying to mess with me and he assumed I was just messing with him! In our defense, we were both teenagers at the time so messing with each other wasn’t exactly uncommon. And because of this, there was some trust lost between us as we continued through the game as we could only really trust our own eyes since we couldn’t see each other’s screens. It wasn’t till the game really started addressing what was happening with Carver that we both figured out what had been going on. And even though some of the scares around the hallucinations were lost after that, there was still a moment of shock every time Ray would react to something I couldn’t see. If a whole game was based around this kind of concept, think of all the creative things you could do to mess with the players!

Turning players against each other, making it so they can’t trust one another is such a brilliant idea for a horror game and one that could only be done in co-op. If you were to take the concept and apply it to an entire game rather than just side missions, like in Dead Space 3, you could make for some terrifying experiences. Maybe you could do something with the players hallucinating that their allies are monsters and you have to calm each other down before killing each other. Or separate the two players for a bit and give one player information that the other doesn’t get perhaps giving them a reason not to trust their buddy. These are simply ideas off the top of my head though, I imagine an actually talented developer could come up with even more crazy ideas! But to even get that far, developers need to be willing to give co-op horror games a try.

Now to be completely fair, this kind of horror would be way harder to pull off than any traditional kind of horror game. Not only do you have to make a fulfilling co-op experience but you also have to be creative enough to make that experience scary. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted! I feel like there is so much untapped potential when it comes to co-op horror games, even if there might be a lot holding people back from trying to make one which I can certainly understand. After all, making any game solely focused on a co-op experience is a bit of a gamble. Not only do you need to get one person interested in your game but they also need to have a friend that’s interested enough to buy it too since they wouldn’t really be able to enjoy the game on their own. But if the recent success of games like A Way Out and It Takes Two are anything to go by, people are very much still interested in co-op games! And I think the way the developer of these games, Hazelight Studios, approach them by making it so only one person has to actually own the game, is the best way to tackle co-op games in this age. Sure, you could argue that this way you are technically losing a sale since only one person has to own the game, but if that system wasn’t in place to begin with that one person probably wouldn’t have bought the game either. So you’re making one sale over no sales and more importantly, you’re getting a super unique co-op experience that is designed to be played that way.

I really do hope more developers give co-op horror games a try despite any difficulty and risks that comes with making them. So far the only co-op horror game that is known to be in development right now is the new Outlast game, The Outlast Trials which does seem to be an interesting attempt! Being more of a puzzle co-op game built around surviving together. The game doesn’t currently have a release date but a closed beta is happening for the game soon so hopefully we’ll understand more about how the game actually plays after that! I’m certainly excited to learn more and hope that it inspires other developers to give it a try. And hopefully this post will also help inspire as well!

For now though, let’s wrap things up here. Next week’s post, which will be the final post of Spooky Month, will be focused on one of the most popular kinds of horror around. Psychological horror! So stay tuned for that…

What are some of your thoughts on co-op horror games though? Do you think more developers should give it a try? Or maybe you don’t think the concept would really work all that well? I’d love to hear your thoughts so don’t be shy!

And thank you for taking the time to read the post! If you enjoyed it feel free to leave a Like or share the blog with a friend. You can also follow the blog on WordPress or on Twitter if you want to stay up to date on new posts. Also if there’s a topic you’d like me to discuss sometime, go ahead and tell me in the comments! Any interaction is appreciated, even just viewing this post, so thanks again for stopping by.

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