A Way Out is the latest co-op game from Hazelight Studios. A fully cooperative, story driven escape title, the game is played entirely with a friend, with developers even offering the title free to those Player 2s. Something I noticed in early plays of A Way Out was the conflicting emotions I felt towards the characters and the emotions I felt towards the person playing. Sure, A Way Out isn’t the heart-wrencher we were all expecting but there are touching moments that are certainly emphasised by the cooperative nature of the game. I wouldn’t say I feel for these characters, however. Rather I feel for the person I’m looking out for over chat.
It’s an interesting conundrum, and raises a lot of questions about how far we can immerse ourselves in a game-play landscape when character identity is blocking such immersion. As a young female, I identify more seamlessly with Horizon Zero Dawn’s Aloy than I do with Uncharted’s Nathan Drake. Does that mean I’m more invested in the game world and my character’s fate? Not necessarily, but it’s a defining factor of each player’s experience.
That’s not to say identification is off the table when your character doesn’t align with yourself. In fact, the potential for video games to present unexpected parallels be-tween the user’s experience and that of the figure they are controlling is one of the medium’s greatest achievements. I still lament Nathan Drake’s fate, and under-stand Snake’s moral conflicts, however I’m still finding increased disconnect between the characters on the screen and us behind the controllers – more so than usual. I want to save my friend, not the character they are con-trolling. In A Way Out, that disparity between player and character is a glaring barrier to full game world immersion. From stocky voice acting to shallow characterisation, Leo and Vincent feel more like blank conduits to the game world than fully realised characters we can care about enough to feel emotionally invested in their fate. Don’t get me wrong, mechanically, this game is a design of genius – sometimes its ability to elicit empathy is a casualty of this genius, however. For example, Leo and Vincent both have different approaches to taking out enemies.
Vincent takes a step back from the situation and carefully plots a strategy whereas Leo’s happy to go out all guns blazing. Sure, that makes for interesting and varied game-play and a little more player(s) agency but it’s not backed up with crucial reasons. There’s no characteristic or history to explain such approaches to combat or problem solving. There’s no reason to attempt to understand or identify with these characters’ actions, dialogue, or situations in life. And that’s a big problem for a story-driven game. Take Little Big Planet, for example. While not by any means a story-driven experience, it does encourage identification and empathy for player characters regardless of whether you play in solo mode or co-operative. Featuring incredibly simple character designs that can be customised by each player, Little Big Planet gives you a reason to wince when your cute little pirate sack boy gets ground up to a pile of wool. Your player character reflects you, and so you form a kinship with that character. Similarly, your friend’s character reflects them so your empathy is transferred from the player to the character by extension. Player and character are more combined, and that’s perhaps where A Way Out’s characterisation falls short of this transference. I want to save my friend, not the character they are controlling. That character is static, the same for everyone – I’ve not been given the chance to bond to the same extent I’ve bonded with my friend over the years. If A Way Out gave us more about these characters – their motivations and past experiences – perhaps I’d be more inclined to care about protecting Leo or Vincent rather than the player on the other end of the voice chat.
The Last Of Us takes the relationship between the player and the character seriously. It’s why the game has such an emotional following and touched so many players. They enforce this bond between player and character through building that relationship organically. You meet Ellie at the same time as Joel – you learn about her history and temperament as he does, ultimately deeply aligning you with both characters. When I play as each character I want to protect the other, not because their death may mean I’m pushed back in my gameplay but simply because I don’t want to see them die.
That’s just not something A Way Out achieves, despite its marketing hype to the contrary. Aside from jarring act-ing and shallow character design, the biggest barrier to true shared identification with these characters that I’ve noticed in my play through so far is simple; dialogue.
Wait, What Did He Say?
I’ve probably missed about 90% of the dialogue in this game. Whether I was just chatting with my partner in crime or our conversations with NPCs collided, it’s difficult to understand each character’s motivations and thoughts when the dialogue is lost. Once again, quite often that’s fine – conversation definitely doesn’t come into most CS:GO sessions, but we’re talking about an experience that’s been hyped as an emotional, story-driven adventure. That wall between ourselves and our characters is only strengthened when conversations between our onscreen avatars does not match our own sentiments towards the situation. There’s nothing developers could have done to rectify this jarring barrier to character identification, other than recording everything we say and playing it back – but that’s a little too Facebook. Nevertheless, it’s a design consideration that perhaps requires further attention when developing cooperative, character-driven story titles.
But… Does It Matter?
Games are supposed to be fun, right? So I can’t help but thinking does it really matter that I wasn’t so invest-ed in the characters we were playing. I mean the game itself is nothing to sniff at, despite a few too many QTEs and though the game world itself doesn’t live up to expectations set in 2018, I definitely had a good time playing it. We were still invested in the game world insofar as the game world simply provides a series of enemies and mechanics to defeat them. We were still thinking through these strategies and mechanics as a team in the same way as the blank canvases we were employing to do so.
Then I remember the cut-scenes, static decision trees, and general assumption that we care about these characters enough to sit through their struggles. Then I consider whether it’s a cop out for a developer to rely on cooperative gameplay to make their experience fun. Then I make a cup of tea. Then I stop writing and leave the questions to you!