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Horror, Asymmetrical Dementia and The Prisoner’s Dilemma (Soap Not Included)

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2013 by trivialpunk

Hello ladies and gentles! Tonight, on a very special episode of Trivial Punk, we’re going to highlight an article that I think is hilarious to a certain point. It’s about the kind of personalities that can manifest when we’re thrown to the wolves. It’s a bit of a hard line to take, because we’ve all been “that guy” at one time or another. Don’t kid yourselves, girls can be “that guys,” too. Guy is hardly a gendered term any more. Where was I? Oh right, we’re only going to be spotlighting one blog a post until mid-terms and final papers are over, so I can maintain some vestige of conscious thought.

So, what’s in the news? Oh, right, there’s the whole Aliens: Colonial Marines thing. I know a lot of people beat on this game, and with good cause, but it’s a sign that gaming is still moving on up, as it were. It has been named as the next official step in the Aliens continuity, so that must mean something. Unfortunately, the small nation of developers that this game had seem to have been breathing in paint fumes during its creation. Oh well. Let’s hope that the next time a popular movie franchise decides to throw its IP to the critical gaming community, it doesn’t turn out so shit.

Moving on from that piece of gaming history, let’s move on to another of my favourite slow-moving targets fashioned from potatoes without ham-strings: Dead Space 3. Now, I know I’ve said everything that I needed to say about the game itself, but there’s still the multi-player component to spray down with Lysol. Up front, I’m going to say that I think it was an interesting idea. Adding a little multi-player to a horror experience may seem like a terrible idea on the surface, and the way they implemented it, it was, but there’s a flash of something shiny underneath. So, let’s start up our drills and dig until we hit diamond.


Some might say, and indeed I have, that adding another player to a horror experience eliminates the feeling of soul-crushing aloneness that leaves one feeling over-whelmed and out-matched against impossible, alien odds. That’s true. It’s also hard to maintain an atmosphere when you can do things like throw a limb into a loosely re-assembled pile of body parts and get the “First Aid” achievement. This happened to me playing two-player Monkey-swap on Dead Space 2 with a room-mate. We laughed for about an hour of game play. On my own, I probably wouldn’t have laughed longer than a minute, tops. However, used correctly, another player can add something that no horror game can hope to match on its own: an unpredictable element. Sure, some games can be surprising, but nothing in the world will make you feel more alone than knowing that the only other sane being in the room may turn around to try and kill you at any point. Nothing is more difficult to cope with than another intelligence in indirect competition with you. It can be hard to craft a horror game, a primarily experience-based, narrative-driven genre, that is viable in both multi-player and single-player modes. I think Dead Space 3 should get props for trying to pull together two entirely different campaign paths into a unified experience. Here, they might have spread themselves too thin, but they also took a somewhat flawed approach.


They introduced a mechanic called asymmetrical dementia. It basically means that your partner doesn’t see all of the same things that you do. This means that, to you, they may start behaving very strangely at times, without explanation. This is cute, and it’s a nice way to squeeze another player into the game while trying to maintain an air of suspicion, especially considering the largely illusory characters that made up the cast of the previous two titles. However, I have two problems with this approach. The first is the most obvious one. We know that asymmetrical dementia is a part of the game, so there’s really no reason to be weirded out by our partner’s unusual behaviors. If they do something strange, then it’s pretty easy to chalk it up to the mechanic. The second is related, but slightly different. There’s no reason to fear your partner’s behavior. There’s no distrust. In order to make a set-up like this effective, you need to combine unusual behavior with an untrustworthy situation or demeanour. I’m sure that the people who pull phishing schemes are suspicious, but there’s no reason for me to be afraid of them until I start making some rather unwise decisions concerning my chequeing account. Essentially, there’s no threat, and, for a horror game, that’s a pretty big problem. You need to give partners a reason to distrust each other, but, also, a need to cooperate. Given that DS3 has you working together against an overwhelming enemy while you’re both slipping slowly into hallucinogenic madness, it’s easy to see how the opportunity was well developed, if unexploited. So, how do we get people to work together to cut their own throats?

Let’s begin by looking at some other examples of hybrid-cooperation games that didn’t pan out. Call of Juarez: The Cartel included a sort of levelling system that relied on each player completing secret objectives while the others weren’t looking. It meant that your allies would be sneaking around on you to get upgrades to… assist you. Yeah, that’s where the whole thing sort of breaks down. Why wouldn’t you do your best to help your partner get that BFG? So, the problem was that there was really no level of competition. Sure, you were supposed to play within the rules of the game, but players will always meta-game, especially in cooperative games. So, as developers, we have to design games that take advantage of that tendency and forces them to compete head-to-head in the for-realsies world, while still wanting to cooperate. That’s how we fuck with heads.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors

Speaking of, have you played Zombies Ate My Neighbours? It’s a great example of a game that requires cooperation but still stokes competition. At the end of each level, a score is displayed that shows how well each player did that scenario. Pick-ups are limited and enemy weaknesses varied, so items are always at a premium. Losing your lives, obviously, resets you with the starting gun, so you want to make sure that you get a share of all the loot in case your partner dies. In multi-player mode, the fast-paced, quick-decision type of game-play leaves you cooperating and competing at the same time. It’s a perfect example of the type of formula you need to ensure that players will work together, but also, occasionally, turn on each other, or vice versa.

That leads me nicely to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Illustrated here…


The Prisoner’s Dilemma is classic game theory. Not for developing video games, but the kind that has been involved in everything from espionage to chess games. Basically, you and your partner in crime have been captured by the police and are both being interrogated in separate rooms. The time-frames and exact penalties vary a bit, but the basics of it are that there are four situations:

If you rat on your partner and they stay quiet: you go free and they get a big penalty. Let’s say, like the illustration, it’s 20 years in prison.

If your partner rats on you and you stay quiet: they go free and you get 20 years.

If both of you rat: You both get 5 years.

If both of you remain silent: You both get 1 year.

Essentially, by the numbers, it’s always better for you to rat, because you get an okay result no matter what your partner does. However, it’s optimal if both of you to stay quiet. BUT, you can’t possibly know if your partner will, and it’s devastating to you if you do and they don’t. So, you’re left to ponder your partner’s motives and your own decision. This is what it means to set two people who are better off working together against each other. Of course, we can’t just copy-paste that set-up, or the ZAMN one, into Dead Space 3, especially since everything uses AMMO-brand ammo, but we can do something similar…

Given that we’re giving each player slightly different information, and given the tendency for players to meta-game, then we just need to set up a few more caveats. First, we ensure that they are competing for something. It could be something as simple as weapon up-grades, but it could be plot-points, if we really want to make them hate each other. For instance, if both players perform a certain action, then they get a full ending, but if one does something else, then the other player is killed, while they get a personalized character ending. Then, we ensure that they can’t just save-scum that part, a’la The Cave. Even more dastardly, you could include some form of friendly-fire, while making life imperative, but with the same sort of Prisoner’s Dilemma-like result. If your partner kills you, then… etc. You have to make sure that one partner can’t just instantly murder the other, so there’s a point to staying on edge to give you that extra reaction time. The point is to get the players to distrust each other through the mechanics, while still making the play rewarding and challenging. If you make the co-op mode difficult enough, then they won’t want to hold their partners back. However, if you make the rewards tantalizing enough, then your players will spend the majority of the levels looking over their shoulders for big, soft targets in which they could, theoretically, plant speeding projectiles that blossom into blood-fountains.

This is just one way of thinking about it, but it makes a lot of sense considering the asymmetrical dementia approach. Under a regime of oppression and suspicion, unusual behavior becomes the most terrifying kind. It would really help to mechanically represent the distrust a psychopath might have for another murderous psychopath as they try to, carefully, navigate the murky waters of cutting each other out of their straight-jackets with only a single knife, literally, between them. If we’re going to begin introducing co-op into horror games, then this is exactly the kind of thing we’re going to have to master.

There are as many different ways to breed distrust as there are wants in the dreams of the most avaricious among us, so I’m sure I’ll end up discussing a few more in the time to come. If you have any ideas, then feel free to post them in the comments. I’m going to get back to stitching together what brief strings of sane thought I can into something resembling a cogent essay. See you on the other side!