Gaming on a Timer

Fun With Friends – Asymmetrical Design (We Were Here)

In Fun With Friends, we’ll be taking a look at various co-op experiences, from action-packed sidescrolling shoot-em-ups to calmer, more methodical puzzle-solving games. This week, let’s have a look at how asymmetrical design improves upon a co-op experience with help and examples from “recent” F2P co-op puzzle game We Were Here.

Playing co-op games has always been one of my favorite multiplayer activities ever since my formative years, from Contra and Golden Axe‘s side-scrolling mayhem action to more methodical, slow burners such as Lost Vikings and (once co-op moved on from the realm of the side-scroller to other genres) several Infinity Engine games like Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale. For me, it was always much more than just the thrill of playing with other people – it was a sense of camaraderie, or perhaps knowing  that someone else just experienced the game in the same way as I just had, a joint sense of accomplishment.

Needless to say that, to this day, I always savor my co-op sessions – doubly so since nowadays tight schedules and real-life obligations limit said sessions more than ever.

The second puzzle in the game, from the librarian’s perspective…

Before diving into asymmetrical co-op design, let’s set a baseline for a what constitutes a co-op experience. As with most gaming-related terms (which have always been a bit nebulous and subjective) the “co-op” tag can be stretched to fit a lot of diverse examples. However, for the purpose of this discussion I’m considering a game as having co-op if it fulfills the following:

  1. The co-op portion of the game is played with two or more players (obviously)
  2. These players need to work within the game’s intended design to accomplish objectives, which in turn move the game forward (co-op must be implemented by design explicitly – as an example of incidental co-op, consider a PVP server in WoW where players of opposing factions help each other out instead of attacking, thus an unintended by-product of the players’ choosing).
  3. For this post, I’m also not considering games such as Dead By Daylight, since those are combinations of co-op (the survivor team needs to work together to escape) and player-versus-player (since as a team, they’re actively working against the killer player) and thus, while  excellent examples of asymmetrical design, are beyond the scope of this post.

Further to the above, we’ll also be looking specifically at asymmetrical co-op design – while asymmetry in games takes many forms, from map design to team balance and a multitude of other variables, we’ll be looking specifically at the two-player puzzle variant, which in essence works by limiting each player’s access to specific and exclusive sets of information and interactions, then making both sets necessary for completing the game.

With the above in mind, let’s have a look at a game I recently had the pleasure of going through – We Were Here, the free-to-play first entry of the titular series, with two games currently released and a third one slated for a 2019 release (We Were Here Too and We Were Here Together, respectively). 

In We Were Here, two players take the role of a pair of explorers taking refuge in an ominous castle during a snowstorm. Separated upon entry, players are tasked with navigating the castle’s various traps and puzzles, armed with only their wits and a walkie-talkie tuned into their companion’s frequency. From there, both players must communicate with one another, providing a back-and-forth of clues, questions and panicked exclamations while they try to guide one another to the exit.

…and the explorer’s side as well.

Upon creating a session, each player is assigned one of the two available  roles – explorer or librarian. These are more than fancy titles, though, as they determine which part of the castle each player will start in and are unique (meaning that you can’t have two explorers or librarians in the same session). As the librarian, the game is mostly limited to a single room, filled with a multitude of interactive props such as maps, books and valves, while the explorer has access to more extensive levels, with a large variety of indoors and outdoors locales, including mazes, gardens and crypts.

This is where the “asymmetrical” part of the design really kicks in – for the majority of the game, the librarian’s role is to rummage their limited surroundings for clues to feed to the explorer, who is doing the bulk of the legwork. As an example, in one of the early puzzles the explorer is tasked with navigating a maze of rooms and passages while finding a series of color-coded switches that toggle gate sets in said maze, of which the librarian has a map of. Thus, the librarian takes the role of navigator, trying to direct the explorer (always via walkie-talkie) towards the correct sequence of switches, while the explorer attempts to follow the instructions and provide accurate feedback.

What I find most interesting in this approach to asymmetry is the way the developers have given the game a sense of urgency, mainly by limiting player communication to the walkie-talkie system (essentially VOIP via Steam’s API) – a lot of the puzzles in We Were Here are built around the players’ ability to quickly and accurately provide information to one another. A good example of this is a flooding room encountered early in the explorer’s route – the librarian must be quickly provided with the correct color combination of valves to shut off, in order to halt the water flow to the explorer’s side. With just voice communication, this becomes inherently more stressful and (since it’s done correctly, i.e. a generous time limit is given for new players to realize what to do) incredibly fun, in an edge-of-your-seat kind of way.

While asymmetrical design isn’t a new thing in gaming (with games such as Unreal Tournament experimenting with asymmetrical modes like Assault as early as 1999 or games with character stats eventually evolving into the class-based MP FPS sub-genre, Team Fortress being a good example), it is interesting to note that the puzzle co-op variant is relatively new in mainstream appeal – in fact, aside from We Were Here and its sequel(s), I can only thing of one more example in this genre, Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes which, in the same vein has one player defusing elaborate bomb setups while the other guides them through the process by providing specific info from a bomb-disposal manual.

So, what makes a goo asymmetrical co-op puzzle game? Using We Were Here as an example (as I’d consider it an excellent, if slightly too short game) we can extract a few good examples:

The game’s visual design is interesting, but not to the point of distracting from the puzzle design.
  1. Communication between players must be facilitated in a precise, functional manner. In our sessions, we found this to be of the utmost importance, as the explorer would often need to convey concise information to the librarian as they would often be in immediate danger of dying (and would thus need info on how to escape fast.)
  2. Puzzle design must be simple enough to describe over the communication channel, yet complex enough to feel like an accomplishment once the puzzle is solved. In We Were Here, this is mostly achieved by using modular puzzle design, where each puzzle is made up of smaller individual segments that are simple in design (and thus easy to communicate to the other player). In doing so, the developers allow players to easily and precisely describe each element to their companion (see point #1), while also building said elements into a larger, more complex (and therefore more satisfying) puzzle.
  3. If possible, recycle as few puzzle assets as possible and vary segment design. A lot of the puzzles in We Were Here feel “fresh”, mainly because the developers take enough care to provide variety in their design. While the puzzles are few in number (around five or so “main” puzzle rooms to get through), there are significant changes in what each puzzle’s solution calls on (be it spatial awareness, lateral thinking, logic, riddle-solving, and so on) which helps each room feel unique and interesting to work through.
  4. Allow for moments of tension, as well as moments of calm – use the two to keep the pacing interesting and variable. We Were Here performs admirably in this, with pacing alternating between tense, life-or-death moments and calm, logical ones. I feel that, had it leaned towards either one of the two more heavily, it would have suffered by either becoming too tense (and taxing to play through) or too slow (and boring or annoying to experience).
  5. Make sure that each player’s role is sufficiently different to the other’s. Again, the game is quite good at conveying this from the get-go, as it’s made very clear by the level design of the initial rooms that each player’s role is distinctly different – the explorer does most of the legwork and faces most of the danger, while the librarian handles the information-gathering and guidance aspects.

As an overall experience, We Were Here is interesting and highly enjoyable – perhaps a bit shorter than it should be (though I suspect this is intentional, as this first game is free to play and probably intended as a “demo” or introduction to the series, meant to draw players in) but still quite substantial and efficient in how it spends the players’ time.  If nothing else, it certainly made me and my co-op partner interested in the series as a whole.

For the record, a full playthrough (in which each player experiences both sides of the team) takes around 2 to 3 hours – I find this to be an excellent length of time for what the game sets out to do, being long enough to provide ample opportunity for observation but short enough to allow both players to fully experience it in a single session.

Have you played any co-op games recently? Any good examples of asymmetrical design you’d like to see discussed in this blog or with other readers? Drop us a line in the comments section!