The Couched Impetus

The Couched Impetus

Did you know there’s a difference between couches and sofas? Despite what you may have heard or surmised after years of experience regarding the two, it’s not just about size nor at all about the price; it’s about the design. Couches were originally designed for Victorian-era women to flop down on after falling ill to wearing-a-corset-itis and hence have no arms and a tapered back. The word “sofa” originates from the Arabic word “suffah,” which describes a bench covered with padding, hence a sofa’s arms and straight back.

Personally, I prefer the sofa because when you cram three other people in there with you while you play video games, everything is a personal vendetta.

Before the advent of the Internet and online shenanigans, video games that featured multiplayer were played in physical proximity to other players by necessity. The phrase “couch co-cop” didn’t exist because it was the only kind of co-op, which is to say you always played together in the same room or on the same couch. Split-screen or shared-screen, it didn’t matter; it was one machine, a few controllers, and a commensurate number for friends/soon-to-be enemies, something I thought about while going through both online and offline play in Pocketwatch Games’ latest release, Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine, a four-player cooperative heist game.

Co-op and multiplayer in the modern lexicon have certain connotations, namely that they are both online. When someone says to you that a game has a cooperative campaign or competitive multiplayer, you just kind of assume they mean through Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. And I mean, why wouldn’t you? High-speed Internet access is as pervasive as it’s ever been and with UI designed to be specifically seen at a certain size and resolution, it kind of makes sense everyone would play on their own console in their own home on their own television.

The upsetting thing is that this preconceived notion of isolation has broken down certain aspects of multiplayer gaming. The degradation is perhaps most notable in LAN parties. Before everyone had reliable and speedy Internet connections, LAN parties were the only way to guarantee everyone could consistently play and have a pleasant experience; lag would be pretty much a nonfactor.

Perhaps the most important thing, though, is that everyone would be together. I know that sounds super cheesy and comes across as a 70s hippie message, but having the people that you are shooting at and working with all in the same room is a massively different experience than when all you get are tinny, delayed voices coming out of your headset. Now you can catch out of your peripherals the way people lean forward when things get tense or sit back in resignation at a round far out of reach. You can feel as they jitter about, anxious for the next bullet-laden encounter or for the countdown to reach zero. Not only can you hear and see on the screen that they are revving but that they are also feathering every other button on the controller as some arcane pre-race ritual.

This now exists solely among the die-hard. Granted, LAN parties were always something for the more technological and gaming inclined, but it used to be I would need a spreadsheet to track all of the gatherings in a given month. Now I can count exactly one that I regularly attend: QuakeCon. And that’s usually in some work capacity as a journalist (you can read about what it’s like as an attendee over at SB Nation).

What is missed most, though, is the actual act of playing a video game with some other people all on the same couch. Or sofa. Whatever. The important thing is the absolute immediacy of our collective adjacency. LAN parties were great because online multiplayer games have such higher player counts than same-screen multiplayer so it felt an awful lot like playing in an arena that happened to be populated solely by you and your friends, but playing on a sofa with just three other dudes is so much more intimate.

That intimacy leads to a meta game of sorts. Suddenly, not only were able to mentally gauge the situation among your cohorts and competitors but also physically engage with them. Granted, the extreme of this (that is: pushing, shoving, slapping controllers, hitting buttons, etc.) is usually reserved for more lackadaisical settings and more accommodating friends, but even the more moderate utilities are pretty great. Locked side-by-side, foes can’t escape steely stares and heated trash-talk as they can from across a room full of computers, networking cables, and pizza. Partners in crime can give you the most imperceptible of nudges to initiate your favorite predetermined play (The Annexation of Puerto Rico).

It also taught to hold your cards a little closer to the chest. For all the little signs and ticks that you could read off of others, they could just as easily read off of you. If they lay in wait, you sense a calm from their static hands but a great storm of nerves and mild perspiration coming from their body. If you jump, you’ll give away your foreknowledge and you’ll give away what is now your advantage, only to have the pursuit begin anew. Play it calm (or at least unknowing) and their trap becomes your trap.

These are little physical things that are only present in couch co-op, a catchall term that includes any sort of multiplayer in a single physical location rather than strictly meaning cooperative play taking place on a literal couch. And they are things that can’t be emulated once game data is filtered through routers and cables. They may not always be advantageous or even preferred, but they are undoubtedly wholly unique to that setup. That’s why online poker is often viewed as where you hone your gameplay strategies while face-to-face poker is where you hone your interpersonal ones.

I also like that a sofa makes you feel like you’re slotted into a roller coaster. It’s an appropriate metaphor for the ups and down you are guaranteed to experience fighting and conniving with three of your closest friends.

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One thought on “The Couched Impetus

  1. […] Pocketwatch Games, is an excellent example of this. It is a heist video game wherein you and optionally three friends (or enemies or strangers; I won’t judge) attempt a series of robberies. Played from a […]

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