Let me see if I can pigeonhole a certain gamer.
This particular person grew up on video games, particularly competitive ones.
As he or she has gotten older, some of their quick skills and fluid memory and thinking has waned. Sure, they can recall games just fine, and perhaps they now have extensive knowledge about the repertoire of gaming experiences out there, but their twitch response times just aren’t enough to compete with the teenagers these days in fast playing games like Call of Duty.
Not only that, but the design of games has grown against their desire for something deeper. Are we really going to be subjected to more weeb? Are we forced to contend with poor writing in a medium that only values melodramatic stories as subservient to gameplay?
He or she has probably gotten to an age where quite suddenly their time is gone. No more summer hours spent reading the dialogue of The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and following a guide placed next to goldfish and Diet Dr. Pepper. This is the adult who just needs a way to make games theirs again, meaning a way to have the game serve them rather than the other way around. After the next Bioshock, after the next Breath of the Wild, there are only so many formative gaming thresholds to be crossed before the medium suddenly becomes quite closed off and…well…stagnant.
I hate to say it, but of all mediums out there, there’s a real case to be made for video games being the least innovative. That is because the teams required to build them, the knowledge-base, the resources, are so high, that a return on investment is more important than ever. Contrast this with a book, where the cost to entrance is so drastically low as to be non-existent. Go to a corner store and pick up a pen and paper. Go write your avante-garde book. For inspiration, go get a library card. Yes, I am aware that there are still places where even these things are hard to get, but compared to video game development, it’s chalk and cheese.
So prepare to do a lot of Pavlovian, Skinnerbox tricks until you get the sweet cosmetic item you were hoping for. The use of behaviorism in video games now is one of my biggest pet peeves. Especially in the middle of the 2010s, the issue of randomized loot boxes, combined with impressionable young players, and the acquisition of a parent’s credit card, led to gambling by the underage that made video games look predatory and desperate.
This is the world of the adult gamer.
Instead of diving into the living games of The Division 2 or Destiny 2, this adult gamer just wants to get in, have a good time, and get out. And because of the aforementioned problems with competitive games, sometimes that can be frustrating (see “rage quit”). So instead of competitive, they go cooperative. Cooperative games are the bread and butter of adult gamers for all the reasons stated above. Asynchronous games like Minecraft are excellent for drop in and drop out projects of creativity. Experienced gamers can grandfather newer players in shooters like Borderlands 3 by leveling up their lower leveled friends faster. And no one has to feel that irksome feeling that they are “letting the team down” because you’re fighting the computer, who is just as dispassionate as you would like it to be.
But while there are plenty of cooperative games out there, the truth is, many are quite limited in scope. You are either shooting things or jumping over things. Some games are puzzles done with groups, and it can be a lot of fun to plan through experiences together. These games may not necessarily or explicitly be “multiplayer,” but still they cater to groupthink very well. Games like Return of the Obra Dinn, or The Witness have no time limit to puzzles or ideas, and as such they can be parsed out by two people or ten.
But suppose you wanted to give everyone a role, so that each person contributes to the experience and feels rewarded. Suppose you wanted every session to feel slightly different each time, and while yes you may end up shooting or building or mining, you had a directed goal each time to give that creativity some flair.
This is what makes Deep Rock Galactic one of the best cooperative games I have ever played, and why I want to share it with you now. The object is simple: you are space dwarves working on a station in orbit over the planet Hoxxes. Each mission, you ride a Drop Pod down into the depths, as the grinders of the Pod dig hundreds and sometimes thousands of meters into the planet. When you arrive in these underground caves, you’ll need to dig for ore with your pickaxe, or you’ll need to rescue broken equipment. The planet of Hoxxes is a dangerous planet filled with bugs big and small, and can even crawl along the walls and ceiling, so you’re gonna need to shoot your way out. It’s a dark place, and you’ll be bringing flares and flashlights with you to keep the horrors of the unknown at bay, until you can get what you need and make it back to the Drop Pod before it leaves. And it will leave without you.
Much like Snow White’s aptly named dwarves, each of the types in Deep Rock Galactic have their own abilities. There’s the Scout, who has an incredible amount of mobility with a batman-like grapple gun, an ability to shoot flares, and who carries enough firepower to hold his own as he races forward to see what’s next. There’s the Gunner, lugging around a gatling gun, with a zip line system to connect two outcroppings of caves over a vast chasm for him and the other dwarves. He provides overwatch for the team. There’s the Engineer, who is able to lay down platforms with a…ahem…platform gun! Not only that, but he can set up automated turrets, who provide protection in those moments when the dwarves need to hunker down against a swarm. And then there’s the Driller, who can dig anywhere at any time, connecting caverns and creating new paths for the crew when they need a quick way out…or a quick way in.
Each person has a role to play, and the dwarves are so different, each one presents opportunities for positive reinforcement. Other games attempt to do this, but Deep Rock Galactic is one of the few games that makes those differences worth it. One of the reasons for this is that the planet of Hoxxes, like Minecraft is fully destructible and randomly generated. Every time you go in, you do not know what to expect as far as the level design is concerned. You play detective, looking at the 3D terrain scanner, to see what the best options are, and you deliberate with your group to see who has the best skills available. The fully destructible environments are the spice to all of this. You’ll immediately be able to see who has the high spatial IQ of your team. I mean, does this wall need to exist? Is this spire coming out of the middle of the cave a tower? Or is it a bridge? If the gunner can shoot a zipline from the top, could the driller reach the end and make a tunnel to the next area, fully cutting the distance to the next objective in half?
The synthesis of the skills from each dwarf creates some unprecedented success stories. In one mission, my friend and I were playing as the Driller and the Gunner and we had to collect eggs. Eggs can be found embedded deep into the walls of caves, but sometimes that spot may be twenty to thirty meters up. Easy fix: gunner uses the zipline.
But there was a problem. When I shot my zipline, I was supposed to shoot it above an outcropping, so that my friend could have a place to jump from and land safely in order to start digging. Instead, the zipline placed him many feet up, and nothing was between him and a fall to certain death. But, the driller also has C4 explosives, which create huge craters. By throwing it along the wall and sticking the C4, my driller friend turned around on the zipline and gave himself distance from the ensuing blast. He detonated it, and the egg came popping out.
The game is full of these. The Engineer’s platform gun, combined with the Scout’s grapple gun, is a dangerous combination. As long as the scout has a soft spot to fall after he grapples, he can go anywhere within reach of the grapple gun’s wire. It allows some pretty amazing excavations of ore and items in the ceilings of some very high caves.
Creativity, when combined with directed problem solving that does not always involve shooting is the key here. Yes, you shoot bugs, but you also navigate a dangerous world using the tools available to you. After even just twenty hours in the game, the explicit problem solving is placed back into the hippocampus region of your brain, and the team dynamics become second nature. If you play with a group for long enough, you are predicting their needs and providing platforms and ziplines and tunnels without them having to ask. You become the NASCAR pit crew, nonverbally adjusting and welcoming new challenges so efficiently and effectively, it feels like a new language.
Cooperative games simply have to learn from this experience. Giving everyone the same abilities, although it seems ethical, can actually stymie creativity and nuance from a game. Giving people different and itemized abilities, and then giving conflicts that allows those players to express themselves to benefit the group, is empowerment.
While Deep Rock Galactic does the core gameplay better than many other Cooperative-focused ones, the leveling up of characters is not nearly as robust as other living game experiences to date. You can change the beard on your dwarf, and you can make your guns look different, but the depth to the customizable experience does have a quickly foreseeable end. To me, as an adult gamer, I am okay with that. I used to relish the ability to display my time invested with cool looking avatars and high-leveled loot.
But no more.
Deep Rock Galactic reminds you that the cake is better than any icing, if it is done well. It is much more fulfilling, especially when eating the cake with a party of friends.