Gaming is usually thought of as a solitary hobby, one that often comes at the expense of personal relationships with others. This is couldn’t be farther from the truth. Whether you game with friendly rivals in Super Smash Bros. or guild mates in World of Warcraft, gaming is the most social form of media consumption there is. Even single-player games can be bonding experiences for people who choose to play them together.
I recently played through all three acts of the episodic adventure game Kentucky Route Zero with my girlfriend, and, like all bizarre road trips, it was better with a co-pilot. Kentucky Route Zero, like many of its kin in the increasingly revitalized genre of adventure games, is primarily a about making choices. That was how we played it cooperatively: no matter who was driving, we’d make decisions together. Unlike the popular and gruesome Walking Dead series, though, the choices in Kentucky Route Zero are almost always additive, rather than subtractive. Instead of deciding which of your party members you leave to become zombie chow, you might construct a poem line by line, or choose the verses of a song heard by the other characters.
With no fail state for choosing the wrong stanza, these decisions aren’t strategic but creative. Even inconsequential moments of gameplay, such as choosing one dialogue option out of several, help develop character. Is Conway a steady, reliable driver trying not to consider the future too closely, or is he a former alcoholic still caught up in a dim past? What’s the name of your old dog in the straw hat? That’s for both of you to decide. The pleasure of playing Kentucky Route Zero with another person isn’t just about traveling together through the weird world of magical Americana. By making choices together, you’re shaping what that world looks like.
Sunless Sea, a semi-sequel to the browser-based Fallen London, makes for a very different sort of cooperative single-player experience. For one, there is no linear story to progress through, only the dark expanse of the Unterzee to explore. Your goals waver between ambitious—smuggling a shipment of souls past customs, for instance—to desperate, just trying to keep your resources high enough to survive. It was during one of these lean times, watching my partner steer our ship south in some mad gambit while safety and fuel were back west, that I realized playing Sunless Sea with my significant other was testing our patience with one another. Her resources were my resources, and vice versa. Sometimes the tension broke one of us, and we would snap at each other. But that happened less and less as time went by. We were learning to have a little faith in each other, even in stressful situations.
Of course, there’s a certain satisfaction in suffering together, too. There are any number of ways your adventuresome captain might come to a bizarre and terrible end in Sunless Sea, and we experienced our fair share. Destroyed by pirates. Devoured by sea creatures. Mutinied and killed by our own crew. We died a lot, is the point, but that hardship brought us closer together. When our ship ran out of fuel because we had not restocked at the last port, it was like a class of kids had come back from Christmas vacation to find out that no one had remembered to feed the gerbil: a terrible mistake, but at least the blame is shared. When you play Sunless Sea with another person, you both carry the responsibility for your inevitably doomed crew. Their deaths need not weigh heavily on your heart alone.
Playing intentionally multiplayer games together can be powerful bonding experiences, of course—there’s no shortage of real-life love stories that started in World of Warcraft—but sharing a single-player experience can be just as rewarding. Whether you’re composing a poem or eating your first mate, when you’re using the same controller (or mouse and keyboard), you’re doing it as a team.