There is a Latin verb which can mean “to build up” or “to tear down”. Playing my birthday present with my kids, Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One, I’m irresistibly reminded of it.
Previous Ratchet & Clank games have been essentially buddy movies, with our heroes repeatedly saving the universe—only to have it manage to get back in jeopardy again between iterations. They’re classic platformers, livened up by wry commentary and amusing touches*. It’s probably my favorite gaming franchise.
All 4 One bills itself as being all that and cooperative to boot: a truly multiplayer addition to the series. Up to four people can play, and each of them controls a long-running character from the series. There’s Ratchet, the mechanical-genius lombax (a long-eared, furry-tailed bipedal species). There’s Clank, his wisecracking robot friend. Then there’s Quark, the Captain Hammer of the story: overblown and happy to take credit for anyone’s work, but essentially cowardly. Last of all, there’s Dr Nefarious, the substantially robotic nemesis, prone to reciting snatches of soap operas when his gears don’t mesh right. (Note that if you’re Jenny Nae Mates, the game will run the necessary characters with its own AI.)
My family finds it all but unplayable in collaborative mode.
The gameplay itself is fine: each character has a lot of freedom within the frame. Players have to work together to defeat some challenges (propelling each other to places they can’t jump or drawing fire from a robotic turret while someone else sneaks up to its unshielded back side). If more than one player shoots at a target, they share credit for the “kill”, and characters who are killed can be revived by other players.
But then, at the end of each level, the game ranks the players against one another. Who killed the most enemies? Who got the most treasure? Who died the most? Who was the most cooperative?. Winners get titles like “Most Heroic” and “Bolt Master”. But if someone manages to not come in first in any of the categories, they’re labeled “Noob”.
First quibble: “most cooperative” only measures behaviors like “shoots at the same target as everyone else” and “revives fallen comrades.” Things like “being the one who always does a particular task so that no one else has to” don’t get counted. obKloutAlgorithm, if you measure the wrong stuff, you reward the wrong person.
Second quibble: my reaction to seeing anyone I’m playing with being called a “Noob” simply because other people scored higher is easily expressed in Anglo-Saxon monosyllables. It’s not only an insult; it’s also an absolute term being applied to a comparative score. And it ignores the honor and value in being a jack of all trades (and master of none), or the second best swordsman in Caribastos.
But the problem is bigger than an inability to measure true cooperation or find the right terms. The real issue is that setting the characters against each other destroys the trust and collaboration that’s the selling point of the game.† Then, after the separation of sheep and goats, after the judging and the ranking, the awarding of titles and the name-calling, somehow the players have to work together again. They have to reinvent the team from its competing components, over and over again.
How many times do we see that in collaborative environments? Workplaces are prone to it, of course; the team does the work and the manager takes the credit. People succeed or fail on their own because judging them on their team’s performance “damages individual endeavor” and “encourages freeloading”. This means that people whose main gift is making teams jell and work together are undervalued.
But I’d also submit that it’s another flavor of the tension that we’re struggling with as citizens of capitalist nations. How much do we want the entire society to succeed, and what do we do when our own interests cut against that? You know the drumbeat: Raise taxes to provide a safety net or fund better public education? Pay for others’ health care? Including the stuff I don’t approve of? What do you mean she works hard; all she does is take care of the kids. But they’re wasteful. They bought a wide-screen TV. They buy brand-name food with their food stamps. Work-shy. Slut. Lazy. Irresponsible.
* Weapons include the Sheepinator, which turns your enemies into sheep; the Chickenator; and the RYNO — Rip You a New One — which plays the 1812 Overture as it fires.
† It also damages gameplay. For instance, characters need to collect money (bolts, in-game) and spend it on new weapons. If one character can’t afford a new weapon because someone else was obsessed with being the Bolt Master and hogged all the treasure, the entire team’s ability to proceed is hampered.