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Being Player Two is rubbish

All players are created equal, but some are more equal than others.

Somewhere around 1990 my sister, nearly four years my senior, received a NES as a gift. The first game we played, as is true for most people, was the original Super Mario Bros.

Because that little grey box of wonder belonged to my sister and I am the younger sibling, the natural order shook things out almost immediately: she was Player One and I was Player Two.

That pattern followed through subsequent games. Super Mario Bros. 3, Bubble Bobble, Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers; it didn't matter what the game was. I was always Luigi to her Mario, Bob to her Bub, or Dale to her Chip. I was happy enough with my lot and, talking to friends, it seemed like similar unspoken arrangements had settled into their households. The older sibling or the one who 'owned' the console was Player One, and the younger sibling was, invariably, Player Two.

Fast forward nearly thirty years and, in a rare case of social mobility, I now find myself as Player One. I was the bringer of consoles to my marriage, so the natural order of things dictated that I would be Player One and Mrs Baines (or Mrs B, for short) would therefore be Player Two.

I have therefore spent a good portion of time on both sides of the Player One/Player Two divide, but it was when Mrs B picked up Little Big Planet 3 for PS4 that I first stopped to consider how diminished an experience it can be when you're Player Two.

Luigi was many a Player Two's first love.

Mrs B took on the role of Player One for this one, since it was her purchase, and she popped the disk in. Little Big Planet 3 is a fairly buggy game, however, and we must have played through that prologue four or five times, each time finding we weren't actually able to progress to the first level proper. Then came the typical troubleshooting - check for updates, install updates, reboot, lather, rinse, repeat - until at some point, Little Big Planet 3 started working. Unfortunately, on what I can only describe as Player One autopilot, I had been the one to launch the game on the occasion it actually worked.

We played Little Big Planet 3 for three or four hours (and had a thoroughly nice time of it) before breaking off to do something else; probably to go to bed, since it had taken so long to get through the sodding prologue. When Mrs B came to play it the following day, while I was writing some copy, I heard a wail of anguish from in front of the PS4. Unbeknownst to us, only Player One gets to save story progress in Little Big Planet 3; sadly Mrs B had just found this out the hard way. My accidental Player One autopilot SNAFU had set her back hours.

This wasn't an isolated instance, though. When you think about it, Player Two often gets a raw deal, with the inability to save a second player's campaign progress - or rather, the fact that all story progress is deferred to Player One - a pretty common complaint.

Borderlands knows how to treat you right.

Sometimes the presence of a second player, like in the earlier Halo games or Call of Duty, isn't entirely explicable in the context of the story. There's no good reason why there's a second, palette-swapped Master Chief charging around the battlefield, so they simply don't bother conferring any story progress. Similarly Fable 2 allowed a second player to join the quest as a faceless hench-person, but they were unable to accrue any experience or collect items with any persistence, in addition to their inability to progress the story. On the face of it Fable 3 made a better fist of it - Player Two could import their own hero from a single-player save in place of the faceless hench-person - but they were still unable to save any story progress, with Player One effectively 'hosting' the story.

That's not to say all games get it wrong, of course. The Borderlands series is a paragon of equal treatment of Player Two (and indeed, Players Three and Four, when playing online), allowing them to save individual story progress and character modifications. The Gears of War games are another shining example; their use of defined characters for both Player One and Player Two gives sense and meaning to the presence of both parties, but it's still not perfect. Mrs B did have one complaint with Gears of War 4: specifically the achievements notification, which appears in the bottom centre of the screen on the Xbox One, was obnoxiously obstructing Player Two's splitscreen view at regular intervals.

Some games take an asymmetric approach to Player Two, perhaps aware of their limitations, and the experience is often a positive one for it. Player Two in the Super Mario Galaxy games, for example, doesn't play a full character role on screen, but instead makes use of the Wiimote's pointing ability to assist Player One's Mario by collecting items and shooting enemies. Playtonic Games has revealed something similar for Yooka-Laylee and in the context of a character platformer, that feels like a smart move.

Resi had an interesting point to make. Ha ha!

One of the most interesting (and most asymmetric) Player Two subordinations Mrs B and I have experienced, however, is in Resident Evil Revelations 2. While Player One gets to play as series staples Claire Redfield and Barry Burton, Player Two is left in a support role, either as Barry's daughter Moira or archetypal creepy little girl in a dress, Natalia.

Claire and Barry are tooled up with all manner of weapons, while Moira is 'armed' with a torch (that can dazzle but not harm monsters) and Natalia can only point at things. Yes, literally, she points out enemies with her index finger. While this dynamic did frustrate Mrs B at times, who longed to grab a shotgun and give me a hand, it certainly made for an interesting co-op dynamic and a unique experience. It's something we still talk about, even though it absolutely has its flaws.

So in a world where Player Two is getting an increasingly raw deal - or local co-op is being abandoned altogether - perhaps these more unusual or asymmetrical approaches are the way to go.

It may be designed for accessibility, but Mrs B and I are looking forward to giving Xbox One's new copilot feature a try for some chaotic, shared controller DIY multiplayer shenanigans. Think of it like Twitch Plays, but in our living room, and with more hurtful consequences to the inevitable arguments.

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