By Neil Merrett
Risk of Rain 2, released on PS4 in 2019, developed by Hopoo Games
There is a unique sense of immediacy and real world peril to gaming online.
While most single player games provide the option of a pause function to provide a much needed comfort break and a sense of control over time, playing with friends or strangers over the web commits you to a shared world that cannot stop for a toilet break or quick stir fry.
In short, you are at the mercy of your teammates or online opponents, regardless of when the real-world wishes to interrupt.
A player needs to therefore set themselves a clear space of time for online games, one almost entirely free of the demands of everyday and not-so-everyday life.
This sense of immediacy – a feeling of time being truly precious – is well illustrated in the third person action game Risk of Rain 2. The game seeks to balance a basic need to fight and explore in order to find and stack up a random assortment of power ups, with a timer that intensifies difficulty and in-game challenges the longer you play.
Every second hurts in Risk of Rain 2. From a mostly gentle opening few minutes, the longer a player and their allies take to move beyond each level, the more apocalyptic the number and strength of your enemies that are set upon you.
An old fashioned level
Traditionally, games have used levels or stages as a natural way of increasing difficulty for the player. Therefore, you would be rewarded for fully conquering a level as much as possible and uncovering as many of its secrets before moving forward, building up experience and strength for your next challenge.
But Risk of Rain 2’s difficulty timer subverts this comforting mechanic by threatening impending doom on you the longer you wait. A fellow player may ask their teammates for another minute on a level in the hope of gaining explosive munitions or a healing fungal infection that can be applied to sentry guns and friends alike.
However, if that comes at the cost of a literal hellspawn arriving to your placid alpine valley within two minutes, is it not better to press on immediately?
Comfort and progress
Comfort and progress for most players will be reliant on pulling together a crack squad, or at least assembling a group of crackpots to share the decision making and bully you into progression.
That there are only a finite number of power-ups available on every level, and the ones there are will only apply to whoever finds them, there is something of a treasure hunt element to the game, requiring a player to think of others as much of themselves or risk being stuck with an underpowered squad.
In the strange times of March 2020, there is something to be said for a game that reinforces the importance of trying to share resources and ration power ups with those closest to you. This can involve marking out in-game items of interest to others in your team or power-ups that you might buy to support your allies preferred character-type or play-style. This style may suit some basic ability, or a friend’s basic love of being able to set opponents on fire.
Other players, of course, may just see value in stocking up as many power ups as they can find during the game’s increasingly intense battles and therefore leaving their fellow players to fend for themselves as best they can. Perhaps a skillful enough player can drag through the less fortunate to each new world anyway – there are always casualties with progress.
The mercy of strangers
An online playthrough of Risk of Rain 2 is really about throwing yourself onto the mercy of friends or strangers, committing yourself to a shared world and sense of time that only intensifies with each second.
The imperfect nature of humans trying to share resources and time does of course throw in the added risk of a player suddenly having to return to the real world mid-game. This can leave your three or four-person squad with a sudden lifeless husk to manage, or not as the case may be.
A natural response in these situations is to forfeit the current run and start again with a fresh squad, but there is the other option to try and survive the absence of the missing player until their return by bunkering down to protect them, perhaps profiting off the resulting combat.
Rather than trying to run and beat the clock, is it possible to resist the increasing challenge and hordes that are set upon the player as the game’s difficulty gradually shifts from modes such as ‘hard’ and ‘very hard’ to ‘impossible’ and the deliciously malicious sounding ‘I see you’?
A brisk action game can suddenly become a tense saga of survival, one where players must make the most of the items they have so far collected to try and build up a kind of informal encampment.
As the difficulty timer runs down, and in-game challenges intensify, the remaining players may find themselves deciding to use the hard earned profits of their combat to head out from camp and try and find additional abilities and power-ups around the level.
They may otherwise try and hold onto their convictions and maintain the squad at the camp to bolster their abilities as the average enemies they face grow into increasingly oppressive monsters that will seek to smash you apart by air, or even underground.
There is not always a right and wrong path to survival, with the option of survival itself sometimes a forlorn hope in a game such as Risk of Rain 2.
But oh, for those fleeting moments of being together and above any challenge, brothers and sisters in arms against eternity itself – or at least as long as the gigantic army of Clay Dunestriders takes to get to your location.
Cowardice, comradery, greed, bonhomie, frustration, glory and doomed ambition. Risk of Rain 2 is a great game to share with mates.