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Awkward Splitscreen: Game Night’s Greatest Curse

Splitscreen is a concept that should never leave gaming’s consciousness. When all those online systems switch off, having splitscreen multiplayer means your game still has a chance of being brought out whenever someone’s friends are over. Though the money dries up, the good times (and therefore goodwill towards the developers) keep rolling in. But there’s a phenomenon within local multiplayer that really needs to stop – the terrible trials presented by what I’ve come to call “Awkward Splitscreen.”

Before I round off a few examples to explain what that entails, I just want to be clear – I’m not complaining that there was splitscreen functionality in any of the games discussed in the first place – that’s a great thing – I’m just moaning about its implementation.

For my first example I turn my attention to a certain survival horror franchise. Anyone who’s tried to play the co-op Resident Evils on the couch with a friend will probably feel my pain on this one. There you are, thinking you’ll pop on a bit of Mercenaries. You build excitement as you both pick your characters, wait a bit for it to load, and then you’re finally presented with this:

Awkward Splitscreen - Resident Evil 6As soon as you see all that wonderful wasted space your heart sinks, one of you probably groans and you realise this isn’t going to be anywhere near as fun as it should be. I adore Resident Evil 6’s Mercenaries mode and I did manage to have a lot of fun unlocking all the extra characters and costumes with a friend despite the odd, fixed-ratio downsized splitscreen, but that was mainly because I was lucky enough to be able to have a comfortable splitscreen session on the PC version – we were right in front of the screen. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few potentially amazing console co-op sessions of Resident Evil 5 and 6 were squandered in no small part by the limited vision caused by both games’ implementation of splitscreen.

To Capcom and all other developers considering using that strict-ratio downsizing to fit both player’s perspectives on-screen – I’d dare say I speak for a fair few people when I say we really wouldn’t mind losing a bit of vertical FOV if it means that the whole screen is filled.

It’s not just shooters that have this problem – The Sims: Bustin’ Out and the Urbz had co-op local multiplayer. I know, great, right? It was a lot of fun, but I personally think it could have been even more so had the developers not opted for a diagonal divide across the screen, meaning neither player could see all that much, especially when the game’s chunky on-screen buttons came into play. You can bear it and it’s certainly playable, but I can’t help but feel that the game would have been better off with a traditional horizontal or vertical split, even at the PS2’s 480p resolution.

I questioned whether I’d count the Traveller’s Tales LEGO games’ dynamic splitscreen in this, with its wildly shifting dividing line, but I don’t think I would – so long as your focus is constantly anchored to your character I find it does a great job of letting you explore the level free from having your perspective boxed in, but most importantly if you don’t like it you can turn it off (in the later games at least).

My last example will be the one that turned this topic from a few thoughts bouncing about my head to the article scribed with pure, unfiltered agitation you’re reading now. This one goes to show that this is still a very recent issue.

Picture the scene. A friend of mine excitedly invites me and another mutual bud over for a game of J-Stars Victory VS+. He’d put in a lot of work unlocking all the characters we were after (Kenshirooo!) and at long last it was going to pay off. He’d never played the local multiplayer before.

We selected our characters, picked the stage and we were finally all set for a bout of pure anime fighting action. And then it loaded.

Awkward Splitscreen - J-Stars Victory Vs PlusWhat the hell is this!?

There’s so, so much one can complain about. Aside from any potential technical reasons, I honestly can’t imagine why the gameplay shouldn’t fill the screen here. All of the HUD elements could have been superimposed over the players’ perspectives (had said perspectives filled the screen) and would have looked far better as a result. Nearly fifty percent of the screen is taken up by those elements, making the screen space given to the gameplay – i.e. what the players will be focusing on – eye-strainingly small as a result. All this, and there’s still enough space left over to let me fit a watermark crediting the website I sourced the image from in there!

It’s a real shame, because J-Stars is a great game that lends itself really well to local multiplayer, but due to its questionable splitscreen, perhaps necessitated because the engine might not have been able to render each player’s perspective in 640×720 or 960×1080, the whole mode takes a dive in appeal as a result.

I’m sure these examples I’ve branded as “Awkward Splitscreen” had a mandatory purpose behind them – maybe a traditional horizontal/vertical split honestly didn’t work for the game, perhaps the game engine was completely unable to render two screens at once in the nonstandard resolution required and/or the Awkward Split was required to let the game run at any sort of decent framerate. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop it from affecting the player’s experience, more often than not for the worse.

In the end, I’d say it’s all a question of choice. Developers – I know it’s a huge ask but if you need to split the screen to allow for local multiplayer please, please, please give us the option to adjust the split. Tell players how doing away with the fixed ratio or unusually-angled split will affect the game – even if there are some adverse effects it’s great to have the choice. Serious Sam 3 gave players a ludicrous amount of options for how they wished to split the screen, lower vertical FOV and insanely wide or narrow horizontal FOV be damned, and in my opinion its local multiplayer was so much better for it.

It’s unfortunate, but it seems to be the case that no matter how well your game’s designed, if the players have trouble seeing what they’re doing, it’s probably going to end up right back on the shelf.