Getting people to compete is easy. Just tell people that there can be a winner in any given activity, and they’ll more or less fight to the death to be that winner. Making the competition fair, making it interesting, giving the competitive activity a high skill ceiling—there’s art in that, of course. But competition itself comes naturally to most players, most people.
Getting people to cooperate can be tricker. As I recently discussed with Cellar Door Games’ Kenny Lee, some designers simply bake competition into the cooperation, like how Four Swords Adventures ranks players at the ends of levels. But it’s probably more interesting to mechanically reinforce teamwork, like how Four Swords rupees Adventures only shows caves and houses to the players who were in those caves and houses, adding a layer of communication to puzzle-solving—or how Lee’s own Full Metal Furies carefully dovetails its characters’ abilities with one another, or how it splits all health and money pickups evenly among all players. Working together is always rewarded, and beyond that, it’s reliably more advantageous than hot-dogging.
39 Days to Mars is a bit more blunt than that. It outright forces players to cooperate.
It’s a game about two gents, Albert and Clarence, deciding on a whim to build a spaceship and go to Mars. So they assemble a clattering half-measure of a steampunk rocket, charmingly stoic in the face of Monkey Islandesque complications and jerry-rigging. And each and every activity requires them both.
Albert holds down a switch while Clarence padlocks it into place. Clarence works the kettle while Albert steeps the tea. Something as simple as rotating scraps of paper in order to tape them together into a map requires careful coordination and negotiation, one person grabbing one edge and the other grabbing another, and then both rotating clockwise at the same time. Inefficiency is what gives the gameplay its clever hook and the tone its light heart.
Depending on the dispositions of the players, this kind of stuff could be heigh comedy, or it could end a marriage. Like co-op Octodad, the challenge is less in the puzzles themselves than in the ludicrous ten-thumbed inefficiency with which you’re asked to approach them. (If you don’t happen to have a co-op buddy to hand, then Albert goes to Mars without Clarence, his loyal cat in tow. In that case you control the cat’s paw with the right stick and Albert’s with the left, which retains some of the whimsical awkwardness but lacks the congenial flavor).
It’s a novel, goofily hardheaded spin on co-op adventuring, and a winning little story about two friends doing a fantastically ambitious thing in the silliest manner imaginable.