Monday, March 23, 2009

playing without others

up up down down left right left right b a start Multiplayer has been an essential part of games since even before they were digitized – stuff like Solitaire has been around for the bored and lonely, but the vast majority require two or more people to enjoy. They’re social, they inspire competition. Video games continue in this grand tradition, and from the days of Pong in the arcades to the present-day insanity that is Super Smash Bros. Brawl, beating the shit out of your closest friends and then getting all up in their grill about it is a normal part of life.

The advent of the Internet changed that in the same way it changed everything else – it made the world that much smaller for people who want to beat other people at things in their spare time. Rob and Craig partake in this thing called “online multiplayer” – this is cool. No longer do people have to live near each other to hit each other in the face with the butt of a virtual machine gun! I can get behind that. I’ve got a Quake Live account, and it’s fun to jump online sometimes and take advantage of the anonymity that the Internet offers. More often, though, I find myself wanting to stay offline when gaming.

I don’t have a lot of ego wrapped up in this sort of thing – I don’t get my jollies from being number one on an inconsequential online leaderboard. Still, as has been pointed out by my compatriots, one of the problems with online gaming is that everyone is always better than you. I don’t need to be number one, or number anything, but when I’m trying to get in some deathmatch and I only live for seven seconds between being sniped by some camping douchetool, I’m not having fun. People tend not to have fun sucking at things.

This also gets to one of the weaknesses of multiplayer gaming – it is ultimately pointless. In theory, you’re striving to be better than all the other people playing. Some of the point is automatically null and void if you’re not you’re not gunning for #1. And what if you are? Even if the match ends with your name at the top of the list, you’re free to bask in your pretend glory for only a few seconds before the next match starts, and you’re back at the bottom with everybody else.

Out of everything, it’s this circular pattern that most turns me off of online multiplayer – we talk all the time about games that succeed at telling good stories or create involving environments or immerse you in their universes. When does that happen when you’re sticking a guy in Halo? World of Warcraft allots some players a social experience, but once you max out your level and complete all your quests, you’re left repeating yourself until the next expansion pack comes out. My favorite games are the ones that more closely resemble books and movies and other media – stuff with clear-cut beginnings, middles and endings. Some games are beginning to offer online multiplayer with some substance, but most are limited to the headshot, rinse, repeat cycle that Counterstrike helped pioneer all those years ago. Terrorists win, indeed.

This being said, I definitely know why people like these games. Competition is more important to some than others, even to the point of being an end unto itself. Massively multiplayer online RPGs offer a social component, and there is a lot of content there for new players, even without an ending credit sequence. If people have fun, then far be it from me to criticize. I’m just saying, it typically isn’t for me.