Thursday, July 30, 2009

dear persistent game worlds: you make me feel bad

cartoon dog haunts my nightmares There’s something that games have started to do in the last few years that I am not totally into. As technology has progressed, persistent game worlds have become possible. What is a persistent game world, do you ask? A persistent game world is one that always exists, even when you stop playing the game.

The thing I don’t love about these games is the external pressure on me and my time. Look, my time isn’t super important or anything, but when you come home from a full day of work sometimes the last thing you want is some game bossing you around. Let’s talk about it.

Massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft helped to popularize this concept, although they weren’t the first to have always-on worlds. This stems from the “massive,” “multiplayer,” and “online” parts of those genres – even when you sign out and go to bed or to spend time with your increasingly estranged family or something, there’s still someone, somewhere, maybe in Korea, who is playing this game and interacting with its denizens and keeping its world turning.

I guess I have less of an issue with these games because of the social aspect – the game itself, its towns and raids and scripted events, will wait for you to come and play them. The appointments are made with people who are, more or less friends, sort of like a nerdy version of going out for drinks with friends. MMOs are often derided for the alleged antisocial qualities of their player base, but if this is how you choose to make and keep friends, I can be okay with that.

A far more insidious version of the persistent game world comes in the form of Animal Crossing, one of the games that led Nintendo’s charge into the casual. The game features a persistent world that stays in sync with the real one – when it’s dark outside, it’s dark in Animal Crossing. When it’s winter, it’s winter in Animal Crossing. It’s sort of cool at first glance, but as you delve deeper into the game and develop more digital responsibilities – you have a home loan, in-game friends, fruit to plant and fish to catch, after all – it becomes an insidious leech. Not content with stealing your time from you while you’re actually playing the game, Animal Crossing begins making appointments with you.

“Hey,” it says. “Show up at 7:00pm next Tuesday. I’ll give you something neat.”

What. I stopped playing Animal Crossing the very first time I went out to play it in my car on a break at work, hoping to keep an appointment with a cartoon cat. Even more so than usual, my choice of hobby sickened me. That fucked went on Amazon for $25 – I hope that person could better work his or her schedule around the lives of the fake people in his video game.

It doesn’t end there. Even if you resolved never to watch a cartoon dog play guitar in a bar every Sunday night, you still have to keep playing the game, near-constantly, to get the most out of it. If I’m irritating Rob by playing (and enjoying!) Dragon Quest XIV but end up taking a break for a couple of weeks to move or climb a mountain or something, that game and its world and its digital inhabitants are exactly where the save file tells them to be. When I come back to the game after an extended break, everything is exactly as I left it. It is comforting, in its way. Not so Animal Crossing!

“Leave your town for three weeks and come back,” it says. “See what happens.”

Your town is desolate, utterly forlorn, digital tumbleweeds a-rolling. You’re apparently the only one who can be counted on to lift a fucking finger around the place – weeds are everywhere, your mailbox is jammed full of angry mail from porcupines you haven’t visited, and most of your friends have packed up their shit and left. Guilt-ridden, you clean up your town and try to strengthen the bonds you have with your remaining villagers. Then, you realize that what you’re doing will never have any measurable impact on anyone (heartbreaking stories aside), and you throw up and sell the game.

At least, that was my experience. Call me old-fangled, but I like my games to be on when they’re on and off when they’re not. And that’s all I have to say about that.