Bearing Witness

I’m tired. My employees are all either sick or away on vacation, leaving me with no alternative but to uproot myself from a comfortable Friday night at home in favor of staring at a monitor bank at the office until 6AM. After the initial rush of activity and tracking, work starts to slow down. I have four hours to kill, a DS, a PSP, an iPod Touch with a few games on it, the first translated Witcher novel and a laptop with Baldur’s Gate installed.

I ignore all of it in favor of the blinking indicator on my instant messaging client. It’s just Rob making fun of me for having to work all night – what a pal. Here I am, chatting about nothing and refreshing my Twitter when I could be gaming. I’ve become Scooby Doo, living for the tightly bound text versions of Scooby Snacks delivered by friends and strangers alike. My new pastime is definitely massively multiplayer. But the role I'm playing is just me, and there's not a game to be found.

I refresh Twitter again. It’s a sleepy sort of interactivity, like dialing an old ham radio and hoping to pick up some idle chatter among truckers. It’s not that I really need to know what rabbit is doing right this second, that part isn’t important. What I’m looking for is the spontaneous rise of new words from the ether and a sense of progression - the kind I usually look for when I play an actual MMORPG. Through constant communication in every format imaginable, I’m doing something I typically loathe - I'm grinding for experience in lieu of playing an actual game.

What I really want to do right now is play Zelda on my DS, but I can’t seem to get rolling with it. All I think of is the Herculean effort required to pull the system out of my bag, turn it on and figure out what the hell I was doing three months ago when I last tried it. The very concept of playing on a system untethered from any friends list is disquieting, like wandering the empty hallways of a building normally bustling with activity. My definition of a “complete gaming experience” has expanded to include a silent audience. Why do I need the comfort of a dozen strangers hovering around while I play Bioshock? Does every activity require someone else to bear witness before it’s worthwhile?

I glance at my camera feed. A lone spider is spinning a new home over the bright, warm IR lights built into the outdoor camera. Through the illuminated gossamer strands I can see a car full of teenagers coasting through the lot. I imagine them going to a party full of friends, booze and long philosophical discussions about all the detritus that builds up in their minds. The shared insanity of drinking with a pack of like-minded people is a confirmation of sorts. An unspoken agreement that it’s okay to get drunk and cut loose. That if we try really hard, we can bend reality into a pleasing shape for a while. We bear witness, because otherwise you're just drinking alone.

Knowing what my friend is playing is hardly the same shared experience, but it’s compelling because a similar agreement is implied: that it’s okay to cut loose and play some games once in a while. We’re still in this thing together, even when we’re playing alone. This thirst for connection is intrinsic to the human experience, and it has also begun to manifest in games we normally play by ourselves. Fable 2 promises to show glowing blue orbs representing friends and their relative position in their own games. I can approach the apparition and make contact with the person on the other side, cementing the reality that we're never really having a singular experience.

Even Pixeljunk Eden, a PSN game that seems absolutely perfect for a zen-like solo experience has incorporated three-player coop. The little monsters leap into dark voids, spinning their own gossamer threads out behind them, swinging to greater heights together and sharing in each others little failures if one falls. I don't think the spider biding his time on the surface of the camera outside would appreciate the same company.

After checking the forums for what must be the 40th time, I turn my bleary eyes toward the camera feed and see the sun upper-cutting the horizon. Somehow I’ve gone a whole night without playing a game. But I'm satisfied with my small legacy - a trail of breadcrumbs scattered through the forest of my extended community.

- Shawn Andrich

PixelJunk Eden
Fable 2
PixelJunk Eden
Fable 2

Comments

Good morning.

In the last week or two I've rebooted my blog, bought an iPhone, and started twittering again. Thanks for reminding me that it's more than mere tech-obsession that compels me to do such things.

See, this is why Steam is freaking brilliant in my mind. Every game has that "silent audience" out there and I don't need to go through the trouble of finding a disk to boot. Since I primarily work from my gaming computer I can just pop up a quick game of Half-Life 2 or Civilization IV even more quickly than the 360 or PS3.

The audience isn't silent enough for me to like having them around. If I'm playing a single-player game in steam I usually go offline. When I play a single-player game I like not to be bothered if I can help it. Maybe it's because I'm a fifteen year old, so most of the people on my friends list are around fifteen years old, and, I'll admit, they can be annoying at times.

This is why WoW on the iPhone is going to be such a huge success when they finally get it working.
Every time they talk about this technology, everyone in the room can see it - checking auctions, chatting with guildmates, maintaining guild stuff, setting up raids, etc. on your iPhone or Blackberry.
There must be some aspect of the technology - maybe security issues? - holding it up, or else the folks at Blizzard are keeping it on the back burner until someone else does it first (like decent PvP).

Anyway, what I do at slow times at work is either haunt the boards here or else read Let's Plays on Something Awful. I certainly can't get caught with my DS out

After checking the forums for what must be the 40th time

That basically sums up my work days lately.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
After checking the forums for what must be the 40th time

That basically sums up my work days lately.

You too?!

Brilliant writing. Makes me wish I could check out this forum when I'm not on lunch break.

Yeah nice piece. But I want to know what's up with this Twitter thing - I tried it and didn't get it at all. Is it really that good?

I think if there was a group chat function for watching downloaded shows on the 360, I would game about an hour a week. I miss watching, anything, with a group of people. TV is so depressing when you don't have anyone to share it with.

Games are the same. I used to play games because I was alone, and now playing alone only reminds me of those times.

My life probably isn't interesting enough to be worth Twittering
It is good to see when you're friends are all gaming away, even if they're not playing the same thing as you.

Chiggie Von Richthofen wrote:

I think if there was a group chat function for watching downloaded shows on the 360, I would game about an hour a week. I miss watching, anything, with a group of people. TV is so depressing when you don't have anyone to share it with.

Games are the same. I used to play games because I was alone, and now playing alone only reminds me of those times.

The next big update will allow for eight player chat sessions. You could, in theory, all start the same show/movie at the same time and watch it together. Or watch live TV, for that matter. Could add a whole new dimension to Sunday Night Football

Actually, that would be fantastic.

I always feel a little guilty if I log on to Live and my buddies are grouped up in some game.

No no, I don't want to be social today, I just want to play my little Dragon Ball fighting game for an hour.

I don't know if it's telling that we're increasingly relying on online social frameworks to supplement our lives. Hell, why play alone when you can have your pranut's gallery a click away?

I think it's a neat comment on society that the further we delve into technologies, which inherently make it easier and easier to complete tasks by our lonesome, that we as social creatures still yearn for the companionship of others. Well, most people.

I have some games I'd prefer to play alone without an audience. Incidentally, Bioshock is one of them, along with any other horror game, JRPGs, strategy games, and dating sims. On the other hand, I want to talk about Bioshock with friends who have also played it, and some of my absolute favorite gaming memories come from playing old adventure games with my best friend, with one of us playing and the other suggesting ideas.

Don't get me wrong, I love the whole concept of a friends list, it makes multiplayer a joy, but I find myself sympathizing with the spider and hoping he takes pride in his solipsistic little world.

tanstaafl wrote:
Quintin_Stone wrote:
After checking the forums for what must be the 40th time

That basically sums up my work days lately.

You too?!

Thank goodness there are other forum junkies out there like me. My life was so ...... empty ..... until I found GWJ.

gargamello wrote:

Yeah nice piece. But I want to know what's up with this Twitter thing - I tried it and didn't get it at all. Is it really that good?

If Certis uses it, it HAS to be good! On the other hand I don't get it either, but felt compelled to sign up anyway.

Guess I was bored today.

Certis wrote:
Chiggie Von Richthofen wrote:

I think if there was a group chat function for watching downloaded shows on the 360, I would game about an hour a week. I miss watching, anything, with a group of people. TV is so depressing when you don't have anyone to share it with.

Games are the same. I used to play games because I was alone, and now playing alone only reminds me of those times.

The next big update will allow for eight player chat sessions. You could, in theory, all start the same show/movie at the same time and watch it together. Or watch live TV, for that matter. Could add a whole new dimension to Sunday Night Football ;)

I could swear they reported that this would be a feature they would incorporate (that is, the actual "party mode" movie watching). It was originally an idea for HD DVD.

Nyles wrote:

Don't get me wrong, I love the whole concept of a friends list, it makes multiplayer a joy, but I find myself sympathizing with the spider and hoping he takes pride in his solipsistic little world.

Aye, I'd agree with that. While I very much enjoy the talk about games with friends online or collegues, I really don't want someone disturbing me when I'm trying to get into a game.. And it's just these games (RPGs, atmosphere games like Bioshock, etc.) that need that, I think.
Perhaps it's that reculuse in me, trying to get away from every-day life.
Of course, my job involves talking to people all day, so perhaps that is part of it as well.

Incidentally, they told us handhelds and such are off limits during regular office hours (we run 24x7) at work, even if we don't get any incoming calls.. which is a pain. That doesn't help THAT situation any either...

I've always had this same issue. Even before forums existed, this electronic communication is just another symptom of my human malady. I have played games for my whole life since Atari, and I have NEVER finished a single player game without an audience. From my earliest memories I not only wanted to communicate with people about games, I had a specific message to communicate. I'm Better than You. Yes, this sounds childish, for it was a thought, no a feeling that manifested it self when I was a child. And these games served to satisfy that need to feel better, smarter, wiser than the one I was communicating with. This desire reached its climax during my days in college at the Computer Gamer's Club. I developed a reputation for unrelenting, unscrupulous, manipulation and mastery of any game I came in contact with. There are still stories told in that club today, though 3 generations have passed through the club. One of the more remembered stories is one of the Age of Empires match, where I allied with every single player in the game sans one person, and continued to un-ally with each person in turn as I "protected" them with my army. As the game ended I calmly said, "but alliances are part of the game." It still took years for me mellow out. But, as I've gotten older, I still have that competitive streak in me, but it isn't a driving force behind my playing games anymore. It is still there but, I find myself spending more and more time playing cooperative games. I play Guild Wars or other MMO's or looking for alpha/beta tests I can join just so I can spend more time talking about a game. And in another example of my "need to communicate" here I am spending the time to tell complete strangers, about my past and current experiences in games. Wow, its 15 minutes past time to go home.

Great article, you've pretty much captured a lot of how I feel moving into this massively-connected future of gaming we've morphed into over the past few years. Solo gaming feels a bit stranger now when 'm disconnected from friends, where they seem to be completely out of reach. Even if I have no intentions of multi player gaming and can't wait to sink my teeth into a great single player experience, I'm always wondering what everyone is playing and enjoying as well - it's nice to see the community move like an organism through varying games and trends.

I've been saying this for quite a while, but I believe the current state of MMO's will eventually morph away from the archaic system in place now and open up to a massive experience that isn't so niche and grind-centric. The first time I played 16 player co-op with the Goodgers in Ghost Recon on the 360 was a big defining moment for me - it can be done, it can be extremely satisfying, and it doesn't have to involve stats and elves. I fully embrace our co-op future, even though there's still a few games I'd rather play solo.

Ditto to what everyone else said about feeling vaguely uncomfortable about gaming anymore without the likelihood of constant interruption.

There's also another side to me though. I remember back when Ultima Online first came out. The first MMO (quiet, nitpickers), with the promise of thousands of players to interact with at any one time. And what did I do? I lurked around by myself in the woods, taming animals and sitting on logs. That's right, I played a hermit in an MMO, and I was riveted. What made it so much more compelling than, say, when I would wander around in the randomly generated geometric wilderness of Daggerfall was exactly what you're talking about here: the connection to other players somehow lent it legitimacy and reality. Almost as if the connection to another person lent the medium used its own significance in my consciousness.

tl;dr.

@stupidhaiku: I have a tendency to do that as well, actually. I played UO some time with The Second Age, and it was somehow really appealing to do that. Didn't get me levelling at all, but I liked wandering around.
Now, I try to do the same in WoW.. But it's not the same somehow. It seems to me too geared towards facilitating the 'way to play it' (with people, following quests) rather than giving people the option to do just something.
Might just be me, but still..
Maybe I just wanted to be that hermit with crazy skills he learned living in the wild, helping the occasional struggling traveller.

For the record, I also was a UO loner.

I'm right there with ya, Certis. Being a dyed-in-the-wool social gamer, I'm constantly using Web 2.0 to stay connected to my buddies. I work nights which makes playing online with them tough so I seem to be constantly lurking in forums and checking xbox.com to see what they're up to even though actually playing with them is damn near impossible. Kinda sad, really. It's making it hard for me to keep the fires buring for the hobby I hold so close to the ol' ticker.

Still, I keep looking for holes in my schedule to fit in time for a quick match of Catan or a round or two of CoD4. The things we do for the love of the game.