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