A long stretch of desert highway extends before me as my engine growls angry. My thumb pulses on the accelerator button, trying to hold my RPMs just short of redline, and my trigger fingers are primed above the buttons that will function as a gear shift. I am at the wheel of a souped-up 1970 Mustang Boss 429, a classic and ostentatious muscle car that has in raw power all that it lacks in grace and subtlety.
The race starts, and, despite my best efforts, wheels spin uselessly on asphalt that may as well be ice. Next to my car a ghost vision of another car appears and begins to urge itself forward down the track as my angry car struggles to find purchase. I’m not worried. Grip isn’t why I’ve chosen the Mustang. I am thinking about the straightaways. I’m thinking about just the right amount of power to apply to the rear-wheel drive on the apex of turn four to swing the back end around just enough to take the turn at high speed. I’m thinking about what the engine sounds like at exactly the right moment to up-shift. Let the wheels spin for now. I have no intention of winning the race at the starting line. I plan to win it on the straightaway on the other side of the track.
It is a plan I see through to fruition, as eventually the pure guts of the beefy 429 sail through the ghostly apparition of my rival, a time that he may have set days or weeks before. By the time I sail back across the finish line, I’m a couple of seconds ahead, and somewhere a friend has been beaten in a race he didn't even know he was competing in.
As a result, right now, I’m beating forum goer Xeknos in a number of races within Forza Horizon. Or at least, I was the last time I checked.
Unlike a lot of people, I’m not anxious in social situations. This may not come as a surprise to some of the more senior readers of the site, but I kinda like being the center of attention. Where I feel anxious is before the social situation. Whether I’m going out with friends for an evening or flying across the country to visit people I haven’t seen for a year, I inevitably have to spend the hour or day before my excursion not allowing myself to cancel and stay home. I think it is this same anxiety that prevents me from making the effort and time to put on my headset and jump into a virtual world with friends.
I want to have the experience and memories, mind you, of having interacted, engaged and connected with people. I just don’t necessarily want to have to actually do it.
Enter asynchronous multiplayer, my technological savior and solution to the problem of having to play with friends to get the experience of having played with friends. Don’t get me wrong, I like my friends. And when I’m actually getting myself in the mix, I usually can’t imagine anything I’d rather be doing, but I am a creature of Newtonian laws, and an evening at rest tends to want to stay at rest.
I therefore tend to enjoy games like Forza Horizon or the countless others these days that tracks your progress against a friends list or allows you to compete against a ghost of a friend or provides a leader board or integrates into social media. In these environments I have this wonderful illusion of being social, and I feel connected to a world that is now happily operating on my timetable. But I suspect in practice these games that might have been the gateway to becoming more social in my gaming have provided me nothing more than another layer of justification on my isolation.
I’ve never actually spoken to Xeknos in Forza Horizon. Never traded paint with him around a corner. Never had to deal with the shame of spinning out on a tight corner only to watch him sail on to victory. Never had the thrill of sling-shotting around him on that straightaway where I know I have the advantage.
Just because I beat Xeknos or Nei on some race tracks (and I totally did!) only means that now I have someone else I’m supposed to beat there. And ultimately, it begins to occur to me that, though the context is a nice veil, the practical difference between a single-player game and one with this kind of asynchronous competition is achingly slim.
It’s an illusion, of course. I am ultimately only competing with and against myself. After all, should I beat my rival and he not in turn beat me, the game simply provides me someone else just a little tougher to compete against. Even once I exhaust my friends list, the game goes and finds someone who did just a little better than I did and all of a sudden I’m up against DaN00bKillr, who might as well be any other NPC the game might have dreamed up. Functionally it’s doing little more than providing context for a personal high score.
In a real multiplayer game, though, it’s not really about the race itself. And even if it is, any one race is guaranteed to be fundamentally different from the next, partly because both sides are fallible, whereas in the asynchronous mode I am always racing against a fixed point that represents someone else’s best effort as of the time I play. The ghost is never going to suddenly skid out on the last turn, or try a different car or agree to a race where we can only drive in third gear. The ghost is the deep flaw of technology realized in stark relief. It has no personality, no flexibility, no unpredictability.
The longer and harder you look at it, asynchronous multiplayer seems like no kind of multiplayer at all. Or, if it is, then it is multiplayer stripped of soul and substance. You can really only get out of it what you bring to it in the first place. Its only real value might be in the idea that if you play it, you might at some point actually want to pull the trigger and play directly with a human, instead of virtually.
Unfortunately, It has never proven a gateway for me. I’m no more likely to challenge someone to a live race in Forza or jump into a co-operative game now than I ever was. If anything, the opposite has been true. These safe delivery systems of asynchronous multiplayer gaming have become irresistible in their own way, and supplant rather than supplement. Why would I race someone in real time? I’ve got their ghost in my machine whenever I want them.
The shame of it is that I know when I play well with others I have a different experience. I know why multiplayer and online functionality isn’t just a feature in most games, but has become a driving design philosophy. Games, generally, are better when experienced with other gamers — preferably ones you know.
But in that moment when I have a choice between seeking out a friend to play a game or returning to the safe and controlled confines of the multiplayer illusion, inevitably I know which I will choose. I should check to see if Xeknos beat any of my times.