I’ve never wanted to own an Xbox console, if I’m being completely honest.
For the past 19 years Microsoft has put out exclusive after exclusive that don’t appeal to me in the slightest. The consistency is actually kind of impressive. Not that Xbox consoles or exclusives are poorly made—they’re just usually not for me. Even the few games that have caught my attention over the years, games like Cuphead and Ori and the Blind Forest, have found their way to other home consoles in due time. I’m well aware there’s an audience for Xbox games, a community of dedicated Xbox fans and everyday players who enjoy the selection, but I’ve never been able to count myself among them.
This past December, my good friend Courtny dropped a large box into my lap during our yearly gift exchange. Inside was a blinding white Xbox One S of the “All-Digital” variety. I was stunned.
It’s important to note that Courtny began working remotely for Microsoft this past summer, though not in a position related to gaming. Like me, he was never much of an Xbox fan, having been raised on a steady stream of Nintendo and PlayStation offerings. His big exception was Halo, a series he had grown to love while playing with friends on the Xbox 360 during his college years. We both laughed when he was hired on at Microsoft, joking that he would be contractually obligated to play exclusively on Xbox One and PC for the foreseeable future.
The Xbox One I had been gifted was an invitation to join my friend in Microsoft’s gaming space, a destination I had more or less ignored for nearly two decades. Despite having purchased an Xbox One himself months earlier, Courtny hadn’t really dug into what the system had to offer in terms of games or features. He was excited, and adamant that we explore together. I, on the other hand, was a bit worried. Here was a friend who had gone out of their way to gift me an entirely new home console, and I feared it might have little to offer me.
Still, having never had much hands on time with the Xbox One, I was excited to poke around.
After connecting to the web and trudging through the system’s somewhat clunky interface I was immediately drawn to a corner of the Xbox world I had heard many positive things about—the Xbox Game Pass. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity for me to sample what the Xbox One platform had to offer in terms of games. And seeing as I couldn’t cram any discounted discs up in my new system, Game Pass made the most sense financially.
Game Pass, which has been up and running since mid-2017, is basically Netflix for video games. Its library of 100+ games is speckled with Xbox exclusives, indie darlings, and notable third-party entries. I quickly scrolled past Xbox staples like Halo, Gears of War, and Forza, on my way to find smaller games that had caught my eye in the past year. As I added game after game to the download queue, I felt like I was pulling off some great digital heist. I was taking all of Microsoft’s games and they didn’t even seem to care!
I glanced nervously at my phone, waiting for Xbox head Phil Spencer to call and inform me the police were on their way.
Most of the games I downloaded in my initial spree were quirky indie titles that hadn’t quite convinced me of their worth at launch. My Friend Pedro, Wandersong, and Human Fall Flat were amongst my first round picks. As I played through the tutorial stage of each new game I felt an odd calm, a satisfying lack of pressure, wash over me.
The decision to purchase a game usually comes with the personal justification that it’s going to be an enjoyable use of one’s hard earned cash. But I didn’t need to like these games. I didn’t need to justify buying them or playing them more if they didn’t live up to my expectations. Game Pass had lifted a small, but significant, weight off my shoulders as the consumer.
While the majority of the games I tried via Game Pass didn’t hold my interest for long, there were a handful that grabbed me. I thoroughly enjoyed Minit, Lonely Mountains Downhill, Super Hot, and a few more on my first playthrough. In fact, I completed Minit in a single sitting. I was happy to have conquered the offbeat adventure, but a part of me was also relieved I hadn’t spent $10 to own the game on another system.
As I dove back into the Game Pass selection with a newfound sense of power, I noticed that dozens of the games I had subconsciously skipped in my initial search were ones I already owned. Guacamelee, Untitled Goose Game, Hollow Knight, Costume Quest 2—games that had brought me hours of joy, but games I had bought and beaten months (if not years) ago. “If only you had waited,” a small voice in the back of my mind whispered.
This realization wasn’t all bad. If so many games I enjoyed elsewhere had come to Game Pass, surely this was a sign that more were on the horizon. It wasn’t Microsoft’s fault I had inadvertently played the bulk of the attractive games on their service. It just meant sticking with Game Pass could be advantageous for me in the months to come.
Of course, Courtny wanted to find a game we could play together, and he had his heart set on Rare’s Sea of Thieves. After setting up my Xbox at home, where it I wedged it snugly between its console brethren, I logged on to Xbox Live to join Courtny’s pathetic pirate crew of one.
Having played Sea of Thieves at E3 2016, I had a vague recollection of how the game worked and controlled. In no time Courtny and I were tracking down buried treasure, fighting off skeletons, and cronching bananas, skin and all. I’m not usually a fan of the first person perspective, as it tends to make me a bit disoriented, but I held it together as we sailed onward, only falling off the ship a few times... per voyage.
Courtny and I haven’t had many chances to set sail since that day, what with our busy schedules, but Sea of Thieves does seem like the kind of online co-op shenanigans that I could get behind in the long term. I’m hoping we can find a few other games to play online in the near future. I’ve already downloaded Ninja Theory’s Bleeding Edge in anticipation of its March release, but for now, high-seas thievery is plenty of fun.
After a little over a month with my Xbox One, I’m cautiously optimistic. The Xbox brand hasn’t won me over, but I’m starting to see some of the allure. Game Pass is certainly the best aspect of the system for me. At the moment it exists as a glorified demo selection, but it could soon turn the Xbox One into my dedicated indie game machine.
Microsoft’s first-party heavy hitters still don’t excite me, but I’m looking forward to smaller games like Ooblets, Tunic, and Battletoads launching on the Xbox One in 2020. Also Skatebird. That game looks radical, and it has already been announced for Game Pass.
So here’s to you, Xbox. In the long run you may not be the console for me, but you’re all right. You’re all right.