I've never been much for online multiplayer. I play video games to get away from other people, I always say. I like a good campaign, totally solo. Or so I thought.
A close look at my gaming habits taught me a few new things about the gamer I really am.
We're now in an era of connected entertainment. Strong multiplayer modes extend a game's life cycle. They give friends and strangers alike new ways to connect and play together. That's never really been for me. I'm a gamer who prefers long, lonesome console hours exploring in silence, driving my character to a story's glorious finish. The open-ended experience of multiplayer firefights and the like has never felt like my world.
I started to re-evaluate this perspective when I had some eager pals over to my place lately for some Halo: Reach. Even though I'm the real gamer – y'know, this is my job – I felt a little out of my depth. My friends were familiar with modes and matches I've never tried before. Mostly, I felt like I was entertaining them, letting them use my console as their playground. This isn't how I usually play; I get hooked in to my RPG characters or the protagonists in my beloved narrative-driven franchises like Metal Gear Solid or Silent Hill.
My guests started asking me some questions about the things they saw on my console. As "solo" as I am, there were actually several profiles alive on my Xbox, ghost avatars inhabiting the space even though they didn't belong to me. They never did.
One of them belonged to my ex. We lived together for years; he played Fallout 3 on that profile. I'd had another friend living with me for months, and he'd gotten so dedicated to Geometry Wars that he wanted his own ID. Even that night, for that Halo: Reach session, my friends created their own tags – some of them just obscene enough that I wondered how I'd explain them to the next friends to stop by for a little Marvel vs. Capcom 2.
Turns out I had more explaining to do to my Halo friends about the gamer buddies of my past than I'd expected. There were more stories of my multiplayer companions left behind me than I'd realized. And, you know what? I had a lot of fun that night, playing four-player Halo. It surprised me, because I've always paid token attention to the franchise – you know, career reasons – but had never considered myself a real big fan, or anything.
I thought about how the enjoyment I was getting out of that group session had become increasingly rare for me. These days, I still play as many games as I can get my hands on, of course. But I'd started to notice my attention span waning. Where I used to be able to play for hours, chomping through storylines until I completed them, I've lately had trouble sitting still. I played in bursts of an hour or two; then less than an hour, and then I started finding myself hauling impatiently through the stories I used to love in fifteen, twenty-minute sessions.
At first, this didn't strike me as odd at all. We read about it every day, don't we? How "adults with lives" have increasingly less time for games, that we prefer to play in quick-hit, instant-gratification "bite-size chunks." I felt a little sad that maybe I was growing up, that I didn't have the kind of time for video games that I used to – even as my career demands I check out everything that's new under the sun, so that I can keep up to date.
Actually, I blamed my career, too. Maybe after a few years of writing about games for a living, they'd started to become work instead of fun. I no longer have the luxury of playing only those titles I personally prefer. I've got to keep "up on things," I've got to keep an open mind, I've got to try everything I can, because I never know where my next article idea will come from, and I need to be able to maintain a dialog with my audience about the titles they're interested in. Hey, I've always been a little bit rebellious – it's always been hard for me to get myself to do anything except that which I absolutely want to. Maybe just the pall of obligation overhanging my playtime is making me enjoy it less.
I could blame the internet, too. I recently wrote a blog post about how social networking is eroding my commitment to long-form blogging, since it's so much easier to reach the like-minded in 140 characters versus 1400 words. My work, my life is online – I tend to text my friends these days instead of call them, I can make plans and keep up with my friends with just a quick post to my Facebook wall. Between the instant satisfaction of social networking and the immediate accessibility of iPhone – anything I want is literally at my fingertips – maybe my expectations are shifting. Maybe given all these new media platforms it's not so odd that I've been finding my ability to sit still and focus on long, immersive sessions is ebbing away.
But as I said, it's been a sad feeling. When I began writing about games, I frequently criticized the rising focus on immediacy and accessibility over engagement, immersion and patience. My most gratifying gaming experiences have been hard-won; as a kid I spent literally years trying to finish Dragon's Curse and Phantasy Star II, feats I ultimately wouldn't achieve until I later revisited the title on my virtual console and on my PSP, respectively, just a couple years ago.
That one can invest hours of time, energy and emotion in a game all leading up to the final, great payoff of completion has long been one of the things I've always loved most about gaming. To me, it's been like a book, only better – because when you get to the end, to that closing screen, you get the gratification of I did this, an intangible, hard-to-define I put myself into this that you don't quite feel when you complete the last page of a book, or when the credits roll during a film.
So the fact that other people in my age group had begun to share the same difficulty staying invested in rich, long-form experiences didn't really comfort me. I felt a loss. I actively didn't want to become the kind of gamer who could only finish a game when it was portable, when it meshed easily into my active lifestyle, a thing I could as easily take on the subway with me daily as I could take to bed with me for a couple hours before sleep.
But I thought about those ghosts in my machine, the ones my guests had had so many questions about. The digital shadows of the people I used to play with. And as I considered it, something crucial hit me: I've never played alone
Those beloved games I felt so proud to finally beat? Memories of my parents' house, our video game room, came flooding back when I thought of them. I could picture, always beside me, my little sister – my proud "copilot" — six years younger, never particularly interested in playing herself, but always wanting to sit with me and watch, to cheer me on. It was a ritual. We'd seclude ourselves upstairs, shut the door and embark on a campaign. Even though she was little at the time, she'd somehow get just as invested in my virtual travels and travails as I was.
Even before that, I was eager to bring friends home from grade school to put heads together beside a computer monitor, so that I could solicit their advice on the trickiest puzzles of those good old adventure gaming days. When they got excited, when they shared my victories – and, the best yet, when they'd ask if we could play the game without me having even to bring it up, I felt gratified. I felt motivated.
Then there's that ex, the really serious one, the one whose gamertag still lives on my Xbox 360 because I haven't been able to delete it. We first met over our love of RPGs, talking characters and plot and strategy, and every time a new Final Fantasy or Silent Hill came out, we couldn't wait to go and pick it up together. We took turns. I generally did the cerebral bits, the stats allocations, the side-questing, the town exploration, and he'd handle the tough boss fights. In Resident Evil, I'd do the puzzles, he did the shooting.
I'm embarrassed to admit that lately when I saw the Final Fantasy XIV trailer during E3, I was surprised to find myself choked up, just thinking how psyched he'd be if he could see me there, way up front watching it all unfold.
He and I are over. My sister lives in a different state. She recently sent me a flurry of text messages at night to let me know how she was progressing at Ys Book I & II. She had downloaded Ys on her Wii just because she grew up watching me play it. She's excited that it's her turn to play now, but she also said it made her miss me.
I play alone now. And despite my professed preference for solo gaming, it's hit me – I've never played alone. I've always had a local copilot with me, someone in the room to take a turn when I needed a break, to help me approach a challenging situation, or just to cheer me on. Maybe it's not "multiplayer" in the traditional sense, but thinking about it has taught me something: I've always been a multiplayer gamer.
Gaming has always been about other people for me, after all. And maybe I don't want to play on Live or PSN with strangers; maybe I can't do a quick team mode with just anyone. But there's no boyfriend now, there's no sister, there's only the buddies who come over once in a while to check out whatever's new in my house. Now more than ever I look forward to those times – those times when I can play for hours again.
There's nothing wrong with me, and there's nothing wrong with gaming. I just need a friend around, is all.
[ Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]