As I sit down to put these words onto a screen, I’m filled with enormous dread that people reading them will think I’m just some old stick-in-the-mud who longs for an era-past that he can’t get back. In truth, that’s a million miles from reality. I love what technology has done to video games: they look incredible; some of them like things I dreamt of as a youngster.
I’m old enough to have grown up without a mobile phone, without Twitter, without Facebook , in a time when “social” meant going out with friends, and seeing other people. I’m not a luddite though, perish the thought! I tweet more than enough, and I do love all the modern technological wizardry that allows “social” interaction these days. But I also remember when video games were very different to how they appear today. I miss arcades (especially SEGA World in Bournemouth), sure, but I’m mostly referring to how they were played, because it was a hugely different world back then.
Even in the Mega Drive (or Genesis, for my American cousins) and SNES era, multiplayer gaming meant one thing, and one thing only: Playing games with your friends, in the same room. Back then, Christ, I’d even get my Dad involved with some PGA Tour Golf.
And for me, very little has changed. I don’t like playing games online. I resent being forced into an environment that is open to the most disgusting type of abuse going, where youngsters who shouldn’t even be playing the 18-rated game are free to verbally assault me for my accent, my name, my anything. Of course, that’s before you get into the fact that without dedicated servers, you really don’t know how much skill is involved, if it’s down to the host, or even who has the biggest pipe (pun fully intended).
I’m sat on a sofa during the early 90′s, and I’m playing Street Fighter II on my friend’s SNES. There are only eight characters (imagine that!) and we’re (ultimately) doing the same thing over and over. He’s Ryu, I’m Ken – they even had the same move-set then – and we’re engaged beyond words, the interaction only coming between bouts as we laugh, joke, and gently rib each other about our skills. There isn’t an internet connection involved, it’s about skill, and a couple of best friends in the same room.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and I’m sat on my sofa with that same friend from the 90s, and now my children (and it’s not lost on me that they are about the age I was back then playing Street Fighter) watch on as we play FIFA. We’ve changed, we’ve learnt, we’ve grown as people, but if you were to ask me about my fondest memories of playing a game in the last 12 months, it’d involve me and that friend, in the same room.
Now don’t for one second think I’m lambasting the use of an internet connection here, and I hope you can tell that I’m not anti-multiplayer. You’ll never catch me playing FIFA online against random other Xbox LIVE users, I value my sanity too much for that, but I do venture onto the ‘net for online play – I’m not against it. But back then, gaming was an escape from reality, a chance for my young mind to venture into realms unknown and explore things my shallow brain hadn’t a chance of dreaming up alone.
That escapism is rapidly disappearing, because you can’t escape video games anymore. With the constant insistence of a connected world, games have Twitter and Facebook interaction built into them, constantly asking us to connect everyone to everything. Some games even have apps now, so we can be “in the game” when we’re not in the game. It’s clever, and games like Need for Speed, with its Autolog, are genuinely innovative and interesting, not to mention the FIFA Ultimate Team app, which is a stroke of genius from the boys at EA, too.
But the single player gamer is being forgotten. Sony recently announced their PlayStation 4, and it’s very clear they see social as the big thing that it’s become. The constant ability to live-stream gameplay, even going so far as to allow people to chirp in and help you when you’re stuck is clever, but does it push the boundaries of what a game can do, or does it allow yet more invasion into a solitary gamer’s world?
Achievements, friend requests, online statuses – all clever, but the default option is to have them on, to break immersion during a cutscene that progresses the story you are so engaged in, and I don’t care that “xXx_FistyTits_xXx is online”, then offline, and is now back online again. That escapism I sought as a youngster is more difficult to find than ever, in the always connected world we live in.
The video game industry is rapidly changing, and there are lots of conversations that need to be had about how issues are addressed, but along the way I feel as though the single player gamer is being forgotten slightly. Games that we played as youngsters like Tomb Raider are being rebooted incredibly well, but they are having a multiplayer mode added – for what? There has to be another way to add value to a game, to stop people trading it… doesn’t there?
I’m excited about the next few years. A new generation means new boundaries should be pushed and it’s never been a better time to be a gamer, but please developers, please don’t forget about those of us who enjoy the beautiful worlds you create. There are people who look to video games to help them with the alienation they feel from society in the “real world”, even to help them deal with depression. Perhaps they don’t want reminding of their friends list, or the competitive cut and paste multiplayer side of a game when all they want is to just play, to just escape themselves. Because if we lose those people, then we lose a bit of ourselves, and that would be doing a great disservice to an industry we all love.