Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Happy Together : GW2, Ninelives

When Psychochild posted about Ninelives he was continuing an ongoing discussion about the point, value and meaning of playing MORPGs on your own. Syl had some strong opinions on the topic:

To play MMOs only ever to see people run around you that aren’t quite as scripted as NPCs sounds like a dreadful reduction of social engagement to mere window dressing. Does this experience really offer so much more than big-world RPGs such as Skyrim or The Witcher 3 would?

It's been so very long since I last played a solo RPG that I'd almost forgotten what it feels like. After five or six hours playing the really excellent Ninelives it began to come back to me. It feels empty. It's not real.

Sometimes you have to make your own friends.

I don't believe I would ever have known that had I not played an MMO. Had I been fortunate enough to be able to play Ninelives twenty years ago, when I didn't even know online gaming existed, I would have been completely and utterly swept away. Much in the way people describe being overwhelmed by Skyrim.

People, that is, by and large, who have never played MMORPGs. When Skyrim was the big new thing I discovered that someone I worked with, who I had no idea was even a gamer, was so concerned about the power the game had over her that she had to ration her hours with it lest she lose herself down that rabbit hole and never find her way out.

For her, a big part of the draw appeared to be the isolation. Being the only focal point in an entire world was addictive. She had, as far as I'm aware, never played an MMO nor shared her gaming experiences with another person as she played. Gaming was a way to get free of other people, to get away into a purely imaginary world, not to share those experiences.

Want to group?

I don't believe that's ever really appealed to me. In the 80s, when I gamed on the Atari, Spectrum and Amiga, I shared the controller and the keyboard with my first wife and with friends. Much of my gaming was done with others in the room, watching, kibitzing, joining in.

When Mrs Bhagpuss and I got together at the beginning of the 90s neither of us was an active gamer. We'd been together for the best part of five years before I got a PC for entirely non-gaming purposes and, inevitably, ended up playing games on it instead of writing my novel or making music. Immediately, we began gaming together. We shared the keyboard, taking turns playing Might and Magic: The Mandate of Heaven or Return To Krondor, watching over each other's shoulders and making "helpful" suggestions.

Moving online to play the same kind of games in a wider social environment was a natural evolution; scary but exhilarating. In a strange way it was familiar. Just another way to share an experience that always felt hollow alone.

Wonder if it speaks Goblin?

Playing Ninelives, which I can't stress too strongly I think is a great game, clarifies for me exactly why I need to play my games with others around. I need this reminder every few years. Last time was the first Dragon Age, which I started out loving and then dropped cold half way through, never to play again. The key to that collapse of interest was not being able to share what was happening as it happened. That's why soloing in an MMO just works emotionally in a way playing a solo RPG doesn't.

That said, soloing in MMOs is only one way, albeit probably the easiest, to gain this sense of communal experience. Blogging, tweeting, podcasting, streaming or just talking to friends the old-fashioned way, they all work to a degree. If I wasn't able to blog about Ninelives and post screenshots I don't know that I'd be bothering to carry on. The isolation would be oppressive.

With that possibility in mind, though, I can at least imagine sharing what I'm seeing and discovering at some future time, even though what I'd really like to be doing is sharing it with someone who was in that virtual space along with me. We might be sitting in front of screens on the opposite side of world; we might never have spoken to each other before and we might never speak to each other again; we might not even need to speak at all. Doesn't matter. Just being there, together, makes it all real.

Some insights just deserve to be shared

And what, anyway, is "soloing"? Does it even exist in an modern MMO? I play mostly GW2 so perhaps my view is colored by that experience but I can't say I'm ever really "soloing". This last weekend, for example, I played maybe sixteen or twenty hours altogether. I've been working on the new Shatterer meta, which I've now completed on two accounts. That put me in mind that I never finished either the Tequatl or Triple Trouble metas so I've been picking away at both.

All three of those are massive-scale events involving anything from twenty to a hundred people. There's organization, conversation, co-ordination, co-operation, carping, recrimination and chaos. During the course of these events I'm in and out of parties and squads, sometimes solo, sometimes not. It's seamless. It's the same experience. There is no "solo" in the sense we used to mean it.

When I wasn't working on metas I was wrecking around World vs World, which is furiously, gloriously alive again. Once more I was everything - solo, duo, group, squad, zerg. No-one asks you to group any more - you just hot join. If you run with a Tag the Commander or one of his lieutenants will spot you and squad you up. When you need to go make a coffee or swap maps you just go. No goodbyes, no concerns.

Then again, there's sharing and there's over-sharing...

All of the freedom of action that soloing used to bring is now incorporated in the larger content by design. The entire world is your group. Only in archaic throwbacks like instanced dungeons and raids can you truly say you are Grouped not Solo.

And it's not all about the fights. In doing so many large, scheduled events over these past few weeks I've realized that I really enjoy just hanging around waiting for stuff to happen. The banter, the bickering, the nonsense. The fireworks and the food and the bonfires.

At Shatterer a while back someone put down a Super Adventure Box o' Fun, a rarity that no longer drops in the game. The effect that had was astonishing. It was a true moment, unpredictable, unexpected, astonishing.

Fireworks aren't much fun on your own.

A new update dropped back in January that added a simple collection quest, the Brew of the Month Club. Map chat was buzzing. When I got to the Eldvin Monastery the place was hopping. I could barely even see Master Brewer Desch for the crowd. Involvement happens in an MMO, like it or don't.

Was I grouped for this stuff? Of course I wasn't. Was I chatting about it with Mrs Bhagpuss, with the guild, with strangers asking questions in map chat? Naturally, I was.

Even when I'm doing just about the most solo thing you can do in GW2, my Personal Story, I'm never really solo. I get the same calls to action when I'm there as I get anywhere. "Commander requesting all willing help YBBL Garri - 20+ JQ w/Omegas". Whether I respond is my choice - there's no comeback if I don't - but even if I shrug and click the next NPC for another cut-scene I'm still included, still part of the big, imaginary world we're sharing.

Sometimes your news is just so exciting you just have to tell someone.

In Ninelives, I'm filled with wonder and curiosity. I'm excited, involved and intrigued. But I'm alone. It's fine for a while but not for long. I managed nearly two hours this morning but after less than an hour I was aware that I was the only one there and it weighed on me.

I will carry on, but like my colleague at work I'll have to ration the time I spend there. Not because I might drift too deep but because, otherwise, I might begin to question whether I can afford to be there at all.

Soloing isn't something you should do alone.


  1. This is exactly... EXACTLY how I feel. It feels like I wrote this piece (although I wouldn't do it in such an eloquent way). So, thanks for putting my thoughts into words!

    Also .... "Might and Magic: The Mandate of Heaven or Return To Krondor" ... wow that brings back memories.

  2. Imagine Legend of Zelda MMO: you awaken on an island to the sound of the ocean and the sight of butterflies dancing merrily on nearby flowers... just as some guy named GOATZE lands on top of you with a dragon before whipping out his dual-wield Master Swords and then proceeds to tea-bag your screaming baby sister while calling you every swear word he has ever heard... right before telling you how the game ends. I freaking hate MMOS and I played WOW for seven years. We aren't heroes - that is the greatest MMO lie of all. We are the retarded cousin of the hero whose mom keeps telling them how handsome and brave they are. We are lied to all day and all night by every single NPC we come across. We are 27 different Bilbos' carrying 27 copies of the ONE ring up the same mountain at the same time! The line to dunk the ring forms HERE............... NEXT!

    1. Let me add one thing: an MMO is nothing but an fantasy themed amusement park that only admits LARPers in costume.

    2. Yes, but on the plus side you don't have to leave the house and there's no sewing!

      I think it is probably true to say that I saw more behavior such as you describe in the six months I spent playing WoW than in the entire sixteen years of playing other MMOs put together.

      Actually, I probably saw more of that in one week of WoW than all the rest etc etc. And even so I still enjoyed myself.

    3. Yeah, the people were both the worst and best part. The (decent)people I met are the only part I miss. I'm old, like pinball old, and multiplayer has only been recently... well sort of. My dad and I played all the Konami sports games on the NES together. I just look around and see players who are richer, better looking, faster, and more successful and think: "Wait, I came here to get away from my real life!"

  3. Your screenshotting game is top-notch as usual.


    1. Thanks! I certainly take enough of the things. Taken nearly 150 of Ninelives already.

  4. Yep. I keep meaning to play the third Dragon Age but I just don't really want to spend that many hours alone. Before MMOs, I used to play single player games and talked about them on forums and such. But after actually sharing the game itself with other people, there's just no going back.

    1. I had an absolutely prime example of this just a few hours ago. After writing this piece I decided to make a new character in Ninelives. As I was wandering towards the city I caught sight of the air balloon that is often in the sky coming down to land nearby. I'd never seen it do that before so I went to investigate.

      It turns out that not only does the balloon land, but you can climb into the basket and take a flight across the city. And when I say "climb in" I don't mean click it and watch a cut scene - I mean actually jump onto it and stand there and be taken up into the sky as it lifts off.

      It was one of the most amazing things I've ever done in a game. I was stunned. I had FRAPS running so I hit Video, meaning to put it on YouTube and link it in the blog but half way through the flight FRAPS crashed and the video was corrupted. I will have to do it again - it really deserves to be seen, not described.

      But of course what I *really* wanted to do was just yell to someone, anyone really, in game about this amazing thing I'd just discovered. And then someone would tell me they'd done it and wasn't it incredible, or that it wasn't all that special really and why didn't I go try *this thing* instead and so on. Not being able to tell anyone didn't spoil what was an astonishing experience but it would have been even better if I had been able to share it as it was happening.

    2. This really resonates with me. One of my favorite thing to see in GW2 is every time the Shatterer spawns, there's always a few players who are asking "Why's there so many people gathered here?" Followed by "OH MY GOD BIG DRAGON."

      Magical, I tell you.


  5. I'm a bit behind in my reading, but thanks for posting this. :)

    It seems I'm fine with my single-player games being lonely, but in an MMO I want to be more social. I don't stick with MMOs where I don't have at least some social connections, even if it's just a friend who plays. But, I'll happy dive into a single-player game. But, when I'm done with a single-player game, I tend to be done with it. For example, I've done almost everything in Ninelives, so I really haven't been super-motivated to play it more.

    But, I still play FFXIV almost every night I can because a few friends play it. If they stopped playing, I'm almost certain I would as well.

    Funny how people perceive things. :) I suspect my attitude comes from a long history of playing single-player games as a kid, and from really falling in love with the internet and the communication possibilities it presented to me in university.

    1. Thanks for drawing my attention to Ninelives. I really like it a lot. It has the look, feel and gameplay that I like best of all - a low magic, gritty, idiosyncratic setting filled with odd, unusual creatures and wry, downbeat characters just getting on with life. I've played it every day since I read your blog about it but I am indeed rationing myself - I don't play for more than an hour, often just thirty minutes.

      I do hope it ends up being at least MMO-lite if not a full MMO. It's the best would-be MMO I've played for a very a long time. Most of all, though, I hope they keep on developing it. I'd rather have it as an ongoing, expanding single-player RPG than not have it at all, I guess.

  6. I recognize myself a lot in this. I enjoy single-player games the most when I'm playing them 'together with Conrad' (I know, they're *single* player games, but we enjoy playing them much like watching a movie together; usually Conrad does the controls and I boss him around :P). The Dragon Age games are the latest example.

    Playing a single-player game on my own... it just doesn't happen. Skyrim I did enjoy, but I only kept going because I had my blog as a creative outlet and there were so many pretty screenies to take. I still haven't finished the main questline, though. Should pick it up again and get it over with, I suppose.


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