Role-playing video games are how I got into games in the first place. The ability to create a character is a liberating experience. It’s starts with how the character looks, then goes on to how the character acts in their world through my in-game decisions.
In our extroverted society, being alone can mean being uncool. It has a lot of negative connotations: You don’t have any friends, you don’t like to be with people, you’re a nerd or geek or dork.
But nowadays, “geekery” is becoming something like a fad. While decades ago, reading comic books was the lonely fate of unpopular nerds, superhero movies are now some of our biggest blockbusters. Our culture is going through a geeky phase.
Even ignoring that, though, I think something else is changing our notion of “alone” and, in turn, our notion of what’s cool. It has a lot to do with the web. Our new online culture means that even when we’re alone in our rooms, we can be with people, at least virtually. We can surf online forums, feel connected to people through Goodreads book clubs and live Google Hangouts, and — here’s the big one for us gamers — play our favorite video games with other people online.
Though online gaming has been around for quite awhile, I have always thought of gaming as primarily a solitary hobby. Most video games have, until now, been single-player experiences. Some of the big AAA titles like Halo and Call of Duty might have multiplayer modes, but those were only for the “hardcore,” competitive gamers — a very small segment of the population.
But more and more video games are releasing with multiplayer. Two of my favorite series, Dragon Age and Mass Effect by BioWare, have released their latest games with multiplayer modes — a first for this video game studio known for its epic, emotional, single-player campaigns. Personally, I’m a big fan of playing by myself, because I like role-playing games that require decision-making. I want to sculpt a unique experience, and that requires some independence. Multiplayer just doesn’t work that well there (at least, I haven’t seen it yet).
The funny thing is, I find myself wanting to share my experiences afterwards — through blog posts, reading forums, seeing how other people made their decisions in these games. I want to connect with people through my hobby… but I still enjoy the act of gaming by myself.
And we still have lots of single-player games. We have our episodic adventures from the likes of Telltale and Dontnod, our epic fantasies like The Witcher series… and despite Bethesda’s recent MMO, it’s still king of solo open-world adventuring with Fallout 4. And those are still some of my favorite games. I’m not playing Dragon Age: Inquisition multiplayer, and I was a little turned off by Destiny because it’s online. I have my own preferences.
I’ll also specifically point out that I am not competitive… which means I do not like having to be competitive in online multiplayer.
That’s where the trend to toward more peaceful, social multiplayer modes comes into play. I’m talking about the cooperative online modes you find in Dragon Age: Inquisition or Assassin’s Creed Unity. It’s almost like a more personal MMO experience. I also notice a lot of games including couch co-op. (That’s something I do enjoy personally.) Again, some series release co-op for the first time later in their lifespan; for instance, you can play the last installment of Dead Space with a friend instead of alone. (Notice a lot of these games are EA games. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.)
It leaves me wondering why so many games want to include these shared experiences. Was it so bad to play by yourself? More and more, I hear about friends playing together online like it’s an everyday (or “every weekend”) hobby. It’s becoming a thing.
It seems that video game developers (or publishers) want to gamble on that. They want to create multiplayer modes in the hopes that people will keep playing their games if they can play together — and, in some cases, that they can sell some stuff in the online modes too.
But I also believe that in including multiplayer, there’s some hope that gaming will become a household hobby, more socially acceptable than ever before. If you can play online with your friends, you’re not gaming alone. This is a social experience. It’s totally cool.
After all, that’s why those Guitar Hero and those Wii games were so fun. Sure, Wii bowling looks pretty dorky at first glance, but there’s something about playing with others that makes it fun and acceptable. If we can make video games more social, they can become cool too.
I’m not saying “cool” is a well-defined thing, nor is it anything to aspire to. It’s a silly word, but it sums up what I’m trying to get at. I still want my rich single-player experiences, and I’ll probably never be into multiplayer. But I see the trend, and I wonder if being “cool” is what it’s all about.
As an RPG fan, I love character creators. Some make your characters look a little weird (Mass Effect 3, ugh), but others are pretty amazing. Dragon Age: Origins has an excellent one, in my opinion, thanks to lots of customization options that make characters look realistic and unique… Plus, the portrait in the character creator is accurate. Few things are as scary as creating a good-looking character, then launching the game and finding a monster in his place.
Star Wars: The Old Republic has a fairly limited character creator, but at least your character is guaranteed to look fantastic, thanks to perfect facial proportions no matter how you customize. And the most fun character creator I’ve tried is Saints Row: The Third, which you can access as a “demo” from Xbox LIVE, even if you don’t purchase the game.
But this weekend I found a character creator that surpasses all others, and it’s from a most unlikely source: EVE Online. As far as I know, EVE is not a game that has avatars walking around looking at each other; it’s a serious space MMO, after all, known for its sprawling universe and the sort of complexity that makes newcomers like me a tad terrified.
But so far, I haven’t gotten past the character creation screens, because they are so detailed. As in most character creators, you can choose your character’s skin color, eye color (which for some reason is never the right color in this case), makeup, scars, tattoos, body build, and clothing — but that’s just the start. The cool thing about this creator is that you don’t use sliders to adjust details like “cheekbone width” or “chin depth.” Instead, you click and drag those features all over the place, on the spot, to customize your character’s face with ease. It’s incredibly intuitive and makes each character look totally unique. I’ll admit, I’ve created about five characters for no real reason except that EVE’s character creator is so much fun… and clearly I had time to kill this afternoon.
And when you’re done with a character, you go to a portrait screen that lets you adjust the character’s expression. Make him smile, open his mouth so he looks shocked, have him raise one eyebrow, make him cock his head to the side or look up and to the left like some space-faring adventurer with true ideals… I mean, the expressions can be frightening sometimes, but you get to take four portraits (and re-take all you like).
Maybe it’s just me, but if you’re into character creators, definitely check out this one. EVE Online has a 14-day free trial, which is worth it for the character creator alone, in my opinion. (And if you’re a writer, you can bring your book’s characters to life!) The results are nuanced and realistic, which as you can tell I absolutely love. Whether I will complete the daunting task of learning to play EVE Online in the next 14 days is another matter…
For a mobile game, Star Traders RPG packs in a ton of content. Developed by the Trese brothers, this Android game is one of those that I intend to play for just 5 minutes but end up clicking around on for a half hour at a time.
In this sci-fi space pirate game, you captain a ship and can choose to be anything from a legal-goods merchant to a spy. (I’m an explorer.) The game is open-ended, leaving you freedom to explore planets, mine for resources, search for artifacts and head to the cities to trade and entertain your crew. You can also recruit new crew members and upgrade your ship — or trade it in for a better one. Contracts and rumors give you more activities to do. And at any time, you can patrol an area to find a ship and battle to the death for loot — and if you don’t find anyone around, another ship will definitely approach you for a fight soon. Eventually, you can level up your character’s skills, too.
It took me a few minutes to catch on to what exactly I was supposed to do in this planet-dotted world — actually a good sign for a mobile RPG, hinting at its complexity — but it’s easy to get the hang of this game. Paragraphs describe the scene when you enter a new location, such as a spice hall or a new planet (where aliens sometimes attack). I appreciate these descriptions and the overall flavor of the world the Trese brothers have created in Star Traders.
That being said, the gameplay becomes more addictive than fun after a while, as the planets and quests become repetitive. (Note I’m only playing the free version right now.) I don’t really hold that against the game, as the developers put a lot of varied content in the game, and I have yet to level up very much. (Maybe there’s more good stuff to come?)
What I have seen of this game is detailed and fun, with the type of variety that draws you in and keeps you clicking. Just expect those contracts shuttling you around space to start feeling very familiar after awhile…