I discovered I could fly in the year 2000. It followed weeks of humiliation at the hands of my friend, who had already mastered the skill. Each day’s work would draw to a close and that familiar sense of dread would begin to set in. The same routine occurred each time: pack up, move to the other room, get chased, botch the timing, plunge into molten lava, die. It was getting tiresome, so I did something about it. I practiced, over and over again on the same spot.
I was determined things would be different this time. I honed my focus, and our dance began. I concentrated on my single goal for the evening, to join him in the skies. I grabbed the rocket launcher, ran towards the outcropping and lined up my shot. I knew he was right behind me, anticipating my failure and already relishing the moment. I jumped and, a moment later, fired.
Catching the jump pad perfectly, I ricocheted back the way I came, arcing gracefully through the air as I grabbed the BFG and landed on the upper ledges of the castle across from the precipice. I took a second to relish the moment before I unleashed hot plasma death, gibbing him before his feet touched the ground.
This experience set in motion almost two years of zealous mediocrity. I swallowed up every map release and every mod with a passion I haven’t felt since. Other people did more, took it further and aimed for perfection. Their passion focused on that single maneuver, allowing them to move around the environments in ways never envisioned by id Software when they created Quake 3.
Tricking iT2, by infinite Trajectory, became the public face of this freestyle trick-jumping community. It’s old news now, having originally been released in 2004, but it demonstrates the way that multiplayer games create playgrounds that are open to exploration and experimentation. While the video certainly wouldn’t have existed without an online audience to view it, the opposite is also true: the dedication required to invent a wholly new way of moving through Quake 3‘s spaces couldn’t have existed at all without the encouragement of spectators. The growth of an entire community around this single, non-combative objective is a straightforward reminder that we, the gamers, have more agency in the virtual worlds we inhabit than the creators may have intended.
That ability to bend and shape one experience into something else entirely has only become more prevalent with the advent of sandbox games. An open world, a rudimentary physics model and some friends are all that’s required to have fun. Initially appealing to a niche audience on PC, Operation Flashpoint quickly became renowned for the unending freedom it presented players. While the game included multiplayer modes, they were often ignored due to a punishing difficulty curve and the fact that it was more fun to race tractors across an island. It’s relatively easy to find examples of impromptu, free-form game modes that utilize the game world as a playground instead of obeying its arbitrary rules. Fancy a game of cops and robbers, where the bad guys drive Škodas and the good guy has an Apache Longbow? Operation Flashpoint makes it possible.
When applied to a multiplayer environment, this kind of sandbox design leaves almost everything up to your imagination. Standard FPSs may include the ability to set a wide range of variables before each match, but you’re ultimately wandering the same corridors with the same weapons and essentially the same challenge. Without total cooperation, like that exhibited by infinite Trajectory, true freeform gaming isn’t possible.
Grand Theft Auto IV‘s designers applied this same thinking from the outset. Almost every game mode you can think of has been built into the game’s multiplayer arena. The best one by far, however, is the party mode: You and some friends spawn in your own instance of Liberty City with full access to the map and the weapons. What happens next is completely up to you. You can re-enact a gumball rally by driving to one end of the game map and racing across to the other side, hop in a bunch of helicopters and race around the skies or grab some scooters and head to the skate park to do some tricks. Complaints that the single player game lacked “fun” simply don’t apply to GTA 4‘s online play.
The community at RLLMUK has taken this one step further, though. Keen to avoid the scourge of Xbox Live, the “randoms,” they arrange their own games between understanding members of the same gang, encompassing most titles of the moment. In the case of GTA IV, this has taken the shape of a racing league – 16 racers take part in 10 races on a weekly basis.
Chaos normally ensues. There are rules, sure, but they’re ignored. This isn’t gentlemen’s racing at its finest; it’s just good-natured fun where everyone’s up for it and wants to have a giggle. At the end of it, the organizer makes up the scores and updates the league table. It’s another example of the gamer making the game what they want it to be. It simply wouldn’t exist without you. It couldn’t exist without you.
Developers are beginning to realize this and building co-operative experiences into more and more games. Call Of Duty: World At War, Mercenaries 2, Saints Row 2, Left 4 Dead and even Fable 2 feature online play that allows you to experiment together (in a purely non-sexual manner, of course). While each has scripted or heavily designed sequences to play through, they deliver the real thrills through emergent gameplay, leaving you to do what you want.
While sandbox worlds are designed to give us the freedom to play however we want, online connectivity enhances these opportunities more than we may realize. Witness machinima, born out of “normal” multiplayer games and almost fully integrated into Halo 3 in its Theater Mode. A single game results in many unique perspectives, as each player filters a shared experience into something individual and unique.
It means that you, Mr. Amateur movie director, don’t have to faff around with complex hardware in order to make the next Red vs. Blue, or work too hard to come up with something as inspiring as Tricking iT2 (except on your mad gaming skills, of course). Hopefully you’ll do something more original, though.
Even Geometry Wars 2, with its expertly integrated achievements, continues to ebb and flow months after its release. No mods have been released, and the multiplayer mode offers virtually no freedom for experimentation – it’s simpler than that. The addition of online score boards, harking back to the game’s cabinet-based heritage, means that the challenge constantly shifts and changes. When you’re in the middle of a run, the next score to beat is there, taunting you. It’s almost like your virtual friend is there in the room, laughing at your repeated failures.
Regardless of what you achieve and how you do so, the point is this: That achievement is yours. Climb to the top of the Agency tower and dive into the pool, by all means, but it’s simply something the designers wanted you to do. Getting a jeep to the top of it with the help of a friend, though? That’s all you, baby. That’s all you.
Darren Sandbach is struggling to make the switch from mouse to joypad. He is no longer confident in his rocket jumping abilities.