Deep breath. Restart. One more go. I’m gentler on the trigger this time, carefully gunning the engine and nudging the left stick of the controller to put us into a power slide. We’re taking the graceful curves of the Pillar of Autumn at a chaotic speed, yet we manage to catch all of the shortcuts almost perfectly. We should, really; the number of attempts we’ve made at this final section of Halo is in the double figures. Desperation is creeping into our game plan now, as we both have hectic schedules at work and are already well past our bedtime. Real life burnout is becoming a possibility, thanks to this sublime piece of interactive wonder.
We get to the final sprint. She goes right, I go left. It’s just natural, now – split the Covenant forces in half, try to reach the sanctuary of the ship. The clock is down to the last few seconds, and yet, in a final moment of confusion, one of us hits the ramp of the ship and triggers the final cut scene. We stand up, cheering, elated at our success, at our victory. We quickly try to figure out whether or not we both made it out alive, or if the solitary Master Chief on the screen is representative of a solitary survivor. It seems as though we were both there and the glory is shared between us.
And that’s it; this first foray into true, addictive multiplayer gaming with my wife is over. Apart from an unsuccessful stint in GoldenEye and a brief foray into the world of Super Mario Kart, nothing’s ever gripped Danielle before. Even now, with some level of skill in Halo, she hates deathmatch. I put it down to the fact that a small difference in skill and knowledge of a game area will result in decimation of the lesser player time and time again. It’s no fun for her. Perhaps, I wondered at the time of our success, this is the beginning of something wonderful?
Time dictated that it wasn’t, though. Her visits to the worlds I inhabit remain sporadic at best, yet all of them share a common element: multiplayer.
Super Monkey Ball is a household favorite now. It gets rolled out at the end of most get-togethers, the last few people who hang around taking it in turns to land a gliding monkey in a ball on a target in the middle of an ocean. Even the least experienced game players enjoy it; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that a lack of skill is required to get the most fun out of it. Laughing as someone desperately tries to dive, then pull back and dive again, then pull back before splash-landing is where the fun lies. My wife is good enough to not do this every time, which means that pairing up Danielle and her friends in grudge matches results in hilarity all-round. Multiplayer games are a bit like karaoke in that way – the worse you are at it, the more fun it is. Watching professional singers have a crack at it is no fun at all. Watching her and the in-laws attempt to keep up with Karaoke Revolution Party is.
If bad gamers can make multiplayer games good, good multiplayer modes can lift a bad title from the gutters of quality. Flat Out, a great physics engine wrapped in a far below par racing game, has one of the most ridiculous party modes I’ve witnessed. Yes, you can race round the tracks and ram each other into the copious amounts of debris that have been left all over them. Yes, you can imagine your friend’s avatar is the real thing as it flies through the windshield and crumples against a tree somewhere. Yes, you can defend such a horrific implementation of rag doll physics when your spouse tells you it’s in bad taste. But none of that is worth doing.
Instead, just sit her down with the controller and load up the long jump. Or the high jump, skittles, darts or one of the other displays of developer imagination (which, unfortunately, ask that you take part in the main game to unlock). You can almost imagine the development team, holed up in their offices, putting together this little sub-game as the focus of their fledgling title before thinking it needed more substance. They needn’t have bothered. Witnessing the sheer, visceral joy my wife appears to get from seeing the loose limbed driver flung hundreds of feet into the air as everyone involved attempts to break his head open for another few inches was an eye opener of the highest level. The next stop in bankrupting her morality has got to be a Grand Theft Auto party mode. That’d be awesome!
With Flat Out, though, it’s brilliant as everyone enjoys the carnage, and it’s extremely competitive in an almost entirely non-competitive way. Sure, you’re going for a high score, but the real entertainment comes from throwing the driver. You just shout and egg each other on, suggesting alternative methods of ejection, just to see the results. The multiplayer component is alive, it latches into the very heart of everyone involved and, strangely, Danielle loves it.
By far the most popular game with her since Halo, though, has been Animal Crossing. Although the multiplayer was non-consecutive, the very fact we cooperated when maintaining the village made it seem as if we were working toward a shared goal. With the characters that inhabited our village commenting to me about my wife’s activities, everything she did had a clear impact on my experiences. We both spent time running around, collecting items for our houses, unearthing fossils for the museum, keeping an eye out for special in-game events while sending special collectables to each other.
It became an almost sickening mirror image of our real lives, and eventually became a source of ridicule at the hands of our friends. Looking back, this was almost certainly justified. We’d get all the chores finished in our real life house and then jump into Animal Crossing to dig up the weeds and plant trees. We’d spend time fishing, seeing if we could catch the big fish, and more often than not, we couldn’t and didn’t. It didn’t matter, we just enjoyed playing the game together, one of us watching and suggesting, the other playing and acting.
Boy, does that sound weird.
It’s only with the strong emergence of multiplayer games focused on the casual player that this has become possible. Halo was a one off, and I never expect to be able to get Danielle playing a hardcore title like it again. Games like Dance, Dance Whatever, Donkey Konga and perhaps even Guitar Hero remove the traditional barriers of moving through a 3-D landscape on a 2-D display, complex and unintuitive controls and dark, dingy unwelcoming game worlds. It’s titles like these that will drive the medium forward, both in terms of accessibility and also interest from the traditionally non-gaming audience.
Turning what has been traditionally a solitary activity – and online multiplayer really doesn’t count when you’re talking about non-gamers – into an open and welcoming social activity is doing wonderful things. I’m looking forward to the multiplayer innovations of the future, and I think my wife may be doing exactly the same.
On the new generation of consoles, it’s difficult to get excited about multiplayer games. But I, for one, am looking forward to them. You see, to non-gamers, graphics aren’t everything, sound isn’t everything, realistic representations of physics aren’t everything. Fun is the be all and end all, regardless of how sophisticated it is or isn’t, and that has to be tied into social interaction. That’s why multiplayer games work so well. I’ll have just as much fun on throwaway social games like Buzz as I will on any of the hardcore-oriented games that have been announced. I know for a fact that Danielle, and our friends, will have even more.
Hitchhiker is a freelance gaming journalist who wants videogames to try harder, but recognises that videogamers need to as well. He hangs out at www.alwaysblack.com.