US: 20 Oct 2014
Everything is online now. As someone who mostly plays single-player games but who still has his console connected to the Internet, there’s no escaping the omnipresent community of friends and fellow gamers. From multiplayer to leaderboards to player-generated content—heck, even the faux-online feel of offline games like DarkMaus—I can never forget that I’m part of a larger social group.
This is not a bad thing. I like the hyper-connected world that we live in, and I can manage my online presence just fine, but knowing/assuming that I’m always connected can result in a weird and (wonderfully) fascinating disconnect from reality in those rare moments when I’m not actually connected to a larger community.
Door Kickers is a top-down tactics game in which you guide a S.W.A.T. style assault on a number of criminal compounds. The central hook is that is you can map out the entire assault from the beginning, drawing a path that determines where your men move, when they move, where they look, when they turn, how they breach doors, etc. I draw out the path for each cop in my squad, then hit “play” and watch them run their predetermined routes.
It’s a pretty great game, but it’s not an easy game. Enemies are randomly placed throughout the level, so my plan has to take every possible contingency into consideration. I can’t take any blind spot for granted. That one corner might be empty during one assault, but next time, it’s home to two guys with machine guns that shred through even my strongest body armor. Best to blind the room with a flash bang every time just to be safe. Yet no plan is perfect. You’ll make a bad plan, things will go wrong, and you will inevitably watch many men ambushed and surprised and shot in the back because you foolishly thought a corner was clear. Then you’ll redraw the plan with a minor improvement and try again. It’s a gameplay loop of planning, failing, and improving—but it’s that “improve” part that messed with my head for an embarrassingly long time.
I got stuck on a level featuring a beach hideout. It was a small location with a ton of criminals inside and even more chilling by a bonfire on the beach. I drew up a plan that looked good on paper, ran it a few times to adjust for any blind spots, but then I kept running it. I had drawn a plan that I thought looked effective, one that I thought took every corner and contingency into consideration, yet it failed each time. Still, I just sent my men out again, running the plan over and over with no changes because it was already a good plan. The enemy placement would change each time, so sometimes they’d be killed in the first room and sometimes they’d survive longer, but they inevitably failed every time and I couldn’t figure out why.
In retrospect, it should have been obvious. My plan was bad. At the time, however, I was convinced that the failure was with my S.W.A.T. teammates. They just weren’t pulling their weight. It was a good plan, and they just needed to execute it better. They just needed to play better.
I was thinking of them as players, not as virtual characters. All that time spent playing Battlefield and Call of Duty has made me assume that any modern military game has another player involved somehow. Drawing out the plan felt like giving orders, which fostered a sense of communication and community. Watching the men move on their own only furthered that sense of life, even if they were just following my commands.
Eventually I realized that I would have to fundamentally change my approach. I realized that I was expecting too much of my virtual officers. They weren’t going to improvise anything, and all of their mistakes were really my mistakes. I couldn’t accept that my perfect plan was so utterly flawed, so naturally I blamed the other “players.” It’s that perennial excuse that everyone makes eventually during a multiplayer game: “My team sucks”. However, this time there was no team to take the blame. It’s rather humbling to be forced to admit your own failures.
And rather sad that the specter of multiplayer in this case involved me trying to shift the blame of failure to someone else. It feels very true to the traditional multiplayer experience. The truth is that even the most cooperative online game still has a competitive edge to it. Our teammates are never fully our teammates. They’re either our support or our excuse, someone who helps us or someone we can blame. This is, I believe, the core of all the toxicity of online games. Our teammates are just tools to be used, not people. Whether a living person or an NPC, we treat them the same and expect the same from them.
Door Kickers is not a multiplayer game, but for a while there, as I yelled at my team and shifted blame, I couldn’t tell the difference.