Alone Together: Companionship in Single-Player Games
Is it silly, maybe even unhealthy, to expect genuine connection from fictional, artificial characters?
I’m 12 and my sister’s 15. Mom and dad are upstairs and my sister’s sitting in the oversized wheely chair in front of the computer. She leans way, way forward towards the screen, craning her neck to read the text. She’s always had bad posture. Mom’s not here to yell at her to sit up straight.
I’m playing Ocarina of Time on the Wii with a GameCube controller. We can play on weekdays if we finish our homework. I control a young boy on a quest to save the world. He looks about as old as me. Right now he’s far from home, deep inside Dodongo's Cavern at the foothills of Death Mountain. There’s lava, flaming bats, and explosive lizards. I don’t know if he’s scared, but I certainly am.
He has a fairy named Navi to lead the way. I have my sister. “Alright, what’s next?” I ask, pausing at a door.
“Lizalfos,” she says, reading from the FAQ she’s pulled up. “Don't bother chasing after them -- they just run away. Wait for them to come to you.”
We’ve slain giant spiders, trekked across Hyrule Field, and watched the sunset. We snuck into the castle and spoke with the princess herself. We’re surrounded by creatures that want to kill us. We don’t have anyone but each other.
I take a breath. Then I enter.
Games have always been solitary experiences for me, mostly because I’m not very good at them. My friends played Modern Warfare together before moving onto the next big multiplayer experience: Starcraft, League of Legends, and now Hearthstone. One of them attempted to give me a crash course in Starcraft, though it didn’t take long before I gave up and booted up Grand Theft Auto IV. My reflexes are slow, I have trouble multi-tasking, and I get easily overwhelmed. Playing with strangers doesn’t appeal to me, and even playing with friends puts pressure on me to perform at a level above my abilities.
Apparently, I’m not alone in wanting to play alone. A piece in The Guardian describes players who resist the encroaching influence of multiplayer and co-op elements in single-player games. “Having to play any multiplayer game for 25 hours a week to remain competitive . . . that's not fun, that's an unpaid part-time job,” said one interviewee (Keith Stuart, ”One Player: The Gamers Who Only Want to Play with Themselves", The Guardian, 14 July 2014).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that multiplayer games are somehow inferior and that you should feel bad for playing them. What I’m saying is that for me, the best multiplayer experiences came from playing single-player games with someone that I care about, the two of us crowded around a screen.
It turns out I’m not alone in this, either. Kotaku has featured a list of the best games to play with a friend. Some of them have dedicated cooperative modes, like Portal 2 and Gears of War 3, while others are single-player games that are “nevertheless fun to share with someone” (Kirk Hamilton, “The Best Video Games to Play with a Friend”, Kotaku, 14 July 2014). Because even in games that you’re meant to play solo, it’s nice to have a companion.
Games understand the importance of companionship. It’s why one of the first characters that you meet in Ocarina of Time is Navi, your faithful fairy friend who’s best remembered for pointing out the obvious and generally irritating the player. It’s why the subsequent 3D Zelda games all had some sort of player guide: Tatl in Majora’s Mask, the King of Red Lions in Wind Waker, Midna in Twilight Princess, and Phi in Skyward Sword.
The personalities of these characters, of course, range widely, from sardonic to playful to overbearing. Thus, player companions have always been a bit hit or miss. The scientists in Half-Life, for example, were hilariously stupid, running straight into danger if you told them to. The cannon-fodder that are the rebels of Half-Life 2 don’t fare much better, though at least Alyx Vance is there to provide backup and puns. But no matter how believable these virtual companions are -- the wittiness of their quips, the intelligence of their behavior, or the expressiveness of their voice acting -- they still occasionally get caught on corners and repeat their lines, and the illusion falls apart. They’re still video game characters: programs in a machine, simulacrums of real human connection.
Is it silly, maybe even unhealthy, to expect genuine connection from fictional, artificial characters? Probably. But it seems that developers want us to feel connected to their creations. In an interview with Eurogamer, Bioshock Infinite director Ken Levine spoke about the importance of having AI companion Elizabeth “notice the world and react to the world and engage with the world” (Wesley Yin-Poole, ”Bioshock Infinite's Elizabeth: Ken Levine on Creating the Best AI Companion Since Half-Life 2's Alyx Vance”, Eurogamer, 17 December 2012). “When you walk down the street you don't walk down the street like a robot,” Levine continued, “which is generally what companion AIs do.”
I played Bioshock Infinite with a friend, two chairs pulled up to his desk, taking turns at the keyboard and mouse. We’d switched off after every combat scenario and discussed which ability to acquire, which guns to upgrade. I remember the two of us glued to the screen during the final twenty minutes, then collecting our jaws from the floor, going to school the next day, babbling about theories that we read on the internet, and trying to describe to each other only half-understood explanations of quantum mechanics.
We graduated from high school that year. We went to college, then came back for the summer. Neither of us were doing much of anything. My sister got a job in Virginia and had stopped playing games a while ago, so I’d drive to my friend’s house to play The Last of Us on his PS3.
I’d arrive in the afternoon and play till evening. I’d look up from the TV and notice that the sun had set. I played a man who was far from home and much older than I was -- a violent, broken man named Joel who had lost his family and his soul a long time ago. He had a companion, a young girl named Ellie, who he resented at first and eventually came to love. But he was a monster and his love was monstrous, and in the end he lied to her, the one person he cared about, because he couldn’t bear to be alone again.
When I finished The Last of Us, I stared blankly at the credits, as I suspect a lot of people did. I felt a tiny bit dirty. It was dark out, and I’d spent the day killing and dying. My friend was at my side, and I said goodbye and went to my car. On the drive home, I thought about the man that I’d come to identify with: someone who resented others, who maintained emotional distance at all costs, who was willing to condemn humanity to hold onto the shred of companionship that remained in his life.
The headlights cut into the night -- the road was almost empty.
It’s dangerous to go alone.