Pretend friends, anxiety & real connections
I pause briefly at the inn to get all my equipment back but nothing slows me down after that. I skip through the scenes at the town gates, sprint along the seaside trail and into the stockade. Button through dialogue, chop the head off a hydra, and smile to finally see my friend Keelah again.
Keelah is my pawn in Dragon’s Dogma – a computer-controlled companion created alongside the main character. Here we are together look, the best of pals:
Ever since I finished the game it has tickled at my brain parts now and then. Occasionally stroking a finger along my dusty heartstrings, gently reminding me of its existence, trying to call me back. That in itself is a rare feeling for me. Usually once I’ve finished a game that is the end of it and even extra downloadable content can’t tempt me to return once the credits have rolled, no matter how much I enjoyed the experience. Dragon’s Dogma drew me in again – and not even to really play it, as much as I love the combat and everything else besides – just to see Keelah again, see how she was getting on, see how many adventures she’d had without me. Because pawns don’t stop playing when their players do.
Making game friends is one of my absolute favourite things. Perhaps not as favourite as robots and jumping, but definitely more favourite than throwing knives and climbing ladders really quickly. I just love spending time with a character, learning their personalities and their stories. Building bonds, seeing how they react to victories and defeats and all the quiet moments in between – seeing how they react to me as player and character both. It’s a little journey within the journey of the overarching plot, and one that can potentially touch deeper and become more meaningful to me than the grand sweeps of the story.
Dragon’s Dogma’s pawns are slightly different than usual though, because the game never tries to convince the player that they are really people. They are “… not human quite. They look the part sure enough, but they lack the will… the spark what drives us” – shells, to be directed and controlled. In a lot of games helpers described like this are positioned as mere resources, to be used and discarded without concern. But despite Dragon Dogma’s insistence, despite lacking back-story and supposedly a soul, the pawns occupy a higher level – they are definitely characters and not just walking assets.
It’s partly down to the creation system which is one of the best I’ve ever used, allowing control over not just facial features but height and weight and musculature as well as the size and shape of limbs and torso. There’s also a wide variety of personality traits to choose from and – although Dragon’s Dogma seems to try as hard as possible to keep those options hidden and hard to understand – somehow Keelah came out with a perfect character. She is almost overly enthusiastic, very keen to pick things up and help out as best as possible in this super endearing, well-spoken way. But she’s also strong as heck, selfless and capable. My protector.
The moment I fell in love completely we were running across the top of the buildings in game’s capital city Gran Soren. Pawns can usually keep up pretty well, but Keelah managed to slip somehow and fall down onto the street below with a sickening wet crunch. Staring up from the cobbles she earnestly warns me of the rooftops, “’tis a troubling foe!”
Dragon’s Dogma allows players to trade their pawns as well, and everyone can have three at once along with them. At that point it feels like trying to herd a bunch of excitable children around. They are easily distracted and easily fixated, but seem to always be trying their very best.
Trading takes place in the Rift, an endless black plane where pawns materialise out of the void hoping to be chosen. It is a slightly strange set-up – from the buyer’s side a little transdimentional meat market, calling up a bunch of potential battle slaves to have a good look at their teeth. Dismiss the weak, the poorly equipped, and compare the strong, the cool, the brave. From the seller’s side, more like a beauty pageant, all players the fussy parents waiting in the wings.
And it did make me fuss, make me care about Keelah even more. She wasn’t just a helper, an assistant, but my envoy – speaking to the world on my behalf, representing me out there in the big wide world. So I found myself making sure she was the best she could be, ahead of even myself. The best treasure always given to her first, upgraded for her first.
This kind of sharing is my favourite form of multiplayer, an approach that is slowly worming its way into more games. Dragon’s Dogma, the Souls games, Journey, ZombiU. It complements the single-player content rather than replacing it or sitting entirely seperate alongside. It turns a static, solo adventure into something a bit more wibbly and a bit more wobbly – instances of the game all stretching out little tendrils, trying to reach each other. I love that sense of making a connection with someone, somewhere out there. A connection based around sharing, helping and co-operating rather than competing.
These connections are what really make the Dragon’s Dogma’s pawns feel more alive, in that they continue to exist, continue to adventure and grow, learn and help, even when their creator has stopped playing. A life conjured with autonomy. As much as I love someone like Garrus from Mass Effect – and that is a lot – I love him for the time we spend together, I don’t miss him when we’re apart. He doesn’t live without me, he just waits, nothing without my presence, absolutely nothing without my knowledge of him and my interactions with him.
Friendship is as much about spending time together as it is sharing what has happened while you were apart. I ran back to Keelah because I wanted to catch up, to see what she’d been up to since we last said goodbye. I missed her, because she exists without me, and will continue to do so while there’s other players out there she can adventure alongside.
I don’t play competitive multiplayer that often, anyway. It’s not out of any great dislike for the design or anything – there’s a selection of games I love dearly – just that playing online always makes me very anxious. I’m waiting in a lobby for the match to begin and nothing is even happening… but my palms are sweating and I feel distantly panicked, a frustratingly familar queasiness hating on my guts.
I know nothing serious or important is happening, but it comes on anyway. Not quite enough to put me off entirely, but bad enough that I’d very much rather do something else. Even the best times are tiring, muffled. It is difficult to explain because this anxiety is completely irrational, but I think a lot of it comes down to communication.
Conversation alone stands scarily because it is this big black hole of endless and unpredictable possibilities. Playing games online, those possibilities have a pretty high probability of being not be very nice. I never use my mic, and most often I have all voice chat muted entirely, just to try and cut all that out. It helps a little, but not that much. The threat is still there, and apparently that is enough for my body to still freak out some.
But at the same time as that, I also feel oddly compelled to try and explain myself, and slightly annoyed that I can’t adequately do so. I guess as some kind of pre-emptive counter to an anticipation that anyone might get frustrated with me, or expect me to anger if I lose or gloat if I win … but all I really want to say is: hi everyone, hi, let’s play a game and have some fun or whatever. That is kind of hard to get across when often the only means of expression available is to say something out loud, which I have no intention of doing, or to shoot a gun at something, which doesn’t exactly help to get the point across.
I’ve learnt to mitigate, but it never goes away entirely. Playing with friends helps a lot, when I feel like I can be myself and mess around a bit more. Also some competitive games don’t seem to affect me much at all – I’ve been dipping in and out of Tribes: Ascend at the moment with hardly any problem at all. There, because the competition of the game doesn’t really touch me – it’s not about that, it’s about being fast and smooth and free, about solving instinctive split-second equations whilst flying through the air. Then I see everything moving on the battlefield as targets, not as players, not as people.
I guess that’s the key, to stop worrying about other people so much – to be a little more selfish. It is easier said than done, though. But that is another reason why I love Dragon’s Dogma’s pawns so much, with their lack of story, their limited dialogue and their autonomy. Because while there’s no ‘other people’ playing with me, the way pawns behave is a close enough fit to playing co-operatively with real players that it can give enough of the pleasure without any of the anxiety.
What really suits me well are games with very limited communication options. As Oscar Strik recently wrote in his piece here not too long ago, it can be frustrating for players to try and express themselves clearly with a constricted set of options. But I actually find it freeing.
Firstly, that big scary void of pure, natural conversation is absent. There are no potential interrogations lurking, no aggression, dismissals, gloating, posturing or whatever else I am anxious about encountering. An unknown is resolved by removal, and that makes me feel safer and calmer to some extent.
But with, for example, the range of gestures in Dark Souls or Journey’s single, versatile chirp, I feel like I can say everything I want to. I have talked before about my love for extraneous actions in games, just for the simple joy of expression and adding a certain flair to created moments. It becomes more than that when other people are involved.
When someone invades my world in Dark Souls and comes running towards me all glowing red and angry, everything is okay if I give them a cheery wave or a polite bow before we fight. If they wave back then everything is just great – at that point I don’t particularly care if I win the duel or not. It’s like the terms of our relationship have been established – all in good fun, even though we’re trying to kill each other – and another element of uncertainty is somewhat resolved. It’s only afterwards in a moment of peace that I realise my hands are trembling. But that communication through gesture, connection, acknowledgement, momentarily stifles my nerves.
I think that’s all I really want from multiplayer games – just some genuine connection, however slight. Such a thing can be found in unexpected places. Battlefield 3, for example, has a timer before every match begins. Players can spawn into their base, they can jump and lie down, they can throw out equipment and supplies, but they can’t move anywhere. And as the clock ticks down, everyone is looking around and jumping madly at each other like a bunch of excited children.
Then the match starts and of course the soliders fuck off on their own in a vehicle with three empty seats, and the snipers run away up a hill to not move for half an hour, and there’s not really team any more. Just a group of players who happen to be on the same side, some of whom might happen to care about winning. But for a moment at least we were all connected. It always made me smile, that frantic moment of levity shared between everyone, and in the end the most fun I had with the game was probably there, before I even started playing.
Connections don’t have to be direct and immediate, though. Nor even acknowledged. Lana Polansky talked about these brief kind of connections in the game Glitch - where little letters could be written and left around the world. I wish I could have played the game, because that’s exactly the kind of thing I would have loved doing myself. In that case, it’s the thought that someone out there might come across a note which is important. Maybe they’ll read it and smile, maybe it’ll make their day a little brighter, and that’s enough.
Dragon’s Dogma has a similar idea. After hiring a pawn for a while, they can be sent back to their creator with extra experience, information, and also a gift. Most people send back whatever junk they had cluttering up their inventory – a chunk of rotten meat, a weedy little herb – if anything at all, but I liked to give something nice if I could. There’s no reason to do so, no mechanical reward for giving away something good, just the thought of someone out there smiling slightly at a thoughtful gift. Another little tendril extended in the dark.
It all adds up. And, somehow, Dragon’s Dogma became the perfect multiplayer game for me, without really being a multiplayer game at all. It has the sharing I love, through both the gift giving, and by sharing my pawn pal Keelah with other players. I like seeing the pawns of other players too, seeing directly what they have created and nurtured, using those creations to form a team perfectly suited to me. Then running around with three AI pawns feels close enough to co-operative play to be enough, with the slightly immature but eager play I’d like from my friends. With Keelah especially, who feels somehow alive despite everything, who stuck with me all the way. There may not be gestures, but I could pick her up whenever I felt like it. Slung over my shoulder, it might seem like a grapple, but sometimes it was a hug. Somehow, everything I want from a game, all without that draining prickle of anxiety trying to wear me down and turn me away.
We talk fairly often about games as escapism – to another world, another life, a better place perhaps. They can be social escapes, too, to allow the desired interaction with others without the pains that it can bring. It’s not ‘real’ no, I know. But in areas of safety some peace can be grown and carried fowards. Just as fake power can make us feel strong, fake friends can make us feel needed, appreciated, or simply connected. And forget, for a moment, the constant pressure of our weaknesses.