Playing Together Alone

Nick Martens doesn’t like online videogames because he’s not the center of attention. But with DICE’s new multiplayer WWII shooter Battlefield 1943, he still feels like a virtual VIP.

I can only recall one time that I ever “got into” an online multiplayer first person shooter (FPS). In high school, I owned an original Xbox and had just bought Halo 2, so three friends came over to engage anonymous competitors on the internet. Our main strategy was to lose catastrophically, then berate our opponents for being “fucking Samoans.” (For the record, I did not then, nor do I now, hold negative opinions about American Samoa or its citizens. I apologize to anyone offended by my seventeen-year-old self’s inconsiderate remarks.)

Online FPSs are massively popular among “serious” gamers, but though I’ve played games since childhood, I never engaged with the genre because I grew up gaming on consoles. The Super Marios and Final Fantasys that brought me into the fold of videogames were solitary affairs, and they shaped my conception of the medium. Today when I sit down with the controller, I’m looking for an experience akin to that of watching a movie or reading a book. I want the game’s world to absorb me into it. Online games render such escapism impossible. Whether its a cacophony of infantile teenagers or the drone of some regular guy, the presence of real voices nullifies the fictional game world. When that happens, the game has lost my interest.

So I was surprised last week to find myself completely engrossed by Battlefield 1943. Available for a recession-friendly $15 (the implications of which are covered nicely by Dan Whitehead), 1943 is the latest in Dice’s hit online FPS Battlefield series. Normally I’d find a game of this type unappealing, but given its low price and my affection for Dice’s daring, unconventional Mirror’s Edge, I gave it a shot.

The game pits the American against the Japanese army in World War II’s Pacific Theater, but in my first few forays onto Iwo Jima, I more resembled the Soviet forces at Stalingrad, as merciless strangers mowed me down time and again. But as I pressed on to become a passable and then productive player, I realized that Dice had made the perfect multiplayer shooter for those who prefer single player games. Their savvy design choices, coupled with the fat they trimmed to create a budget title, have blended classic console immersion with hardcore exhilaration.

Though single-player games lack the dynamism of live opponents and allies, they retain one crucial element that online games can’t duplicate: offline, the player is always the protagonist. When I take control of Mario, I am the most important, most powerful, and most interesting entity in the universe. It’s an egotistical feeling, but it’s also empowering and engrossing in a way that multiplayer games (and real life) never are.

Since all 24 players in a 1943 match need to be nominally equal, one guy can’t be all-powerful like Mario. But Dice does a good job of offering players many ways to feel unique and interesting. All-purpose riflemen form the backbone of the game, but players can also choose long-range snipers or heavy duty anti-tank soldiers. Or they can jump in a tank, plane, or jeep — all of these choices present an impressive diversity of gameplay.

I had fun learning all of the obvious ways to play (I’m pretty damn good in the tank), but I began to feel a lot more protagonist-like once I got to know the game in-depth. For example, I spent an entire night playing only with the sniper’s remote explosive. I lured opponents into my base and blew them up; or I planted my charges in a jeep before ramming it into the enemy base kamikaze-style. In essence, I was role-playing as C4 Man, a character I invented to make the game more personal to me. Battlefield 1943 excels at letting players find the game they want to play.

The other reason I love the game so much is that, even though you play with other people, you don’t need to talk to anyone to enjoy yourself. I know this sounds frighteningly anti-social, but if you’ve ever played an online game on the Xbox, you’ll know what a relief it is to mute the madness. (Imagine my Halo 2 shenanigans, only with sincere, hateful bigotry.) But even if the players weren’t horrible jackasses, I still wouldn’t want to talk to strangers while I game. For me, gaming is not a primarily social phenomenon.

1943 does away with the need for communication by making its team-based objectives broad and simple. There are five flags on every map, and players from a team need to stand next to a flag for a few seconds to capture it. The more flags your team holds, the more quickly the opposing team’s collective “health” depletes each time you take one of them out. So if you want to help your team, you just need to run toward a flag, shoot at some enemies, then get near the flag. But even if you feel like screwing around with remote explosives, you still help your team by depleting you opponent’s collective health. In 1943, you basically have to be an insufferable prick to not help your team out in some way (which, of course, still happens). Even if you treat this multiplayer game like a solo experience, you still contribute to the overall effort.

So, Dice has built an online FPS that works for the single-player crowd. And while appealing to gamers who focus on solo play may seem retrograde in this new, hyper-connected era, leaked Microsoft documents show that fewer than half of the people who buy Xbox 360s have signed up to play online. The single-player market is still respectable, and its durability shows that I am not the only person who resists social gaming. Playing with and against humans can be wildly entertaining, but only if I never hear their squeaking, hormone-choked voices.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.