I recently re-watched a good portion of the incredibly awesome anime Sword Art Online. Kirito’s experiences are powerfully nostalgic to me. As I mentioned a little while ago, I spent quite a lot of my childhood in the early hours of the morning playing RuneScape. I used to fantasise about it when I wasn’t playing, dreaming of the day when I reached Level 99 in all the skills (the first of any player) and people would be able to right-click my avatar and select “Bow to”, a special option they created just for me. I made friends online and invested much of myself into those relationships, but more often than not we would play in what I considered companionable silence. Yes, I’d see their name highlighted green to indicate they were online. But mostly I’d just do my own thing and work towards my own goals.
Having recently gotten back into the world of Guild Wars 2, I find that I am occasionally logging on late at night or early in the morning. Not out of any compulsion (although that certainly used to be a factor), but out of the pleasure of enjoying the game when I’ve had trouble sleeping, or as a guilty pleasure before bed. I play on an American server, so (with approximately 12 hours difference) there aren’t always many people who are online when I am. This is strongly reminiscent of the days when I’d sneak onto the family computer at 3am with no one to talk to apart from my American friends. The primary difference between now and a decade ago is the existence of a Guild Chat.
How does a humble chat-box revolutionise my online multi-player experience, I hear you silently ask? Well, The Wilderness Guardians, the RuneScape clan which I co-founded with my brother (who are still extremely influential in the game today) communicated through the in-game messaging system. We could talk directly to each other, or otherwise out-loud to any nearby players, and that was it. The only way we could talk to one another was by dropping whatever we were doing and typing it out. (Just as I left, they started using TeamSpeak, and I would often wake at 4am to hear my brother yelling at his subordinates.)
Guild Wars 2 differentiates itself with having a number of different conversation options. You can “whisper” directly to another player, as if communicating telepathically. You can “say” something out loud to those in the vicinity. You can announce something directly to the “map”, telling everyone in your world some message or another. You can speak directly to your “party” if you have something directly relevant to say to the small group you’re playing with. Or you can take part in your “guild” conversations, which in my case are frequently inane chatters about rare items, invitations to run through dungeons, or crude jokes about yiffing.
Why is this relevant? Well, logging on in the early hours of the morning can be an awfully lonely experience. I’ve almost always preferred playing games by myself – the single player experience has a magic in it that is deeply personal. Games speak to you, heart-to-heart. Multi-player games can be a lot of fun as well, sharing in a wonderful experience, cooperating or working against other human beings in a joined activity. But for the most part, I have always preferred walking the road alone and wondering in the majesty of a virtual world. Yet sometimes, aloneness can feel very lonely. Like Kirito, for all that made him different, his skill, his knowledge, his attitude, he enjoyed the companionship of those closest to him and he found the game was more rewarding as a result. Sometimes having that guild chat option can feel like, however lonely the road, there’s still a line that’s out there to tug on just to let people know you’re alive.