Playing Alone Together

One thing I’ve been reminded of lately; games don’t have to explicitly include multiplayer to be a shared experience. I’ve mentioned before, but my brother is staying with my family while New Zealand is in lockdown. While both gamers, we often have divergent tastes in games, particularly for some reason, when it comes to multiplayer titles. Not always — but often enough that finding things with sustained shared interest over this period has been a challenge.

Enter Cities: Skylines. Something we both own, both enjoy but on the surface has nil multiplayer capability.

Cities: Skylines came back to our attention after a recent post on Dating Sims on the Holodeck. And from there things sort of unfolded naturally. Without intent or design. We both started playing, on our own machines, building our own cities.

We were playing separate and alone.

Or so it would appear. But that wasn’t the case, not really.

We were talking about the developments in our cities. The milestones we were hitting, and the things we were unlocking. More, we were discussing the problems we were running into, the demands of our citizens, how our budgets were going. Taxation changes and what Political parties our play styles were leaning us toward.

We started researching different tips and strategies and sharing our interesting findings. We might not have been able to directly touch each other’s game world, but it was still unquestionably a co-operative experience.

It just so happened with the situation we now find ourselves in, that these conversations took place by voice, in person, in the same room. But that doesn’t need to be true to enjoy playing a game alone together with someone else.

This whole experience takes me back years, I couldn’t tell you how many exactly. But likely back to 2011-2012, as that is when X3: Albion Prelude came out. If you’re unfamiliar with the X series — they are a set of space simulator games. X3: Reunion was my first foray into the games, but I didn’t quite get sucked in when it came out. (In 2005!! Holy moly.)

I think I missed getting engaged with it right away for two major reasons. One; my PC at the time could hardly handle it. It wasn’t quite a slideshow, but it wasn’t far off. It wasn’t until my next major PC upgrade that I was able to pull out that triple CD jewel-case to install and run it smoothly. Two though; I was very likely playing it wrong.

I was aware of the fact it had a lot more to it than the main story. I knew that ultimately you could control entire fleets. That you could own and operate your own space station empire. Pirating? Absolutely possible. All things I loved the sound of. But besides perhaps the pirating lifestyle; these were things I expected to be dished out to me as I progressed in the story. So I doggedly pushed ahead, looking for these things to be, I suppose, essentially passed to me.

But X3: Reunion had other plans.

X3: Reunion — still looking impressive despite it’s age. No wonder my old toaster could barely handle it.

Those other plans included a now infamous difficulty spike in the story missions. You were meant to go off on your own for a while and enjoy the more sandbox elements of the game until such time you could return in a more powerful fighter.

But the game never tells you this, the story would suggest that it’s life or death urgency and needs to be acted on right now.

So in the end I flipped the game the bird and moved on with my life.

Sort of. I mean- the promise of the game continued to intrigue me. And X3 received several expansions, culminating in the final X3: Albion Prelude in 2011, as noted above. Along the way, I suppose I’d been investigating. Likely discovering at some point the information about that original X3 difficulty spike. Reading guides, that kind of thing.

So when Albion Prelude landed in my hands — I was ready. And apparently; so was my brother. I assume I had been talking it up along the way.

We didn’t have voice chat, and I’d already moved out by that point. But we had XFire. It was a gamer’s IM tool, and it is important to this story because it was one of the first such tools to allow you to chat via an overlay in a game, without alt-tabbing out to ICQ or MSN or whatever else might’ve been the IM choice du jour.

It allowed us to chat while we flew our virtual ships around a virtual space. Discussing the trade route that were working for us, what factions we were planning on befriending or potentially preying upon. We talked about how the fleets under our command were going, what sort of revenue they were bringing in.

We couldn’t interact directly with each other’s game universe, sure. But it is still one of the most memorable gaming experiences of my entire life.

It can be hard, sometimes, to recapture certain moments of magic from our gaming history. We’ll never get back our first time experiencing an MMO after all. But I’m pleased beyond measure that this experience, the sharing of experiences of a single-player title being played together, is a type of magic that can be re-experienced.

This was a post for Blapril 2020, the annual blogging event (albeit usually as Blaugust), brought forward to help bring a sense of community during the challenging time of COVID-19. Blaugust is an event aiming to welcome new blogger blood into the fold and revitalise those who’ve been at it a little longer.

The Blaugust Discord is still available to join in, year round!


Gamer, reader, writer, husband and father of two boys. Former WoW and Gaming blogger, making a return to the fold to share my love of all things looty.

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