I previously wrote an article about how I’m such a sucker for Cooperative Multiplayer in RPGs. If I find out an RPG has a cooperative multiplayer aspect to it, then I’ll buy it hoping for a repeat of Secret of Mana. Usually I get stung and end up with a less-than-stellar experience playing Phantasy Star Online or Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, so I’ve been getting discouraged as of late.
But my desperation to find multiplayer console RPGs brings to bear an observation… there are hardly any player-to-player aspects to them at all! Heck, we’re an RPG community here, why can’t we be a community within the structure of our games as well?
Well, I guess it isn’t an easy question as to how one would craft a console RPG inter-personal experience. You can either go the multiplayer action RPG route ala Secret of Mana, or in a different vein, Tales of Phantasia. Or you can design the game around trading interaction ala Pokemon, or purely competitive interaction, ala Pokemon again. Of course, the thing is most traditional RPGs can’t do this. Cloud meeting another Cloud to trade in-game collectible cards? Tifa fighting a clone of herself from your friend’s save file? Uh-huh…riiiiight.
I guess that when a Console RPG is based so resolutely on the closed-universe of a narrative story and set outcome, there’s not much use for the interference of other players. Maybe that’s why Shigeru Miyamoto called Animal Crossing a “Communication” game. It was designed to do what other games didn’t: actively encourage players to interact with and create relationships with other players from within the game world.
This wasn’t just a “What level is your Pikachu?” interaction. Animal Crossing took its concept of the player as just another member of a small rural town to exciting new paradigms of multiplayer interaction. Immediately in your town you discover fruit trees. The great thing is that all your trees are of just one type of fruit, and other players have different types of fruit. One of the first goals you can tackle in the game is meeting another player so you can trade your ubiquitous oranges for his exotic peaches, and vice versa, so you can both hurry back to your town and cultivate this here-to-fore impossible to attain fruit.
Yet that’s just the beginning of how Animal Crossing lets you feel the social web that you and your friends are caught in.
Sometimes your NPC neighbors have amazing gossip to share about the other humans who trample their flowerbeds. One time a neighbor of mine secretly showed me a letter she had received from my brother on one of his visits to my game file. She was demonstrating how to properly write a letter, and I was properly resentful of my brother edging in on my turf: he had a town of his own, why was he bad mouthing me in my own town? But when I read the letter I was shocked. It was a love letter! It was smushey! It was on pretty stationery! And it was proposing that a certain neighbor of mine elope with the sender! My younger brother was secretly harboring a crush on a character from my town! Reading that letter was alarming, sensational, and downright voyeuristic!
Another thing we can do in Animal Crossing is set up simple “buried treasure” games when we visit a friends town. Bury a prize, leave em a hint, and let them grub around their map looking for whatever special thing it was you left behind. Except that when I had a chance to do this, I had mischief in mind. I had obntained a special item in Animal Crossing that created a spot in the ground that players would fall into, a trap! Now, the placement of this trap was critical. It looks exactly like something buried, so players could easily just dig up the trap for themselves. This is why I needed a visual distraction for the player: garbage. Tin cans and old boots you get from fishing are useless, unless you litter them across your friends dump yard like I did. So busy was he rushing to the back of his dump where I had hidden his prize that he walked right over the pitfall trap I had expertly placed! Score!
Oh geez. But I had the largest prank played on me in Animal Crossing and I’ll never live it down. You see, I’m a bit of a… packrat. So much so that outside my house, you can find all my extra items just littered across the ground. Inside my house though, it’s perfectly clean. The Happy Home Rating Academy (HHRA) would send me a nasty letter if I littered the house with all my junk. So all the junk goes right out the door to mess up my lawn, staying there until I take the time to sell it, or give it as a gift. Well, I had maybe 60 or so of these items when I noticed a new posting on the town’s message board. The Happy Town Rating Academy was coming to town! Oh snap! I had to pull all the weeds, dig up the tree stumps, and… I had to clear out all my excess items before the HTRA came and saw what a mess I’d made of my little corner of the world! So I did that, some I gave away, some I placed back in my basement, and much of it in desperation I pawned off to a very shrewd and thrifty raccoon who gave me rock bottom prices for all my valued junk! So there, I’d cleaned the town, and got rid of my months and months of piled up junk. It only took a few hours. That’s when my brother started laughing. And laughing. And calling our friends and making them laugh to. At me. I was the victim of a cruel prank. There was no Happy Town Rating Academy that would cluck their tongues at my tendency to litter my front yard with random items. My brother had written that message all by himself and made it sound professional to fool me. He had succeeded in making me spend 3 hours cleaning up my town when I had absolutely no need to! He had tricked me! I felt as if I had just downloaded the I.Love.You virus: sick to my stomach.
I wish more games allowed that to happen. I wish more games let me feel that the world I was inhabiting was being affected by other living, breathing, unpredictable players. I wish more console games might surprise us with the opportunity to be voyeuristic, or to throw pranks, or to be caught in pranks ourselves. Oh, and for the record, I’m gonna kill my brother in his sleep. Just so you know little bro: he who laughs…