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2018’s games taught me the value of online fun with friends

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From PUBG to Sea of Thieves, this year offered a bevy of adventures

Rare / Microsoft Studios via Polygon

Looking back at 2018, I find that I don’t define the months by weather or trends. Instead, some of the strongest memories come from the games that I played with my friends. From the tail end of 2017 updates to titles like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Star Trek: Bridge Crew that we enjoyed in the new year, to releases like Sea of Thieves, No Man’s Sky Next, Red Dead Online, A Way Out and Fallout 76. Titles come and go, but there seems to be a common philosophy behind so many of the titles we enjoyed this year: These games gave us an arena for adventure as opposed to a contest or competition.

I’ve often heard that any game is fun if you’re playing it with friends, and there’s some truth to that; having the gang around on voice chat will make any experience better. That doesn’t mean that there every game facilitates or encourages friendship, though. Consider League of Legends, undoubtedly a very popular and well-made game. All of the merit and good developer decisions in the world can’t change the fact that I find League miserable to play with friends; it’s a nightmare carnival that puts friendships into a meat grinder of arguments.

As team fights mount and enemies snowball, inevitably people begin to play the blame game. I’ve seen friendships shattered on the rocky shore of League of Legends before, and I’m not eager to repeat the experience. Even cooperative titles, like World of Warcraft, have caused in-fighting and hostilities to form. MMORPGs often rely on gating content behind levels and item restrictions; I still remember the agony of trying to figure out how to level with friends on different schedules with different priorities, with players continually falling behind in gear or gold.

World of Warcraft - a paladin stands in the class order hall.
All by myself... I don’t want to be all by myself...

2018 didn’t introduce the concept of cooperative, story-based games, but there was a host of titles that made that concept sing. PUBG is a clunky, awkward shooter, but it taught me the valuable lesson that chicken dinners are rare and elusive, and its more about the journey and the destination. I’ve moved on from battle royale games, but I have fond memories of parking outside a building while my friends are scavenging and leaning on the horn to announce that their Uber has arrived, or dodging grenades chucked through the windows of a long corridor as we frantically ran past the borders of the closing zone.

Sea of Thieves immediately clicked with our group of friends; we’ve earned two pirate legends among our group, and regularly take to the high seas. There’s a strong sense of relief to play a title with no random drops, no upgrades beyond the cosmetics, no levels, and the ability to add a new player to the crew at any time. No Man’s Sky Next and Fallout 76 were less perfect or focused experiences, but they also opened up new worlds with drop-in, drop-out gameplay and plenty of exploration. Now that me and my friends have linked up over Red Dead Online, I’ve spent about 60 percent of my time in that title lassoing my friends, hog-tying them, and then getting lassoed in turn.

Ultimately, this year’s games taught me a lesson: I’m not in it for the competition. There are plenty of titles that offer players the chance to demonstrate their mastery or rack up big kills. It was something I treasured in my youth; I loved the idea of being a StarCraft master or rubbing shoulders with League of Legends pros.

Fallout 76 - three players stand over a fallen Yao Guai in Whitesprings.
Playing without friends is... unbearable.
Bethesda Game Studios / Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

Now that I’m older, and I hope wiser, I see that online gaming with my friends is an arena for adventure. So many of the competitive games we dabbled in wound up being an extremely sophisticated treadmill, where we were eternally chasing a series of increasingly potent and impressive carrots. As my friends and I get older, and complications like kids or new jobs enter our lives, we don’t have time to grind for gear, let alone ensure the entire group is up to par to tackle the latest challenge.

I’m 28 years old, and I’m spending most of my evenings playing cowboys and pirates. I’ve been everything this year from a getaway driver to the comms director on a Star Trek starship. There’s something pure about the ability to jump into a fantasy and be able to engage with the core elements of a game right off the bat. The more systems and hoops a game asks me to engage with, the more I feel detached from that world. It becomes less of a game that I’m engaging with as play, and more of an abstract thought exercise.

The fact that games as a service encourage time off here and there helps too. Me and my friends dove into Appalachia in Fallout 76 and sunk a few weeks into exploring that territory. Now, we get to put the game on the shelf until new content and events are released. Sea of Thieves remains fresh thanks to the regular expansions and Bilge Rat Adventures, and after we complete a new set of challenges we can switch to a new title.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - two players accept a mission in Red Dead Online Rockstar Games

Online games have become a place to hang out; an online bar or community center. My brother and I live on opposite sides of the country, but we still get to hang out regularly — we just do so while cresting a wave on a mighty galleon or stealing a bounty from a stage coach. It’s part of why Fortnite took PUBG’s ball and ran with it; Epic realized Fortnite was as much a social experience as it was a competitive game. Watching kids play Fortnite in 2018 and beyond feels akin to watching them gallivant around at the local park or pool; there are winners and losers in the individual games, but that’s not really the point. Everyone’s just thrilled to participate and have some sense of direction that connects them with the people around them.