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The solitude of single-player games

I love video games. They aren’t bound to reality, there’s an audacity to their imagination, and I love how you can do whatever you want with fear of no consequences. Yes, video games are basically Subramaniam Swamy with a pause button. I’d like to clarify at the outset that I play video games, but I am not a ‘gamer’. For those wondering about the distinction, it’s the difference between a spot of gully cricket and being a cricketer. I like to shoot things. Gamers like to play independent titles where the sole objective is to get an ocarina to mate with a flower, written by one game-designer on a bead of his own sweat.


Levelling it up: In the quest for multiplayer, studios have whittled single-player campaigns down to nothing. You open one door, shoot one person, and you’ve won/lost the game. Representation pic/Thinkstock

The first video game I ever played was called Paratrooper. In it, you were a blurry blob, and other blurry blobs were dropped from the sky by blurry helicopter blobs, and your job was to shoot those blurry blobs before they landed on the ground and took out your blurry blob. I have no idea why it was called Paratrooper, because you never actually played as a paratrooper, but as the gun that killed the paratroopers. Though I suppose they couldn’t have named it ‘The Gun That Kills The Paratrooper’ because it’s a game, not an Umberto Eco book. Paratrooper ran on my old-school DOS machine, whose specifications were LOL bits of RAM, and a “just be glad I didn’t explode today” processor.

From there, I moved on to more complex games like Pac-Man, Tetris, and this strange Indian game my ‘computer guy’ (everybody had a computer guy back then) left on my machine. I don’t remember the name, but it was a top-angle view of a soldier as he wandered through a building trying to rescue people. There was some sort of bug in it where behind one particular door was a soldier who would shoot you through the wall. And then you died, and the game said (I kid you not) “Mar gaya saale” which I thought was a little rude and obvious thing to say to someone you just put a bullet in. I have never been able to find out what that game was because I don’t remember the name.

The first console I ever used was a friend’s Atari, where one evening we played Space Invaders until our eyes were so swollen we could cry. Just as we were about to hit a high score, his sister tripped over the wire, and we did. Another friend’s father had just bought him the Media TV Console, whose prime function was to increase our lung capacity because of the number of times you needed to blow on the cartridge to get it to work.

The first gaming console I ever called my own was a Playstation 2. Never underestimate the gifting ability of an uncle with Forex rates on his side who’s missed a few birthdays. While it opened up a whole new world of complexity, nuance and visual wizardry, the problem was that it opened up a whole new world of complexity, nuance and visual wizardry. Because as games evolved to keep pace with hardware upgrades (or was it the other way around?) they grew ambitious in terms of story-telling, and with LAN and Internet, multiplayer became the holy grail.

I don’t like multiplayer gaming. I like the solitude of the single-player. I don’t want to play a bunch of people over the Internet because I play to relax, not to have my ego shredded to bits by some 13 year-old from Zimbabwe who can head-shot me from a kilometre away. But in the quest for multiplayer, studios have whittled single-player campaigns down to nothing. You open one door, shoot one person, and you’ve won/lost the game.

I enjoy the complexity of new games when it’s done right, but sometimes I wish they didn’t take themselves so seriously. I almost want a Grand Masti: The Game. These days, every new game has deep, layered characters with a Bimal Roy backstory and decisions that have Ritwik Ghatak consequences. Some games have a mechanic where the more wanton destruction you cause, the more the game-world comes to perceive you as a monster. I don’t remember the part in Super Mario where the princess tells Mario she can’t be with him because he’s squished too many turtles, and as a member of PETA, she can’t live with that.

Last year I played the staggeringly brilliant The Last of Us, in which (SPOILER ALERT) your final decision involves either saving all of humanity, or the life of one little girl who you love. It didn’t matter how I finished the game, either this child (who looks a bit like Ellen Page, which only makes it worse) or EVERYBODY ON EARTH would die. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful and poignant and a hundred complex emotions, but there was a part of me that realised that I’d just paid R3,500 to something to depress me. I could have just stayed at work and achieved the same goal while earning money. If I’d died of depression at my desk, at least my boss would have offered me the courtesy of a “Mar gaya saale!”

Rohan Joshi is a writer and stand-up comedian who likes reading, films and people who do not use the SMS lingo. You can also contact him on www.facebook.com/therohanjoshi

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