Games with Friends

I was late to the online co-op gaming party.

A lot of that is probably because of the public perception (which, let’s face it, is totally based in fact) of online gaming spaces being prohibitively toxic, especially toward anyone who isn’t a cisgender, straight, white man. Yikes.

However, it was when I was 26, in this, the (forsaken?) year of our Lord 2020, that I discovered that you can play video games online with your friends on Playstation Plus without exposing yourself to open area chat. Amazing.

So, early this year, I started a co-op farm in Stardew Valley with two of my close friends from grad school, one of whom lives a couple of states away (so getting together was a rare thing even before the pandemic drove me permanently indoors).

Then, on the dubious recommendation of my friend Joey (who runs an excellent gaming blog himself–he actually knows how to get screenshots off his consoles and onto his posts), I downloaded and started to play Red Dead Redemption 2. I never finished the single-player story, but I did start to play RDR2 online with the same friends from grad school.

Then, of course, came the shelter-in-place orders, the school closures, the lock-downs…and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. This one opened up a whole new world of online gaming possibilities.

Needless to say, once I finally arrived at the party, I had a great time, and I’ve been an enthusiastic participant at the party ever since.

Stardew Valley

My little farm in fall, with tomatoes, eggplant, corn, and a kitty!

Stardew Valley is obviously a great solo game. It’s got everything: farming, social mechanics, combat, mystery, animals who love you, fishing, great music, adorable character designs, multiple different paths to “success.” It’s a real gem.

I really had no idea that Stardew even had an online co-op mode until I was invited to play one with grad school friends. But once we opened our farm (which we named after the planet that the Wookiees inhabit in Star Wars), I learned that not only is the game a little bit easier to play with a group (3x the energy = 3x the profit!), but it’s also so much more fun to share our thoughts and feelings about specific events and NPCs and to plan out our planting and mining schedules together. Stardew rewards social activity in-game, so it makes sense that playing in co-op mode would also be rewarding.

We didn’t spend very long playing Stardew together, because as soon as I got comfortable with the controls of Read Dead Redemption 2, which I bought during the winter sale in January, my friends wanted to switch over to play that instead.

Red Dead Redemption 2

I do like this game. Kinda. I really go back and forth, because the story is reasonably compelling (even for someone who’s not so that into the whole outlaw, wild west, erupting modernism thing), the game engine and graphics are astounding, and there are things about it that I truly do love and adore. But. The user interface really is appalling. I’m appalled. The menu and map system is just so not intuitive, the controls make no sense, there’s too much to pay attention to and yet, somehow, I can never find the meter that I’m looking for until it’s too late. I think to a certain degree, somewhere along the development process, realism was prioritized over playability and, like, fun.

So I got to a certain point with the main story in solo mode and was pretty much done.

However, once I was invited to join my friends in online multiplayer mode, everything was different.

This trophy pops when you complete a story mission online with a group (or, alternatively, if two other people carry your dead weight across the finish line of a story mission online)

Well, not everything. I still think the user interface is frustrating to the point of being almost not worth playing the game. And I find the game really difficult in general, though that really has more to do with my own inability to aim a ranged weapon (in any game–my dreams of playing an assassin archer in Skyrim really took a lot of practice, and a Nintendo Switch port with motion controls, to achieve) than a shortcoming with the game.

But the online mode story–which is completely different from the main story–is a lot simpler and doesn’t expect me to know any characters from the first game. I also love that I was allowed to create my own character (a bisexual steampunk lady named Ivy, pictured below with her horse, Dandelion) rather than playing as Arthur Morgan, who I don’t really like, personally.

One thing I do appreciate about the Red Dead games, which I understand is also true of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, is that after so many failed attempts at an impossible checkpoint in the story, you can just skip it. I appreciate that option, even if it does mean a forfeiture of the XP and whatever other non-essential resources you might be supposed to earn.

In multiplayer mode, though, my reliance on that feature (which in solo mode had become increasingly frequent) ended entirely! Now I had friends to help me with the story checkpoints and with the raids on various bandit camps and even, occasionally, hostile players who shared the server. It helped tremendously that both my teammates are significantly more experienced gamers in general, and especially more experienced and comfortable with shooter mechanics. One friend could impressively land headshots almost every time!

While at this point, we seem to have abandoned Read Dead online for other, potentially greener, pastures, I’m glad to have given it a shot. This game is certainly far outside my comfort zone, and I was overall pleasantly surprised with some of the features that I enjoyed a lot. But the menu is still terrible.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

As we all know, the latest installment of the Animal Crossing franchise released just in time for millions of people to board their windows and hunker down for the long apocalyptic summer of semi-quarantine. I’m no exception.

I called my island Sunnydale, after the hell-ravaged SoCal town of Buffy fame, and I had a blast decorating and renovating my little witch cottage, fishing and gathering, farming for peaches, and travelling to distant islands. I’ve spent hundreds of real hours living in this adorable little world to distract myself from the hellscape I actually live in.

My house and yard in its fall glory

But the best part of this game, too, proved to be the online social potential. Both of the aforementioned grad school friends, as well as several other friends from various places, all played Animal Crossing, and I have had such a great time visiting with them and seeing their decorative styles.

I bought the game for my sister, too, in the hopes that she would have some fun with it and that we could stay connected through it. That worked better than I could have dreamed. While I and most of my friends are real-time purists, my sister got impatient and decided to try time travelling. Not only that, but she joined a few Facebook groups for trading and selling in-game furniture. She even allowed her kids to set up their own homes on her island, and I got to visit with my five-year-old niece virtually through the online mode.

One of my friends, who was bummed about not being able to celebrate their birthday out in the world the way they might have done if not for the pandemic, decided instead to throw a virtual birthday party with close friends on their Animal Crossing island. The four of us gathered, ate virtual cake, popped a lot of party poppers, and then played a fun game of hide and seek on their island! Animal Crossing was, in short, the MVP of the early days of lockdown.

I have had a rollicking good time playing video games online with friends, and although Phasmophobia gives me too much anxiety to allow me to really participate, I am looking forward to giving Among Us a try soon!

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