As a kid, I always jumped at any opportunity I had to play games in co-op. The words “co-operative play” were like candy to me in a world where multiplayer was almost exclusively limited to free-for-all versus modes, or team battles if I was lucky. It’s not that the games weren’t good enough to be played alone. Far from it. I had tonnes of fun on my Super Nintendo and N64 by myself. It’s just that I wished I could share the same experience I had in solo with somebody else. Even the greatest games on the platforms felt lonely at times, and as embarrassing as it is to admit, I had actual dreams as a kid where I would be playing Super Mario 64 with a friend taking control of Luigi (which is now possible, thanks to the magic of the internet).

Today, multiplayer games leave me skeptical. I still enjoy playing games with friends, of course, and any time I hear the word “multiplayer” I turn my head (don’t hit me, single player aficionados!). The problem is that usually the best and most robust games out there are solely built for solo play (though not exactly designed so as to deny the possibility of co-op in a lot of cases) and multiplayer games are usually shallowly designed, merely using the tag “multiplayer” as incentive to buy their products regardless of quality. The latter has proven to work immensely.

I wrote a (very, very unpopular) piece earlier criticizing GTA Online’s Heist mode (and this isn’t to criticize the rest of both GTA5 and Online, which are phenomenal), an opinion that despite a ton of criticism I still hold with a passion, despite the fact that I have been giving it multiple second chances for the past two weeks, relentlessly. Much of the counterpoints to my arguments that the mode isn’t very good usually (not always) amounts to one thing: It’s fun to play with friends.

You can’t argue with that. It’s a fact. Any game is fun to play with friends. A while back I had purchased Nether (protip: don’t do that) when it was on sale for two dollars. Those were two dollars I wish I’d have just spent on a viciously overpriced cookie instead. But I did have fun with it, yet only when one of my friends were online in the same server. I didn’t get very far without getting sniped across the city by a Kill-On-Sighter or slaughtered by the very ground I walked on thanks to being spontaneously consumed by the planet (or perhaps it was a glitch, I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt). But my friend and I were laughing our asses off. We were having a good time, if only because the game was hilariously broken and poorly made.

But whenever I played alone or with total strangers (ESPECIALLY total strangers) I found myself clutching my head in despair. Not the kind of “good” despair you get from games which exist to elicit emotion, but the kind you get when you feel like kicking yourself for ever buying the game in the first place.

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I didn’t really think about the notion that “it’s fun with friends” is an obvious statement for a while until I saw Tabletop Simulator (this isn’t an advertisement, I swear!). At first I checked it out because I thought the concept was hilarious, and it really was quite funny watching a bunch of digital hands scramble to get to the cards and pieces, and flipping the table when they didn’t succeed in doing so. Then when I bought it and sat down to play the game with my friends, we had a rousing time trying to keep the deck from falling apart, making jokes and prodding each other with “innocent” insults, laughing through each and every game.

When I logged off, I realized something: I’ve actually never met these “friends” before in my life. They were total strangers, and yet as I “sat” down at the digital table it only took minutes before it felt like I knew these people my whole life. I was having fun with a multiplayer game that I wasn’t playing with any friend whatsoever, and I even connected with the people I met and spoke to for less than half an hour.

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I’ve been thinking of other games that do something similar. The Souls series comes to mind as one of the few multiplayer games that strongly encourage co-operating with total strangers instead of connecting to your friends’ games (and it is amazing). Running around with a feeling of loneliness only to be guided by faint voices of other players in the form incoherent scribbles and then summoning them from beyond the realm to help me when I have a problem that needed to be dealt with somehow made the loneliness less of a vacuous hole which sucks everything, and more of a magnetic pull which almost forcibly puts people together, one way or another. It wasn’t just my journey, it was everybody’s, and it was both as personal as it was somehow everybody’s business. I’m sure you’ve heard that before in reviews of the series. But barring that and the many hours I’ve spent prancing with others online in Monster Hunter, few multiplayer games out there really give a strong sense of camaraderie with people you don’t actually know.

DayZ seems to breed contempt for humanity by having nearly everybody helbent on shooting you down over a can of beans, or even just because they have a surplus of ammo they feel like spending. Grand Theft Auto: Online’s Heist mode is filled with perfectionists who will leave at the first sign of trouble and never bother communicating, either by voice or by messaging, to plan out alternate ideas. Minecraft, fittingly so with its caveman motif, encourages tribalism, and finding an appropriate server for one to fit into that doesn’t have the administrators harass and torment you before permanently banning you from the server is, while possible, shockingly difficult. The vast majority of shooters are often filled with people who feel more like machines with pre-recorded “your mom” jokes than they do feel like people you can actually communicate with, and MMOs are essentially really large single-player games but with millions of other single-players where nobody can hear you no matter how loud you scream. Yet, find even a single friend and all of these games can and most likely will be a good time. Play them with strangers and you’ll either suffer or be thoroughly disappointed.

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Suddenly, to me, multiplayer just doesn’t seem like this incredible thing which lets other players experience unique worlds together. It feels like it’s an excuse, something developers say to wow people and call it a day. Like it’s not even supposed to be there in the first place. Like the people I’m playing with aren’t actually people.

But when a game starts telling me to play with people I’ve never met and really focus on getting people together, it really feels like multiplayer is there for a reason. Like it’s part of the experience, like it actually matters, and it makes the people you meet feel so much more alive. I can’t say I’m not impressed. Nothing says “multiplayer” like a game that actually brings people together instead of demanding that you stick with people you know.

Maybe it’s time we stop judging multiplayer games on how fun they are they are to play with friends. Instead, let’s judge them on how fun they are to play with strangers.