Hearthstone is my favourite multiplayer game right now, and it has almost nothing to do with the game itself. The game is great, which definitely helps, but CCGs have never really been my thing before and I doubt they ever will be again particularly. Never say never, but things like deck building and worrying about the metagame of it aren’t really my idea of a great time and the added complexities that excite others in things like Magic aren’t things that particularly excite or interest. Though unlike football, I can see why others would enjoy them.
Instead, what keeps me hooked on Blizzard’s game is that it’s one of the few multiplayer games I can both drop into on a whim, and play to relax and feel good. That’s something I don’t get very often, and a big reason why I tend to prefer single-player games. Making the world virtual doesn’t make the aching social anxiety any less real.
To be clear, social anxiety isn’t the same as ‘shy’, not specifically anyway. It’s a whole bundle of insecurity, self-esteem issues, intense feelings of fear and worry and avoidance, often tied to severe depression issues. Trust me on this one. It’s not the basic nerves or cold feet of “I don’t know what to say to this girl/boy.” It’s the internalised belief that it’s not going to matter what you say, because there is no way anyone could like you anyway, that if anyone does spend time with you it’s out of dutiful politeness with a timer ticking, and that the best thing you can bring to any table is your absence. And of course, it tends to be a self-fulfilling kind of prophecy. Antisocial and socially anxious look very similar, and it’s not as if anyone can see into your head. People see that you never, say, invite them to do things. They don’t see that the reason is because you can’t imagine, or at least act on the idea that they might actually want to do that thing with you. Why would they? Nobody would.
(And no, being aware of the irrationality of this makes it no better. Worse, really, because it doesn’t help and just makes you feel bad for being so stupid about it. At least being unaware allows for a certain ‘against the world’ sense of rebellion. The best you can say about aware depression is that there can be a certain soporific comfort to it. To quote a song that popped up on Spotify’s Radio a while back with a line I thought apt, “Depression’s like a big fur coat. It’s made of dead things, but it keeps me warm.” One of the best descriptions of it I’ve heard.)
I say “you” of course. But I’m obviously talking about myself, a guy who can confidently give a speech without any real preparation, has done things like acting and debating, and is absolutely fine behind a megaphone, but usually has to spend several minutes pacing nervously before so much as having dinner with friends and frets for a week before going to a party. Luckily… to some vague degree of ‘luck’… the aforementioned antisocial vs. anxious thing tends to mean that these ‘problems’ don’t tend to come up very much. Suffice it to say that there’s reasons why I have thousands of followers on Twitter, but only about six numbers on my iPhone. And not just the discovery after going freelance a few years back that when you work from home, bathing is entirely optional.
You’d think that these issues would be gone online, but far from it. Personally I find them every bit as bad, not least because of the added aggression and expectation that goes into things. Team Fortress 2 was a long-time favourite of mine for the fact that unlike every other shooter out there, it was a game that almost nobody took seriously enough to care. Win, lose, no problem. It was enough fun to simply dive into that either the jerks were diluted or decided to take a bit of a holiday. Playing something like a public Dota 2 game though is painful, and the mere idea of jumping into a game like DayZ fills me with sheer horror. To most people, voice chat is a feature. To me it’s a curse; a direct line to vast amounts of shit-talking and pressure that I just do not want to deal with.
But it doesn’t take that much to trigger it. My heart pounds uncomfortably when I get so much as a friendly request-to-group in an MMO, where the only expectation is to click on a thing and make it a dead thing and then go swap its corpse for a little gold and XP. I don’t find this kind of thing fun. I find it intensely stressful, and that’s when there are no stakes involved. Never mind when it’s something that’s meant to be a challenge, there’s something on the line, emotions are jacked high and the unblinking spotlight has a heat bulb in it.
Now, none of this is to say that I never play multiplayer games. I’ve got over 50 hours of Dota 2 on record at this point, which I’m aware is the equivalent of 5 minutes to a real player (especially since most of it is in Limited Draft and I still favour Drow). I’ve got a Level 90 World of Warcraft character sitting around waiting to see if I can be bothered to take her to Draenor later this year. But I tend to play them all more or less as solo games. I don’t have a circle of people I play with. I’m not part of a Dota 2 team. I find the idea of inviting someone to group in something like World of Warcraft just as intimidating as trying to have small-talk with them. And I really, really hate the likes of raiding, where the social challenge is coupled with such an easy ability to be the weak link in a chain.
If it was with a group of friends or something then it might be different, feeling like a group challenge rather than a challenge to simply be part of the group. It never really has been though, much to my chagrin. I tend to gravitate to going it solo, alternately enjoying and envying and fearing the other people around. And in games too.
(Randomly, while I blame absolutely nobody else for this, this is at least a bit of an unspoken problem of having a social circle made up of games journalists, many of whom live together or work in the same office. While everyone you know might be into games, that also means that there’s nothing special about you being into them, and you’re always going to play fifth fiddle to someone who can just fire up a game over lunch or whatever. My best multiplayer experiences took place after joining Future, when the internal network wasn’t allowed to connect to the wider world and so everyone stuck around after work to play Counterstrike on the LAN. That fizzled the second we got a dedicated review network though, and those on non-games mags weren’t needed for numbers.)
Hearthstone however is a game I can always slip into as easily as I’ve heard other people slip into one of those ‘bath’ things. It’s everything I want a PUG online gaming experience to be, really. It’s a duel, so there’s nobody else to let down. It’s quick, wasting nobody’s time. The lack of text chat means that you know going in that the worst any opponent can do is say “Ooops” in a slightly sarcastic way. Even if you’re the absolute worst player in the entire world, you’re going to get cheers and explosions and rounds of applause often enough to count.
The whole experience is just so beautifully handled. It’s such a small thing, and I’m aware how ridiculous this is probably going to sound, but I adore that from the very first second it feels inclusive. “Welcome to my inn!” “Look who it is!” “Pull up a chair!” “It’s good ta see you again!” It hits right at the thing I detest most in online games – the way that other players so often try to act like you shouldn’t be there with their cries of “Noob” and whatever, as if they emerged from the womb knowing how to juggle with Sand King. Hearthstone instead carries… on a micro-scale, naturally… the thing that I loved most about the Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon books – that no matter what your problem, or how broken or fucked up you might feel, that you can always hope to find a Place.
But it goes beyond that. Hearthstone is super-careful to never do anything that might make you feel bad. It charts your wins, completely forgets your losses. Even if you fail miserably in the Arena, you’re rewarded and the record of your humiliating zero wins pushed off the screen as fast as the interface can update itself. Every loss is treated as a step on the path to being a winner, with a little XP to mark it. The closest thing to a downer is that it makes you endure far too many rounds with the different heroes but without the cards that actually make them playable, leading to the first hour or so being a frustrating case of not having Combo cards for Valeera or being comprehensively beaten up by a Jaina whose cards you can’t hope to counter with basic abilities.
Over time though, I’ve decided that one of its smartest decisions is one that I originally didn’t like – the use of heroes with personality, with the other player’s identity largely pushed off to the side. The downside of things like the lack of chat in most games would be how quickly every round bled into the others – stripped of that personality that reinforces that you’re playing with another human being, most multiplayer games don’t do so great. Nobody plays botmatches any more, even though the level of play to at least the average player is arguably going to be very similar to jumping into an online server for a PUG match. It’s just not the same.
Hearthstone though has its double-whammy. You know that there’s another player there… though I think it would be hilarious if Blizzard ultimately admitted that some 50% of players were actually AI and they just wanted to see if anyone noticed… but all character is pushed through the characters. I don’t just mean the portraits, though that helps. Everything comes together so that playing against, say, Jaina isn’t simply playing against someone with the Mage deck, but going up against the mindset of a mage. It’s the abstraction to keep the focus on the game and world rather than having to think about the other human being involved, with the scope for a shifting metagame that keeps things interesting. I really like that. Even ignoring the anxiety thing, I hate being pulled out of the fiction of my games, whether by having to team up with the mighty hero SockGobbler or having a chat window full of attempted Game of Thrones spoilers. (Spoilers: I’ve read the books, so nyah. Fear my power of literacy!)
How long will this love affair with Hearthstone last? I have no idea, though I don’t think it’ll hurt that I’ll soon be able to play it on my iPad. (And could now, if I could be bothered to create a New Zealand iTunes store account). I rarely get super-hooked on games for that long, not least because I always have a pile that I need to get to and don’t have the time to devote to individual ones all that often. This month alone, it feels like 10 years worth of adventure games are all hitting at once. Not complaining. But wow, is sleep not likely.
For now though, I love that I have a multiplayer game that I can drop into as easily as most people drop into a pub, where winning and losing matters not even a little and the only hostility comes from wanting to repeatedly punch Anduin Wrynn in his punchable face. I totally understand why other people might not find it the game for them, with its simplicity, heavy reliance on card draw and all that, or might find the same kind of experience in something else entirely. For me though, because I can’t really talk for anyone else, Blizzard made a multiplayer game that just feels good in a way that honestly nobody else has done in a very long time. I kinda wish Heroes Of The Storm was following the same path, but still have hope that it might be able to pull off more of a Team Fortress 2 than a Dota 2 vibe when it finally lands. (I’ve played it, at Blizzcon, but don’t have access to the alpha yet.)
Anyway. I have a wall I should probably get back to supporting. Wouldn’t want it to fall and hurt someone.
No, it’s okay. No thanks needed. Sigh. All part of the social anxiety service.