People are a scary proposition in games. They’re a hidden factor, a mystery. Even playing with people you know and love may bring to the surface strange tendencies and side effects. Playing with other people has made for some of the best gaming experiences of my life: Sitting around with friends smoking cigars and playing Rock Band, hiding in bushes with a buddy as a helicopter was searching for us in the sandboxy military simulation ArmA, or carefully capping Zombies with my girlfriend in No More Room In Hell. And this doesn’t even begin to cover the amazing creative cooperative and competitive situations I’ve found myself in in Board and Roleplaying games. But the hostile battlefields of the anonymous online shooter are an entirely different matter. Sure, one would hope that the other players there are all just looking to get along and have a good time, that they’re playing a multiplayer game for a reason, but even so, the idea of plugging in my mic and piping up in an open server of a competitive game simply makes my blood run cold.
I’ve got Insurgency open in the background right now, a once-mod now-standalone multiplayer tactical shooter. Don’t worry, I’m not bogging my team down being AFK. I’m dead as usual. I’m playing the absolutely beautiful Firefight game mode, in which death is pseudo-permanent. After being killed, you’re dropped into the ‘Spectator’ mausoleum until one of your teammates captures a control point, at which point all your ghostly allies are reincarnated as a fresh batch of wide eyed troopers. It was during one of these respawns that our story begins. There must not have been many dead insurgents that day, because after a teammate capped Alpha, I respawned with a single friendly at my side. I looked at him for a moment (or her, of course, for all of Insurgency’s greatness it still lives under a rock that believes that no women could be involved in combat I suppose). I imagined the possibilities of us working together, covering each other’s backs until we made it to a brutal and heroic standoff at the nearest control point, carefully flanking and tricking our foes together. And then he ran off. I followed, sprinting after him, but it was no use, he was gone.
If only I could have shouted out to him, begged for a bit of teamwork and cooperation, wisting for a touch of banter to bring some humanity to the hollow avatars we inhabited. I wanted to talk to him. Just him. But, I knew if I sent my pinky over to the Push-to-Talk key, the entire server would hear my nasally voice pushed through the internet pipes. And that’s why we need proximity voice, voice that only reaches the players that are near you in the game world, an innovation that real life has been providing us since the invention of language. If we reduce the audience of our blather from an entire server to just the people next to us we’ll be more likely to cooperate. To talk to the players ‘around’ us. And the tactical usefulness is massive… Being able to ask the machine-gunner next to you what the hell he’s shooting at is great, unless it means that all 8 machine-gunners on the server point you to coordinates on opposite sides of the map.
Imagine, if instead of transmitting my thoughts to the whole team, I could have reached out to that lone player next to me and formulated a plan. Or, I could have talked to just the people at the fence line around us, whispered to my comrades huddled in a trench, or murmur to the sniper next to me, as opposed to putting my voice on a loudspeaker for the whole server to hear.
“Hey, man, wanna go for Alpha?”
“Sure! I’ll go find some overlook… okay… move up!”
*blam blam blam squeal* “Hey I got one! Come on up here!”
These sort of candid one-on-one conversations can only work if we were allowed to communicate to just the people near us. Instead, we’re expected to share our thoughts and plans, even excitement and despair with 32 some-odd people, who have no idea or cares as to what me and Lone Friendly’s situation is.
There are a few games that are playing with this. For instance, the upcoming tactical multi-manblast Intruder seems to have some wildly inventive gameplay reasons for including this sort of tech. In it players voices not only radiate out to nearby friendlies and eavesdropping enemies, but also feature 3D positioning. Imagine, sitting around with a couple of friends guarding a door, when you’re surprised by the telltale squawk of a radio up in the ductwork! But still, in the cold and cruel servers of the typical modern shooter, I think this feature should become the norm rather than the exception. Because, while I’m too afraid to try to talk to an entire mob of soldiers and shooters… I’m more than willing to bet that the fellow gamer next to me is probably friendly, that my compatriot running down the street trying not to get shot would love to interact with another human too, instead of just another mouse-and-keyboard controlled RC Soldier.