In 'Now Playing' articles PC Gamer writers talk about the game currently dominating their spare time.
After a while, I stopped talking to strangers. It became easy to forget that they were why I started playing MMOs in the first place. Fifteen years ago, the notion that every character on the screen represented a real person (!) was extraordinary, epochal. The first Italian person I ever met was an Ultima Online character. I was eleven, and immediately told my mum. I remember her excitedly trying to explain it to a family friend—how I’d been making friends in other countries. I’d been talking to strangers on the internet, but it was OK because they were a wizard or something.
I got older and those isolated encounters became friendship networks, guilds and communities. I made friends for life in Dark Age of Camelot and followed some of those people to World of Warcraft, or ran into them by chance on Star Wars Galaxies’ American roleplay servers. Then, a little further on, I drifted away from the genre. I started playing singleplayer games and MMOs that you could play by yourself, and the urge to engage in zone chat faded. By the time The Old Republic rolled around, I was a committed solo player – and besides, I had the PC Gamer guild on hand when I did feel like running a dungeon. My colleagues played too. Not only had I lost the urge to talk to strangers, I no longer had a need.
There is a ‘but’ coming. You know it, I know it. I’ve spent two paragraphs rolling out the red carpet for this earthshaking ‘but’.
But! I’m level 16 and chipping away at WildStar’s second major zone for the Dominion, Auroria. My character is a spellslinger and an explorer: I shoot things, freeze things, explode things and do jumping puzzles. I’m tooled for gentle solo questing and the odd bit of player versus player. There’s a farm in northern Auroria where rectangular pigs called Cubigs are cloned for food. At the back of a barn, there’s a tunnel accessible to explorers that leads to some underground quests in a storage area full of containers. When I’m down there, I notice that the containers seem to link up with some lofty structural supports. From there, it looks like it’d be possible to climb to a hidden area at the top.
I start jumping, and realise that another nearby explorer is trying the same thing. She’s a stalker – in the sense that she’s a melee assassin character, not that she’s following me – and has figured out exactly what I have. We reach the same rafter near the roof and realise the same thing: we’re not supposed to be up here. This isn’t a jumping challenge after all.
“I’m not sure this goes anywhere,” the stranger says. “Maybe we are too good at exploring.”
“2 pro 4 explore,” I say, aping internet-speak for some idiotic reason.
“:D” is the reply.
We leave the cavern together, helping each other with monsters. Then we happen to head towards the same set of quests. We’re awkwardly in step, like strangers falling next to each other in the street by accident.
“Do you want to do some quests or something?” I suggest. In response I get a group invite, and then a friend request.
Four hours later, as we’re putting paid to a towering space bee, squelching through catacombs of honey and ichor in Auroria’s far east, that friend request becomes an account friend request—which means that we can see when we’re each online, whatever character we happen to be playing.
While fitting jetpacks to honeybound space labourers I find out that my new friend is from Belgium. We discuss the relative merits of Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online while disembowelling a space panther. My new friend is enjoying WildStar a lot, they explain. So am I! I think. I’ve met a stranger. I’ve met somebody from Belgium (!). I should probably tell my mum.