Alienation and the importance of a good “thanks”

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By Neil Merrett

Alienation – released on Playstation 4 in 2016, developed by Housemarque

Imagine being given just four words to convey the enormity of existence. How would you even begin to choose?

How about having just eight maybe? Eight words with which to convey the broad gamut of human emotions, from anger and frustration, to happiness, appreciation, anxiety, melancholy and just about every other facet of life in between.

Even at their most base level, online games are reliant on conversation between human players. But when voice chat is not available, games find themselves having to offer alternative ways to express ourselves, whether in a gunfight, a cook off, or steering a minibus. What a world!

While advances in communications mean it is possible to share and converse with friends via voice chat and even video, games do not always support these directly, and a successful online experience requires some form of communication at the very least.

Within the meditative experience of playing through the game Journey, where a single individual is charged to glide, walk and climb towards an unknown horizon in an alien world, the player can be confronted by a single online individual to share their journey.  No names, at least during the game, no hello, just two people wandering together. From here, you have a single chime that can be used make to try and convey and communicate with each other.

This one single musical note used as a form of communication is well suited to the stripped down, somewhat existential journey into the mysterious light that is the sole driving force of Journey as a game.

But what about more complex games, where you must lead or be part of a squad trying to survive together on a chaotic, violent battlefield.

Alienation on the Playstation 4 is a game built to be shared, not least to offload the pressures of seemingly endless hordes of mutant alien creatures with their explosive, slimey biologies and futuristic weapons.

Whether thrown together with friends, or random players from around the world, this modern twin stick shooter – where one analogue stick is used to move the player around an isometric warzone of tundras and abandoned cities ,and the other aims a multitude of guns, laser rifles and rocket launchers – the experience can be thrilling.

Well described as “Destiny, but from above”, the thrill of the game is working together.

This is particularly true when working in unison with one to three other players to battle and fend off alien soldiers with well timed traps of noxious gasses, lurid, neon explosions or simple old fashioned bouts of coordinated gun violence and reloading.

Yet without an actual in-game means of directly talking to the player, communication in the game is based on less than 10 simple pre-programmed voice commands.

Some of these commands are more seemingly useful than others. The ability to double tap the D-pad to send your squad a “thanks” will be a necessity, whether it is to acknowledge the patience of your comrades when covering you to run off for an emergency toilet or beer break, or simply to express gratitude for shotgunning a leaping beast just as they are about to crush you.

There is no explicitly negative command, although context is often everything in the game. For instance, in the case of a squad member that willingly blunders into, or sets off a trap that quickly overwhelms them, they may find themselves facing a barrage of passive aggressive calls to “wait”, potentially as an attempt to try and castigate the offending player for their perceived indiscretion.

In a way, this is a new form of language that has evolved in much the same way that emojis, for certain subsections of young people at least, are now a shorthand for expressing triumph, regret, horniness or a sense that something is just poo.

Alternatively, a judicious use of the “over here” command to alert fellow players to some rare and unique weapon that can combine explosives and machine gun fire in a single spray to open up the game, or provide some minor statistical benefit if customised in a certain way.

Nintendo with its soon to be revamped shooter and paint-em-up series Splatoon has long avoided direct speech in its games to try and address fears bullying and abuse online. Yet is it soon set to release a voice app developed to allow friends and squads of individuals to communicate beyond similar command prompts.

In throwing individuals together with less than ten prompts to try and share strategy, frustration and the enjoyment of a solid shooter, Alienation creates it own form of meta language that may be part of a broader evolution of language for an emerging generation of gamers.

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A solid mixture of a retro shooter like Smash TV and in depth treasure hunting-style adventures such as Diablo 3, the player is encouraged to play through and survive the game’s multiple maps on subsequently harder difficulties to try and uncover and unlock new forms of rare armour, guns and grenades. As such, language and command prompts that the game are kept simple.

However, as it always the case with language, it is humanity, and our strange and deeply personal sense of context that can give words a broader, more nuanced and problematic set of meanings.

Take a command such as “no problem” in the game. This would seemingly mean that a task performed for a player did not require a “thanks” to express gratitude, unless the player is displaying false modesty and secretly welcoming the validation for their herculean attempt of self sacrifice or quick shooting.

“Get ready” as a command is also seemingly an obvious request. Yet in a level where a squad can face a prolonged influx of hundreds of enemies, or open a portal of hellspawn that must be dispatched within a very thin timeline, getting ready and being prepared are two very different things.

The game also includes the use of words such as “nice” and “sweet”, ostensibly meaning the same thing in modern vernacular. But a player in their teens may find sweet to have a very significant, perhaps sarcastic or belittling meaning than someone in their 30s may be used to.

We often speak the same language, but meaning and context can shift on a dime, so games really must offer their prompts well.

Still perhaps it is heartening to know, that on an escalating pattern of explosive battles with an overwhelming amount of vicious alien creatures, sometimes just nine common words can be enough to survive and thrive with strangers from around the world.

A universal language of sorts for an expanding and unkind digital universe, armed with a thanks, yet no please.

The conversation may be limited, yet this is how great bonds can form.

Perhaps one day we may well have a universal gaming language.

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