The first game that I ever played networked multiplayer, was Doom.
That isn’t true. I wish that it were true, but it’s not. Getting Doom to connect was an arduous task and we didn’t get it right the first, third, or 15th times. The first game that I ever played in networked multiplayer was Wing Commander Armada. A friend and I connected our computers across a ping pong table using a null modem RS-232 cable. I don’t know why we knew that it would work, but apparently the ancient nerd knowledge had been delivered unto us and it was our responsibility to carry it forward.
With some work we were able to set up a multiplayer game of Wing Commander Armada, but the experience was pretty lackluster. We were both huge Wing Commander fans, having played the first and second games in the series several times. This game was different. It was a combat focused game with no real story to speak of, where you flew against wave after wave of enemy ships, or in this case, against other players. When the game finally registered the connection and both of us were able to choose ships, it was pretty amazing. We got into a dogfight or 12, and while it was fun, watching a speeding dot whizz across your screen once in awhile didn’t really feel like competitive multiplayer gaming. After an hour or two, we decided to give Doom another try.
We had learned a few things setting up Wing Commander Armada, so we tore back into the arcane workings of Doom network connections. Eventually, after reading and rereading console commands off what amounted to the internet of 1994, a handwritten note on lined paper, we got it. Moments later we were connected and standing face to face in a Doom level. I mean, I could literally see my friend on the other side of the ping pong table, but something about being able to also see the flat stanley Doom Guy guided by his finger movements was pure magic. We were sharing another space composed of circuits and code, our screens acting like windows to a simulated, but newly real place. Real because there was now another person there. Past multiplayer games, where both players shared the same screen and moving characters around was much like moving pieces on a board, or magnets on a fridge, couldn’t compare. I saw our shared world from my view, and he saw it from his. If he were to walk around a corner, out of my sight, neither of us stopped existing. We now lived as much in that Doom level as we did in his basement. A frenetic shooting gallery had instantly become a real place, a tangible world, not because of the visual fidelity or complex interaction, but because it was shared with another person.
I have played a lot of networked multiplayer games since then, and that magic hasn’t faded. I occasionally jump into a game of Minecraft or Terraria with my kids, and it is still thrilling when I see their game character jump up and down. We point to some far off monument in that shared world and strike out for whatever adventures we can find. I still play a lot of games. I know the map of Dark Souls’ Lordran or the Mass Effect’s Citadel as well as a lot of places in the real world, but no game world has ever felt real until I shared it with someone else.