“I’m in if you’re in,” I said, and that was that. Matt drove out to Target before it shut, and I set my alarm to wake me up at nine in the morning, so I could walk into town in time to pick up my copy of Splatoon. Neither of us had any real drive to play it beforehand, but it only took us about an hour of joint enabling until we made the decision. It cost more money than I set aside for two weeks (I’m really poor these days, blame David Cameron), but I figured that even if it ended up being a bad decision in the long term, it would be worthwhile to get in on the ground floor and enjoy the first weekend of a game’s life.
We played a lot of Splatoon the next day.
So, as it stands, Splatoon is an intensely limited game. It’s an online shooter with six maps, one mode and one way of entering into matches. You press the play button, it slots you into a lobby, and begins a match of Turf War with randomized teams, on one of two maps chosen at a four hour rotation. The lack of content, customisation and general refusal of the game to open up to the player’s whim is easily the biggest complaint about Splatoon at launch. I could easily refute that argument by pointing to the fact that Splatoon also contains a fantastic single player which plays like Nintendo put Ratchet & Clank and Super Mario Galaxy into a blender filled with ink, but I honestly don’t care as to whether Splatoon the product is ‘worth it’ or not. What I do care about is the effect of those limitations on play, and the assumption that such limits are automatically bad.
After I put the game in, I hopped on a skype call with Matt and Dylan (friend of the site, game maker, and generally all round smart person), and we played Splatoon off and on for the rest of the day. We sat in the same lobby, playing match after match, unable to choose the map, unable to change the mode, and unable to decide if we’d end up on the same team. At first, these decisions were frustrating, and we shared an excitement for the promised updates that are to add a party system and a custom lobby. But over time we became accustomed to the loss of control, and settled into the moment to moment tension of who ended up playing against who, each match short enough that any disappointment was quelled by another chance being right around the corner.
As the day progressed, it became clearer and clearer the ways in which Splatoon‘s design was not just a result of development limitations and genre naivete, but in fact a concerted effort to create a more safe and positive competitive space than I have ever seen in a shooter. Ranked multiplayer is still locked as I write this, forcing each and every player into the same maps and mode at the same time. Unlike in a Call Of Duty, those who enjoy Team Deathmatch cannot just go and play Team Deathmatch, there is an obligation to participate in the shared learning experience before the community as a whole earns the right to choose.
In the skype call, Matt, Dylan and I could feel the balance of the game shift as we swung from match to match. A strategy’s effectiveness would change from hour to hour, as all around the world people in the same position as us were feeling out the ebb and flow of the play. In the early afternoon, we figured out how rollers (a weapon class of massive paint-rollers) could be used to dominate each and every single time. In the late afternoon, so had everyone else. By the evening, chargers were abundant, and rollers were being sniped across the map before they had a chance to lay down any paint.
This learning phase is a thing in every competitive game, it’s a concept called the metagame, the way in which people effective strategies become defunct over time as people develop counter-strategies, which in turn require counter-strategies, and so on ad infinitum. But Splatoon requires the initial building of its own metagame without any harmful persistence. It isn’t a return to the impermanence of lobbies in 1996, because it takes definite inspiration from recent multiplayer trends: you earn points, you level up, you buy gear. But it relies solely on cosmetic unlocks based on time-investment. Your K/D ratio is not kept, there is no shared average of points-per-game. Splatoon commits to allowing its learning space to be one of learning, one in which there is no consequence for failure, and where the definition of failure is kept deliberately loose. It embraces its persistence as a way of transforming itself into a Squid Fashion simulator, rather than using it to fuel the competitive dick swinging that pushes me away from so many multiplayer games.
I deal with anxiety issues daily, I fight depression and low self esteem, and struggle with expectation management and disappointment. I pour unreasonable emotional investment into the most simple and trivial of tasks, and am unable to function if I do not complete them. Ninja Gaiden Black is one of my favourite games of all time, but I have to be careful to maintain a distance of self-care, otherwise a bad session can trigger a depressive episode and I’ll go to bed in tears. That is real, and hard coded into my brain. In my weekend with Splatoon, no matter how bad a losing streak I ended up on, not once did it trigger my depression. Even when I lost, the game made me feel better.
It’s hard to overstate what an achievement this is. Nintendo went out of their way to make a competitive game in which, at least at launch, the element of competition is minimized. I’m not there to win, I’m there to play a game I am playing with thousands of others, a game I am watching grow before my eyes. Splatoon has been derided for ripping off the consumer. It has been derided for being simple. For being childlike. For being a baby game for babies, basically. But my initial impression is the complete opposite. It respects the player and their time, regardless of whether or not they are on the winning team. It is a maturation of shooter design, growing out of the adolescent thrill of beating the competition, and into one focused on the joy of play itself.
My first weekend with Splatoon was a delight, and its inclusive nature opened me up to the possibilities of an entire genre I had previously written off as one I would be unable to click with. It was a runaway success, and hopefully we shall see other competitive games taking notes.
Here’s to many more.
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