Thursday, January 3, 2013

Competitive Camaraderie and Natural Selection 2

Oh to be praised by your compatriots, to earn the adoration of teammates, is an especially rewarding form of validation. Competitive team games can turn complete strangers into brothers and sisters in arms, creating hard-earned bonds of camaraderie  But oh, to earn the praise of my captain. Few things are as affirming as making a leader proud.

Growing up, I always struggled to find good role models. For the most part, I tended to buck authority figures. Like a lot of children though, teachers are special cases. A good teacher, one that exhibits genuine interest in your well being, trusts you to better yourself, and praises you accordingly, can change your life. I know, I was lucky enough to have a few. Which might explain why I enjoy making people proud, maybe beyond the norm of course.

While competitive team video games can certainly foster a sense of pride and camaraderie, few feature other players in authority positions. Indeed, having a "leader" in any sort of multiplayer game is somewhat alien to the idea of granting power and agency to players. How many people really want to claim subordinate roles under fellow players. Beyond MMOs, the feature is rare.

Cut to Natural Selection 2, the much anticipated sequel to a Half-Life mod that released in 2002. Created by the small team at Unknown Worlds, Natural Selection 2 features asynchronous play in two regards. First, half the players in a match play as marines, wielding a variety of traditional weaponry from machine guns to armored mechs. The other half play as the Kharaa, a race of aliens that mutate into various species, some of which can fly, run on walls, or teleport short distances. Playing one feels nothing like playing the other.

Secondly, Natural Selection 2 features asynchronous play between each teams regular players and each single player that acts as the commander. While regular players see the game through a first-person perspective, the commander watches the entire match with a god-like view from above. As a match develops into  a battle for map control and limited resources, commanders direct the flow of combat, marking locations to push, calling out incoming attacks, or tasking marines with building up offensive or defensive positions. Even after ten years since its inception, Natural Selection remains one of the most unique multiplayer experiences on the market.

Few games offer the opportunity to not just make your teammates proud, but to actually please someone in a leadership role. Yes, there are material rewards for personal success. Kill enough enemies and you earn points to upgrade your body or your equipment. Commanders can also directly reward players in a way, either by dropping much needed health packs or ammo, or by leaving upgrades for players to use without having to spend their own personal currency.

A good commander is more than a good leader, they command with presence. They make players want to follow them. They are communicative and value skilled play and teamwork. When my commander says "Good job Shen" or "Shen's a ninja," I am far more likely to quickly and efficiently follow through with orders like "I need you to drop everything and head to Central Drilling." Indeed, a good commander makes everyone else better players. A good commander gives you someone to fight for. Is Call of Duty, I fight for myself. In Team Fortress 2, I fight for my team. In Natural Selection 2, I fight for my commander. 

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