In just a few weeks, Sea of Thieves releases, a zany and fun pirate game filled with magic, mystery, and majestic ocean views. The world of Sea of Thieves is a dangerous place with no safe zones for players (full pvp) and tons of incentives to attack other crews with your best buds. Excitement and action abound! However, one of my favorite things about this game that has me so excited outside of the amazing ship battles, interesting treasure riddles to solve, beautiful rendering of the ocean waves, and amazing weather simulations… are the musical instruments.
From the start, each player is given in their inventory an accordion and an odd stringed instrument called a hurdy gurdy. Rare, the developer, is no stranger to fun within games and these instruments are very cleverly implemented. If someone starts to play a song, anyone can join in, with the game syncing up the playing so that it sounds like anyone else just jumped into the tune, automatically assigning melody, harmony, and bass parts to other players. Because of this, there’s this sensation of unity and fun as a crew performs together using items that would otherwise be a simple addition to the game and wouldn’t really have another purpose.
But it’s the fact the game designers put music that the players can play together into the game that I find so fascinating and important. In a world filled with cannonballs and cutlasses, Rare dropped an element into the game that has no aggressive action to it (besides maybe playing Flight of the Valkyries as people charge into battle). In fact, as the saying of soothing a savage beast would indicate, this element of gameplay is really an antithesis of what most games are about.
Whether it’s Mass Effect or Mario, most games that come out are primarily about using action, typically violent action done to others, as a means for progression. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just like a book or film, action is a driving mechanism for moving the plot forward, and a very effective one at that. However, because this is the norm, I love to find elements in games that work around this, devices that may encourage cooperation in otherwise hostile environments, especially in multiplayer games.
A great way to look at this fundamentally is with a extremely simple game like agar.io. Agar.io is a browser-based game about single-celled organisms eating dots to grow bigger. A player will start small and as they eat the tiny dots or other players that are smaller than them, they continue to grow in size. As long as they’re not eaten, it’s possible to be in the top few that become almost too big to be eaten on the simple whitespace map. Besides movement, the only actions that a player has in this game are to split themselves, shooting half of themselves forward to catch unsuspecting enemies, and to reduce mass by shooting small bits of the cell’s mass out, thereby making them smaller but faster than someone who may be chasing them.
When I was messing with agar.io, it was this second action, the option to throw pieces of your mass out without splitting in half, that caught my eye. Besides letting yourself be gruesomely eaten by feeding yourself to someone else’s blob, this is the only way to positively interact with others in the game, as you give a little of yourself to them. It was at that point that I decided to do something strange in a game all about literal survival of the fittest. I did a completely pacifist run of agar.io.
It took HOURS of growing, dying, and getting eaten by others but by sticking to it, I was able to do something I thought was extremely interesting. I started with a small sample size. Anytime I saw specific people, I gave them some of my mass, whether I was bigger or smaller than they were. It was just a bit of my mass but it was a communicative gesture. Then, when they inevitably got bigger than myself as they ate others and came back around to me, I’d do the same thing and they wouldn’t eat me. After a while, when we ran across each other, I’d give them some of mine and they’d give me some of theirs, which was more of a gesture on their part because they were bigger and could give me more. I was basically living off their charity but they knew I’d always be nice to them.
If they died and had to start small, I’d give them more than what they could give me to give them a boost. Once I was big enough and had enough to give out, I did the same thing to everyone I met, instead of the small few I started this with. It got to such a point that everyone was friendly to me on the server except one giant player who was one of the largest and could eat just about anyone. However, because I was friends with several of the other largest players by this point, my newfound friends actually defended me when he would come after me. It’s worth noting that there is no in-game chat, no messaging or voice options. This game is intentionally left simple and the rules basic to allow for any type of strategy. And so, my strategy of friendliness allowed myself and my newfound friends to excel.
This actually turned into one of my favorite experiences I’ve had in multiplayer games and it came from a game with no form of normal communication and only three actions besides movement: Eat, split in half, and give mass. It’s such a unique experience to have a game that was specifically designed for aggression, and instead, change the script, finding ways of communicating and having fun in a positive way so seemingly unintended by the developers.
Many people who have played multiplayer games over the years undoubtedly have run across something similar. In Halo 3, certain achievements were difficult to get and so makeshift games would suddenly arise in which everyone would assist each other in getting these objectives. A more recent example I’ve seen is in Overwatch. Before a match starts, there is a waiting period as the game makes sure everyone is in the lobby together. There are no objectives and instead, people can roam around the map killing each other and practice their skills before the match. However, it’s become a part of the culture of the game for many to, instead, meet the enemy team and have fun, using emotes, voice lines of the characters, and different dances to interact and goof off before the match. Moments like these are a great break from the shooting and fighting that happens between games and it’s a great way to interact with others online. Which leads me back to those musical instruments…
From the start, Rare very much seemed to have this idea of communication and cooperation in mind for Sea of Thieves, and it’s no surprise that during the small window that people got to play the game before it came out, many videos suddenly arose of people using the instruments in all sorts of ridiculous and hilarious ways. Yes, a player can play a song, taunting an enemy who keeps missing their shots, and absolutely these instruments and other items are being used to annoy friends manning the sails who desperately scream at their friend to stop playing and please pull up the anchor. However, more interestingly, the instruments in Sea of Thieves are also being used as a way of communicating between people who don’t even know each other. Crews of pirates will rush to the head of their vessel and play a tune to let another ship know they’re friendly and won’t fire back. A lone player may play a tune at a dock to get the attention of a nearby ship and let them come aboard. Players will even show empathy for others who are sinking, playing them out with a somber piece as the other players slowly fall beneath the waves.
Music can connect us as people, and even very different cultures are able to at times find common ground to each other in song. I feel this is why music as a form of creating unity is so widespread across nations and cultures. The simple inclusion of letting the players play their own tunes has opened a whole new avenue for player interaction and communication in this game. In a world of no safe havens and the ability to attack anyone at any time, having musical instruments to goof off with has made the rushing waves and heavy storms of the open seas feel a bit more peaceful.
[Sea of Thieves – A Journey]