I’ve never robbed someone before, but holy shit... it’s awesome!
It’s after 3 AM on the East Coast, maybe around midnight on the “The Island” in Ark: Survival Evolved for the Xbox One, and I’m breaking and entering.
Alongside two of my real life friends and in-game “tribemates,” we’ve raided the base of our biggest rival and are in the process of robbing them blind. We’re laughing and joking from within our party chat, but it’s the tense, anxious laughter that always coats a good bout of outright mischief. That’s because, at any moment, we face the very real threat of these guys logging on and finding us going through their things like the creeps in an ADT commercial.
We’ve set up a makeshift conveyor belt in order to ship the stolen goods from their base to our own. One of us stands beside ten fully-stocked inventory boxes, lined in tight rows like servers in a server farm, collecting absolutely everything inside. That’s my job. Quickly encumbered by the weight of the stolen goods and unable to move, I simply “drop” the items, effectively throwing them across the room to culprit #2, who’s taken a position high atop another box.
After he snatches the flying contraband out of the air, he then quickly tosses it from a massive hole that we’ve busted into the side of their base, towards another tribemate waiting beside our getaway car: a level 70 female Triceratops named Mrs. Krampus.
She’s a beautiful beast. Tamed and trained for this exact heist. Parked outside like a hulking, grunting, prehistoric U-Haul that shits. Shits a lot. Her name? A nod to the German heritage of the people we’re invading. A tribe who had only just days before unexpectedly destroyed and raided our base in the middle of the night (otherwise known as offline raiding, a controversial trouble I’ve come to learn all too much about, and one that forced us to fight fire with fire in this instance), killing all of our dinosaurs and taking all of our things. Effectively erasing hours of in-game “work,” and creating a toxic, America vs. Germany situation that essentially turned our once-peaceful little island into Die Hard’s Nakatomi Plaza. Though, to be fair, we’re far less a tribe made up of heroic, hunky John McClain’s, but rather more like a whole bunch of Ellis’, the squirmy dirtbag who’s really only concerned about protecting himself.
“Ehhh Hans, buuuubby, got any cooked meat?”
But there we were, just a few days before Christmas, stockpiling what ended up being my favorite presents I received this season: revenge-stolen goods ranging from hard-earned, extensively-farmed materials, to tools, weapons, and armor. We took it all before scampering off laughing into the night. We were riding as high as Home Alone’s Wet Bandits in the first act before a sociopathic pre-teen tried to kill them inside his swanky McMansion of suffering and pain.
This is just one of my many incredible moments since Ark: Survival Evolved released to Xbox One’s Early Access program back in December. Moments I haven’t experienced from gaming in a long, long time. And that’s not for lack of exposure, lack of... well, gaming. In fact, I suspect the reason I haven’t enjoyed such an organic, emotional, hilarious, truly unique moment like this is because of my dedication to the console genre.
Now, before you attempt to write me off as some sort of PC elitist type, I want to assure you that I am most certainly not. Hell, I haven’t even had a PC since the one I built for myself in the mid-2000’s, before I became a bit too lazy and college-student-broke to keep up with the times. I have, however, always had a console in my house. From to NES to Dreamcast. Spanning the Playstations to every Xbox, and now specifically the Xbox One. I am, by very definition, a console gamer. Hell, I even had a VTech Socrates when I was a kid. Does that thing count?
I had no idea that I was gaming AND learning. I was so stupid back then!
Certainly, it hasn’t always been unexciting for me to game on a console. Some of my best memories are from middle-school sleepovers fueled by pizza, soda, and Nintendo 64 sessions until the sun came up. The earliest days of Xbox Live come to mind as something truly special. Sure, other consoles had done the whole online thing before it, but when Xbox Live nailed the ease, communication, and downright fun of connecting to other players from your couch, I was blown away. Hell, recently even the brief raids of the absurdly-mediocre Destiny offered a unique console experience sort-of like the one I had been watching people enjoy on PC for years. Getting a taste of that from my Xbox One was an admittedly great time for a little while.
Lately, however, it’s been mostly a different story for me. Since about the middle of the 360 era, through my time with the Xbox One so far, almost everything I’ve played has felt too familiar. Too safe. Too... polished.
I think part of my issue arises from the fact that I tend to gravitate towards multiplayer games, competitive games where I can test myself up against other real players. Shooters and sports games to be more precise.
I know, I know, I’m missing out on all of the unique, truly original games from plenty of smaller, more adventurous studios that have produced tons of options on consoles. You’re so right. But, unfortunately for me and my insatiable quest to be tea-bagged by total strangers, most of these games don’t offer extensive, deep, detailed multiplayer to be enjoyed with, and against, a party of my close friends. That’s the kicker for me.
These are also games that are, almost entirely, made by triple-A studios. From shooters I’ve dumped countless hours into like Battlefield 4 and Halo 5, to whichever FIFA roster and uniform update I’m on to this year, these are games that follow a formula. They are tight, for better and for worse. Rarely will one of these major shooters or sports titles fall flat in the controls department. There may be launch hiccups, but overall, the option to party up with friends and get into online action right away is always there. Graphically, I almost never have a reason to complain. But yet, I find that I’m rarely ever blown away anymore.
As these console generations drag on, and I grow older, I’ve found that playing in this sort of cycle has become more of a chore, than the absolute blast it should be, that it used to be. Not a totally unenjoyable chore, mind you. Maybe more like the chore of cleaning up a messy kitchen after cooking a rewarding, fatty, sloppy meal. Probably worth it, but there’s a lot of self-reflection and minor disappointment when that end product is staring right back at you.
So along came Ark. This bright, beautiful, wide-open world filled with seemingly endless creative possibility, savagely-unpredictable half-naked psychopaths, and tons upon tons of large dinosaur feces. A game where I could be revenge-robbing total strangers one night, only to stumble on someone’s makeshift underground dodo fighting ring deep in the jungle the very next.
This is a game that’s got me having a blast from my couch again.
Just a Dodo hangin’ out with some poop. All-around classic Dodo behavior right here.
The thing that has made Ark so special for me has been the ability to truly be myself within this world. In Modern Shooter Brah 6: Tactical DLC Paywall, I’m a character. An often-fun, over-the-top, meathead-on-a-mission character. It’s fun, sure, but literally every single other person playing the game has essentially written the exact same story as me by the end of their time with it.
In Ark, I’m me. Sure, I don’t just drop shits in the middle of a full-sprint while rifling through the woods on an obsessive berry-collecting spree (but hey, I’m young, there’s time!), but the framework is there to allow the actual person behind the controller to show a little bit.
Though we did partake in a controversial offline raid, it was only after being provoked. Truthfully, that’s not my, or my tribemates, preferred way of playing. We like to build crazy structures, launch absurd boats, tame dinosaurs to ride, and occasionally knock out a low-level player on the beach and torture him from within our makeshift jail. You know, the normal stuff!
I play in an unorganized way. Haphazardly running around from experience to experience, just trying to do things that put a smile on my face. That’s sort of who I am as a person in many ways, and in this game, it shows.
But there’s plenty of other types of folks that populate our dangerous little island. There’s the griefers, the ones who are constantly offline raiding other weaker tribes, harassing anyone they come across, and, quite frankly, just playing like dicks. That’s probably because, at least partly, they are dicks. The global chat is a great window into this, as you can tell by their callous, meme-riddled responses to their bouts of violence that they may not be the most mature, thoughtful, awesome people in this world. Also, they might just be twelve. And twelve-year-olds are JERKS.
Then there are the hermits. The one’s you’ll never see in chat, but you might find on some farming trek through the woods, happening upon their pretty-damn-impressive one person shack off in this isolated part of the world. They’re having an entirely different experience from ours, and probably loving it every bit as much.
There’s also some super-social traders, hocking their goods in the chat at all times. Or control freaks, desperate to grow a tribe large enough to make the entire island adhere to their way of playing.
Alongside these few examples, there are a few dozen other types of player, and person behind the player, that I’ve encountered since launch. People that, I’d be willing to wager, share more than just a few things in common with their in-game persona and their own than they might even realize.
It’s Ark’s creativity, freedom, and frankly... rawness, that has broken the cycle for me. Broken my ritual of buying the latest triple-A shooter or sports game and admittedly having a blast, at first, only to wake up a few months later having had fun for sure, but with very few real, lasting moments to remember my time by. For me, this sort of gaming has turned into the morning following a debaucherous night. There were good times with friends early, followed by a hazy, spotty repeat of the pounding of shitty, but effective, beer and shots over and over again, only to wake up the next morning with very little to remember the experience by other than the feeling of: yeah... I guess I had a pretty good time.
I’ve been a mouse in a cramped maze, chasing a little cube of cheddar at the end. There’s a few rooms to explore, some unexpected twists and turns, but at the end, I got to the reward in a pretty similar fashion as anybody else that might be trapped inside.
With Ark, I’ve at least become... what’s, like, a STEP UP from a mouse, but still not a major leap? Rats are maybe a step up in ferocity and size, but they’re kind of evil, right? Maybe a ferret? That’s a big rodent. Sure, let’s go with a ferret.
In Ark, I’m a ferret running wild inside the walls of a Chuck E. Cheese’s (let’s keep this weird rodent thing rolling, baby!). The doors are bolted shut and I’m still constrained by plenty of the rules and inevitabilities we all face as gamers due to technical and imaginative limitations, but otherwise, I’m pretty damn free to fuck shit up inside of this ridiculous place.
“Tell you what, Chuck E., I’m about to tear up some skeeball. I live for this shit!”
But all of this is not to say that Ark is devoid of any repetition. Far from it, actually. The grindy farming of resources is a massive aspect of Ark’s core gameplay. Yet it feels different. In between all of that farming, there’s something more organic happening. That’s because the farming is a necessary step to expressing yourself within the game world. It was only after putting in a few hours of resource collection, that we could finally make a purposefully-douchey primitive cigarette boat, designed to cruise up and down the island blasting trashy Bad Company songs over the mic for all to hear.
All that those same hours of grinding in Halo 5 gets me is a Mongoose, maybe a weapon skin if it’s my lucky day, and a higher number next to my gamertag.
Even still, not everything has been perfect. There have been... issues. Issues that may be caused by this very lack of polish and triple-A “tightness” I’ve grown so accustomed to. It’s a god damn disaster trying to get back into your server due to the game’s massive popularity and the lack of a server queue. There’s a handful of potentially game-breaking crashes and glitches that can erase hours upon hours of work within the game. I’m looking at you, server crash that caused my tribe to lose two Pteranodon’s and an Argentavis mid-flight a few nights ago, and a myriad of other legitimate concerns.
Still, I can excuse these kinds of problems. Actually, I kind of have to. It is an early access game after all. Part of this whole package comes with the agreement that we overlook many of these hiccups as they work out the kinks. There are, however, quirks and oddities that may well be part of this early access phase, but I suspect are more due to the fact that this studio has the freedom, the creative cajones, to try something completely out there. It’s that unpredictable approach that has me so excited not only about the future of this game, but has me dreaming that us console gamers might finally be getting the couch and controller revolution we deserve.
Here’s hoping they don’t polish all of the charm out of this bad boy before the official release this summer.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to go ahead and transform into my ferret self and splash around in this ball pit for a few hours.