I read a wonderful thing once about ants, and it made me love them more than I did already – and I already really loved ants. This thing I read – I cannot remember the source or the specifics – talked about how ants construct their nests, how they achieve a level of intelligence together that no single ant actually possesses. The thrust of this, as I remember it, is that ants are very good at counting. As they wander off in the morning to do something useful, they count the number of ants they see doing the various things they are doing, and through this counting, the ant who is looking for something useful to be a part of builds up a sense of where they are most needed.
This is beautiful, isn’t it? I love the idea that dutiful, purposeful ants living together in massive communities might also, in their own ways, be allowed to be introverts: living amongst one another but enjoying their own worlds, retaining a cherished space inside their own heads.
I’m going to go there: I think ants would enjoy Splatoon. By which I mean Splatoon 2, and by which I mean: I think ants would enjoy Splatoon for the same reason I do. Splatoon, as you hopefully know by now, is an online shooter based around short, frantic games that play out on intricate maps. What I did not know until I started playing it, was that it’s worth checking out even if you don’t normally like online shooters – and over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to work out why that might be.
Let us set ants aside briefly. I have always wanted to click with an online shooter. I’ve wanted a game that feels like a cherished hobby, a game I can return to a few evenings a week and slowly come to understand, where the maps and weapons become like old friends. Clash Royale does a lot of this for me, but it turns out there’s a palpable difference between playing a game on your phone when you’re on the bus and playing a game in front of the TV knowing that you’ve made time for this and marked off a part of your evening.
But I am awful at shooters, put off by the aesthetics, terrified of the skills gap, and unable to quickly grasp the difference between this gun and that gun. Mostly though, it is the social aspect of online shooters I am unable to deal with. Even without voice chat, online shooters are games you can ruin for everyone around you simply by being terrible at them. You can upset things for your team-mates, and you can provide an insufficient challenge for your enemies. To play an online shooter has often, in my case, meant that I know I will be disappointing strangers – angry strangers who probably deserve better.
And yet I’m alright at Splatoon. Not great, just alright, and being alright is enough for me, thanks. And the reason I’m alright at it, I suspect, is the reason why I hate the thought of disappointing angry strangers in other games: because I’m an introvert.
We’re back to the ants. Now listen: I don’t play ranked Splatoon, and I’ve only dabbled with different game types. I play unranked, and I play Turf War, which is a mode in which two teams of four try to cover more of the ground with ink than their rivals. Killing the enemy team is useful, because it sends them back to their base for a few seconds and gets them out of the action, but it’s by no means essential. Really, Turf War can just be about inking as much ground as you can get to.
In other words, my great problem in so many shooters – that I go around looking at the floor – is suddenly a bit of an advantage. Me versus other players is a disaster, but me versus the floor? That’s a battle I have been prepared for. (Spielberg often talks about looking at the floor in interviews, incidentally. He doesn’t do it at all. He looks at the sky: a visionary! But there is an introvert virtue in staring at your shoes all the time.)
Turns out I can totally handle the floor. I am diligent and committed to covering as much of it with ink as possible. Two things here, one of them to do with ants again. One: A crucial problem I generally have with team shooters is that I don’t know how to be useful. I don’t know what I should be doing from one moment to the next With Splatoon, I am never in doubt about this. Look at the floor: is it inked? Is it inked in my colour? If the answer to either of these questions is no, I need to start inking it. If it is yes to both, I need to move on, just a cheery, dutiful ant, counting other ants and looking for adventure. Two: Splatoon looks like a game about making a mess, but it’s not. It’s not at all. You’re chucking ink around, but you’re actually doing so to return the world to a state of order. The landscape without ink? That’s a messy place, full of different surfaces, different textures. Ink, though, provides a beautiful coherence, covering things right up to their clean edges. And yet chucking ink around is still somehow a joyous thing, a thing of self-expression.
Does this sound lonely? It’s not lonely. By being helpful I end up feeling a great sense of camaraderie with my team: Splatoon is thrilling, it gets the heart pounding. There is a great social delight in seeing team-mates head off into the distance, knowing that the present spot is taken care of. There is great social delight in seeing them head back to base to cover any missed spots because they know you are doing a great job out in front. There is social delight without any social awkwardness, because everything that must be done, and that is being done, is obvious. To stare at the screen in Splatoon is to understand exactly what is going on, and it’s an enviable multiplayer game where you can say that.
In fact, nothing in Splatoon is lonely. What’s weird about this, in fact, is that a game that makes it such a breeze to play amongst others on your own terms, is so vibrant with life and with other people, other players, so crowded with friendly squid who feel like kindred spirits. At the heart of Splatoon, you don’t find yourself in a menu or a lobby (although there is a lobby before you get into matches). At the heart of the game, you’re in Inkopolis Square, a bustling urban space filled with fellow players. There are shops here and means of accessing multiplayer and single-player games, but it’s also just a wonderful place to hang out. It’s where Marina and Pearl broadcast their show from. This show tells you which maps are currently in rotation and whether Salmon Run, the PvE mode, is online, but it’s also a show, and you can stand at the window of the studio in Inkopolis Square and watch it being filmed. When Splatfest is in full swing, you’ll be surrounded by banners and displays driving you back to the fray, and – this is an incredible commitment to establishing the realism of a game about squid – in the days leading up to Splatfest you’ll see gantries going up to support the banners and displays, and on the day afterwards, you’ll see a bit more litter on the ground.
This is what I’ve been after, I think: a game that supports a sense of community not by forcing me into voice chat with people I’ve never met before, but by turning itself into a place, turning itself into a community. Splatoon takes lore and turns it into clothes labels and pop acts. It takes equipment and perks and turns them into bowling shoes and horn-rim specs, making stat boosts a sartorial choice as much as a tactical one. Most of all it takes teamwork and allows you to approach it as an individual. It spots you in the crowd, and it likes what you’re doing with your life.