On Friday night, we went out to a movie. When we stepped out of the theatre to come home, we found ourselves standing in a maelstrom the likes of which neither of us had ever before seen around where we lived. The storm caused astonishing levels of damage in under an hour and left 1.3 million of our neighbours sitting in the dark, some of whom will be waiting up to a week for electricity to return.
Saturday eventually dawned, and we found out how very lucky we were: none of the massive old oaks just outside came through anyone's windows, and our building still had electricity, including the all-too-necessary air conditioning for yet another 37C day. But our cable was out, and with it, our internet. Our phones were out too, meaning we had basically no way to communicate with the outside world, short of opening a window and shouting.
We were lucky enough to be powered, but still we were profoundly disconnected. And we had a day to spend indoors, out of the way of the crews trying to clean up the mess and get all the power back on to mostly closed local businesses. The original Saturday plan, for both me and my spouse, had been to play MMOs. Obviously, without internet access, we wouldn't be logging into persistent faraway worlds anytime soon. But an experiment presented itself: what could we play?
In an era of subscriptions, downloads, cloud saves and internet-based DRM? Not much.
Part of the problem was timing: he's just gotten a new PC, and I'm still in the relative wasteland of uninstalled games that comes with a sudden hard drive replacement. Neither of us had installed or reinstalled more than a half-dozen games yet.
No Steam. No Origin. No GOG. No downloads. And for many games, no discs.
So it seemed like as good a time as any to take the plunge and bring my Shepard — my real one, my "true" Commander — through the ending arc of Mass Effect 3. Except once I managed to convince Origin to run in offline mode (turns outs it doesn't like starting offline if you're marked invisible), the game itself came up with error messages about being unable to connect. No dice.
That's when I began to realise how very few truly singleplayer offline games we have. And when I realised that the vast majority of games we could install and play without an internet connection were at least a few years old, I began to worry about how limited the options will be in the future.
The pros and cons of future gaming — all digital — always on — have been a hot button topic this year. Diablo III has been at the centre of that conversation, with players feeling simultaneously that the always-on requirement makes it a better game and also that the connection requirement is a big problem. Next year's SimCity will require a connection at all times. Ubisoft games are notorious for requiring a chat with the server at start-up, and thoughts about their future solutions hint at even more connectedness.
Of course, in this house we are primarily PC gamers. But without a working connection to the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live, both major consoles' functionality is limited as well. And now, with PlayStation having purchased streaming game service Gaikai, it looks like the future is ever more in the cloud. Reliance on a stable, fast broadband connection seems nearly as necessary to video games of the future as electricity is.
Games will stream to us, and we will pay to access them in full. Or the future will go where the chief operating officer of EA sees it heading, and every game will be a free download, with microtransactions or later payments to continue.
No internet? No games. Slow internet? Fewer games. Hit your bandwidth cap? Back to no internet, no games.
Civilization V was installed and runs offline, so I spent Saturday peacefully trying to take over the world. I was one turn — one turn! — away from completing a cultural victory with Byzantium when Gandhi completed his rocket and won with science. Bastard.
And then that was it for entertainment. Gaming was mainly out of the picture, and so was everything else. No connection meant no Netflix. No TV, no movies. At least we got a lot of overdue cleaning done.
We're moving more and more into a realm where the $US60 we pay for a game gives us the right to access to an interconnected universe. Or into a realm where we can walk in the door for free, but have to pay to stay once we're there. Either way, single-player games that I can play on my own time without an internet connection are becoming alarmingly hard to find. Every single game I personally saw or played a demo of at this year's E3 was in some way designed for multiplayer. And two players sitting in the same living room just don't cut it.
I didn't realise how dependent I'd become on the cloud until the cloud went away. Now I notice, and I'm afraid. I can keep my own behaviour smarter, and I can manage my files and games better going forward, but only as much as the systems themselves will let me. When the day comes when "download and install" is completely replaced with "login and stream", being offline — intentionally or not — will cease to be any kind of option.
The convenience of living in the cloud is remarkable. I use Google tools daily for both my personal affairs and for work, and the ability to access my documents, messages, and certain saved games from any machine, anywhere is spectacular. I believe, in general, that the option for more connection is a good thing, that will help bring more games and services to more players in ways we, collectively, can better afford.
But the days where we're forced to be offline remind us how necessary it is to be online now, at all times. And they highlight, for better and worse, how truly fragile the connection (and, apparently, local infrastructure) really is. I hope some games, at least, let me remain unplugged. Because now I know, sometimes I won't be able to connect. Even when I want to.