How should you play Sea of Thieves? Think about what we've seen so far of the game, what the message has been: play with your friends, take control of a pirate ship and hunt treasure and other players on the high seas. But what if you don't want to play like that? What if you want to play alone? And what if I told you some of the best experiences I've had in the Sea of Thieves closed beta were while playing solo?
I should explain "alone". Sea of Thieves gives you - in addition to grouping with three other people, or one other - the option of sailing alone on a ship designed, really, for two people. It's considered for advanced players but actually it's a great way to learn the game - just don't expect to be able to juggle steering, navigating and adjusting sails while also firing cannon, repairing holes and bailing out the hull.
Being responsible for all aspects of your ship's welfare creates a sense of personal satisfaction, a bit like living on your own. You set the course, steer your way and raise sails and lower anchor. You swim ashore, read maps and solve riddles and find the treasure, swatting interfering skeletons along the way. Then you return the treasure to your boat and sail to an outpost to hand it in. You do all of that all on your own, and you're bathed in the smug warmth of achievement for your efforts.
Solo life on the ocean waves is idyllic. Free from the noise of other people - the microphone chatter, the radial-menu communication banter - you can slow to the rolling rhythm of the game's marvellous sea. Sails flap, rigging creaks and waves gently splosh, as the sea slowly hypnotises you. One moment it's an azure paradise, the next a mountainous stormy rage. It's terrifying and beautiful and stunningly believable, and it is Sea of Thieves' undeniable star asset. Alone, you're free to potter, to take things at your own pace, to go where you will.
But "alone" is also not alone, and I don't want this game to be single-player. The people I'm not grouping with give the world purpose and life. They are the people I want to impress with my skills or the equipment I've saved up to afford, and they also provide Sea of Thieves with its threat.
I really didn't want someone to sail off with my treasure-laden ship - even though they crashed it into their own bigger boat and sunk it - but I love that it happened nonetheless, because it gave me a tale to tell. Nor did I want to be chased half-way across the seas by another small boat, as if we were two boats going for gold in the Olympic Games - but the accidentally brilliant manoeuvre I pulled to sail between a small gap in a big rock to give them the slip made it all worthwhile. These encounters, these people, breathed life into the world.I was kidnapped at gunpoint and shoved into the boot of my car Unexpected stories of game development.
It has been a similar story in other multiplayer worlds where I've played alone, World of Warcraft particularly. I used to find real comfort in taking myself off to some corner of the world just to see what was there, no real destination or goal in mind. These are some of the most painstakingly realised worlds in gaming - why should only groups of people enjoy them?
I loved the cathartic effect of repetition, be it plonking myself near a monster's spawn to kill them over and over - to see how capable I alone really was - or fishing or picking herbs or whatever. The point was relaxation through a kind of gentle monotony. A break from my world or the busier world of the game around me, but all while part of a bigger whole. And when I was ready, I could reconnect on my own terms.
Which isn't to say I don't enjoy playing Sea of Thieves with other people. I have done and it's a lot of fun. The game even seems to gently nudge me other people's way, be it in wanting someone to guard the ship while the other treasure hunts, or to have a large crew to demolish smaller prey. But the pull of striking out alone will always be there for me, and Sea of Thieves caters to it in a mouthwatering way. The bigger question about Rare's piratical adventure is how much variety there'll be when the full game comes on 20th March? Because if finding and returning treasure is but one of many kinds of adventure I can have alone, I can picture myself bobbing on the waves for a long time to come.