Friday the 13th, Sea of Thieves, and how proximity chat continues to be online gaming's most exciting evolution in years

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Professional Jason players in Friday the 13th: The Game are a special breed of diabolical tricksters. Taking gleeful advantage of the game’s proximity-based voice chat, in which you can only hear and talk to other players when they’re in plausible range of your character, these in-game killers exploit the power of sound to terrifying effect. 

Some will inflict dischorantly unsettling music through their microphone, like the time I once found myself hunted by a Jason singing along to the theme tune to Friends. You haven’t experienced true fear until you’ve witnessed a six-foot-four psychopath screaming “I’ll be there for youuuu” as he breaks down the door with a meat cleaver. 

Others will use proximity chat as an opportunity to commit to the part, either by putting on their creepiest voice (this usually amounts to a bad Pennywise impression) or by making no noise at all and just breathing heavily down the mic instead, releasing the odd deep-bellied chuckle every time they catch a counselor out by surprise. 

Then there’s the more strategic option, and the one which I prefer to adhere to whenever I’m lucky enough to get picked as Jason; getting within hearing distance of a group of counselors and simply listening in on their conversations. ‘Oh, a few of you are planning to head to the boat, are you? Me and my machete will meet you there!' 

The inverse is true for the counselors themselves, who are forced to limit communication (or trick Jason with misinformation) until they’re sure their killer isn’t nearby, which leads to brilliant spots of tension.  

It’s not just the players who are big fans of Friday the 13th’s approach to voice-chat either. Randy Greenback, an Executive Producer on the game, recently told me his theory that proximity chat was one of “the main factors fuelling Friday the 13th’s early success”, setting the stage for dozens of unpredictable watercooler moments that made for priceless streaming entertainment on Twitch.  

Looking at both the recent history of multiplayer gaming and this year’s upcoming slate of online focused games, it quickly becomes clear that Friday the 13th is far from the only title to benefit from this small, but devilishly smart idea. In fact, it’s possible that proximity voice chat is incrementally changing the face of online gaming as we know it. 

Real talk

If you look at some of the most popularly streamed games of recent memory, like Rust, DayZ, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Ark: Survival Evolved, all of them include a proximity chat option that both entertains their players in new ways, and allows streamers to find new ways of entertaining their audience. 

Consider the tense exchanges between survivors in Rust’s Hobbesian landscape of lawless carnage, where one wrong word can lead to a bloody breakout in conflict.

Or the way in which combatants communicate with each other in PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, where talking becomes a viable strategy for stalling, distracting, and manipulating a specific, nearby enemy. 

Or the friendships formed in the isolated, misty mountains of The Elder Scrolls Online’s Skyrim, after a chance encounter with a stranger leads to amicable conversation. 

By simulating physical space, proximity chat places a distinct set of contextual rules on social interaction in video games, but these rules lend themselves to a sense of greater immersion, creating an environment conducive to more interesting forms of play.  

This immersion factor is also what allows users to more effectively role-play amongst others, adding a further layer of unpredictability to the evolving social dynamics of multiplayer gaming.

If you’ll allow me to get all sciencey on you for a moment, a 2006 academic study from the University of Melbourne examined what happened when participants played Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory using a proximity chat system which accurately simulated “the way in which voices travel through air in the physical world.”

The study found that players behaved more tactically and intuitively than if they were talking through the game’s standard chat. Conversations evolved and dissipated fluidly with the dynamics of the fight, players would communicate frequently with nearby teammates more relevant to their own current situation, and perception was enhanced for those who used players’ voices as an indicator of their position.

In short, the chat system created an environment of “social translucence”, where players were more aware of their surroundings as a result of this richer social context, and were able to use that as a resource for their in-game behaviour. 

Tomorrow's conversation

That study took place over a decade ago. With games getting more ambitious, socially oriented, and massively multiplayer with every passing iteration, it’s fun to consider how proximity chat might also evolve with the times. 

While Friday the 13th: The Game is a great example of the concept’s potential, it’s only really scratched the surface of what’s possible when using proximity chat as a tool for creating wholly unique horror experiences. Meanwhile, Sea of Thieves' proximity chat has already allowed closed beta players to experience unforgettable encounters with seafaring friends and enemy pirates. 

"It’s possible that proximity voice chat is incrementally changing the face of online gaming as we know it."

And you can only imagine how games like Red Dead Redemption 2, Anthem, and the next Battlefield could be enriched by a proximity voice chat, should their developers catch on to the rising trend. 

While plenty can abuse the proximity system in the same way they might through a standard comms system, either through verbal harassment, offensive language, or other unhealthy forms of conversation, the option to turn off proximity chat is always an essential workaround to these kinds of issues, even if it’s regrettable that a vocal minority can spoil it for those who might otherwise enjoy its more positive ramifications. 

But as technology allows developers to create proximity chat systems that are more realistic and immersive than ever before, where a shout for help could be heard as a whisper from a mile away, the prospects for its application are manifold. That leaves me very excited for the social future of multiplayer gaming, but don't think that'll stop me complaining about those Friends-obsessed Jasons in Friday the 13th.