My poop deck is on fire. I am taking on water below decks and some guy is screaming he is going to kill me. I am panicking, randomly picking up wooden planks, cannon balls, accordions and coconuts, trying to stave off inevitable death in the middle of a thunderstorm. All of this to get closer to my 17-year-old son.
Where once my boy Charlie used to cuddle me during the scary bits in Toy Story, now he watches violent anime on his phone instead. He has swapped our 2010s Call of Duty split-screen co-op adventures for fragging friends on Overwatch. Instead of sharing real life with me, he has spent the last three years in the virtual pirate world of Sea of Thieves.
What do online pirates offer that I don’t? Grog? Shanties? Pillaging? I can’t pillage at my age. Not with my knees.
Right now my son’s hands are temporarily separated from the controller by a video game ban: where 90s Dominik leapt on to Right to Reply, Points of View and Newsnight to say that video games were a good influence on kids, dad Dominik stops his son playing if his grades drop below 80%. So I take the opportunity to play the game myself. There is an 8.47gb upgrade before I can play, one of my modern-day gaming hates. If games keep upgrading and expanding like this, then at some point they will trigger the heat death of the universe. I am also treated to the now-commonplace interminable loading screen: I appreciate we are mourning Sir Clive Sinclair, but making games take as long to load as they did from a cassette in 1981 is a tribute too far.
At least it uses the Unreal Engine, eh? You know where you are with the Unreal Engine, because it seems that every single game in the world uses it. I opened a tin of beans the other day that used the Unreal Engine. I’m sure it’s responsible for Squid Game.
A lifetime later, a burst of music and seagull sound effects herald the beginning of some actual play. During the tutorial, a ghost Pirate Lord makes me eat a banana. As first pirate actions go, this is a little underwhelming.
I am offered a standalone adventure called A Pirate’s Life, which is a misleading title because you begin as a fully formed adult pirate. That’s not a life. I want the pirate birth, pirate school, pirate university. I want to experience that moment two eyepatches collide for that first sweet pirate kiss. But the actual adventure is exactly the same repetitive push/pull/jump stuff I played in the original Tomb Raider. I grimly realise that if I wanted a real challenge, I would have to play… online.
My first mission involved sailing to an island to fight some skeletons, dig up some treasure and take it to Reaper Island. Except I didn’t, because a bunch of other players in a brigantine destroyed my solo swashbuckling self in seconds. I re-spawned and they were still there. And they killed me again. I re-re-spawned. And they killed me again. Yes. It’s your classic online gaming version of Sartre’s Huis Clos, with online gaming confirming his famous proclamation that hell was other people.
“Charlie, do these guys get any extra gold or experience for this?” I asked my son, having lifted his ban so he can backseat game for me.
“None whatsoever,” he replies.
“So why do it?”
“It’s like teabagging you in CoD, Dad.”
One time, I encountered another player in the afterlife portal that you tediously and pointlessly visit before re-spawning. He stood in front of me, fished out his bucket and made a scooping movement.
“What’s this guy doing, son?” I asked.
“He is scooping up your tears, Dad,” he smirked. I yanked the lead from the back of the Xbox. “Nice work, Dad. Bringing out the old Fifa Special Trick Moves again?”
I kept searching for something rewarding but the more I played, the more I realised it has hidden shallows rather than hidden depths. Most of it involves slowly sailing across the sea, with no fast travel option, because it strives to be realistic. OK. Maybe this WAS what a pirate’s life was like. Bursts of uncontrollable violent excitement in between lengthy periods of boring sailing.
Eventually I turn to my son and say, “Sorry. This game is rubbish.”
“Oh, I know Dad. It’s pretty bad.”
I am slightly confused. “So why do you keep playing it?”
“Because I have a ship with my friends. We have a laugh and do sea shanties and stuff.”
And then I realise. Sea of Thieves isn’t about pirates, or thrilling action, it’s about engaging with other humans. And I realise that this was what we had just done: father and teenager, sharing stuff once again. I felt mildly euphoric.
“Son,” I say, eyes moist, “do you want to form a crew on a new ship?”
“Sorry, Dad,” he said. “I’m off to KFC to meet my mates.”
And there he left me, on the deserted island of dadhood.