The Death of Singleplayer

Gaming is evolving at such a pace that what was ‘now’ over ten years ago is ‘what?’ today. Graphics, consumer demand and everything is at a rise within the gaming industry. What I want to talk about today is that a certain core component of videogames is on the chopping board, and possibly for the better. I encourage you to comment, but please hear me out first, because I honestly believe that this is something that needs to be brought up. If you want to email me directly then it’s nathan.hardisty@platformnation.com

On a fateful frost November afternoon in 2007, everything changed. Call of Duty 4 introduced the trend that, for over three years, developers would follow so closely that something would be neglected. I’m talking about the rise of multiplayer, something that previous Call of Duty had succeeded in doing very well – but not as breakthrough as ‘Modern Warfare’. Counter-Strike was responsible for the true online FPS, Halo seeking to port the experience to consoles and Call of Duty to perfect it.

Single-player has always been the crux of a videogame; it’s what all the ‘massive’ moments have come out of, for me anyway. Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus, Portal are all just a few singleplayer exclusive titles that pretty much set the standard for us as an expressive medium. But what happened on that cold November day to make it all seem not so worthwhile?

Multiplayer has pretty much zero scripted input or intentional points of reaction. The guns, maps, character skins and spawnpoints are all defined by the developer, and on the PC this can even be massively modded. Multiplayer is the absolute core of emergent gameplay, and nothing tells us better on the sheer randomness of videogames than multiplayer. In one game of Call of Duty 4, I can go about my business in a completely different way to another game I play on it. The same can be pretty much said for every multiplayer game out there.

In single-player, however, everything is scripted. You cross an invisible line and three enemies respawn, you hold X down on a valve to turn it, your character automatically talks to the dudes around him. Bioshock, a game which did 80% of its things right and the last 20% horribly, is no shy victim to defined narrative. There is no true non-linear or emergent gameplay in effect, although you can free-roam for goodies. That’s not to say every single-player experience cannot create fresh and new gameplay throughout its life cycle.

The Kings of free roam, Rockstar Games, show this more than anyone. The missions are largely linear, but outside of them, anything can happen. In a game like San Andreas, I can fly a hydra into the sky and parachute down on to a boat. I can then proceed to punch to death an old woman and… you get it. Now, Grand Theft Auto IV narrowed the scope of this, instead going for its scripted story and characters rather than fresh new gameplay.

Multiplayer is a more social experience, something you can truly share with your friends. You can hop on/off any time, there are no delays or scripted wotsits except from balancing the game via spawnpoints/weapons etc.

This is why singleplayer must die.

It’s an old form of videogame storytelling, and one that’s not exactly helping us in any way. Games are interactive, so why do we continue to tell stories that work like films and not interactive experiences? Think about Red Dead Redemption, did you honestly give a damn about John’s wife? You want to know why? You are John. In any ‘game story’ you tell to your mates, it’s always ‘I’ and not ‘John’. It’s sort of restricting trying to tell it in third-person, but who is shooting those chickens in the end? Who dies for those scripted characters? You. It’s sad trying to care for them, and if you do then I seriously can’t comprehend how you can care for them at all.

John is you, acting out this experience, but you apparently have this wife. You have to care about this wife, you love her. Yet you don’t even find out about her name until half-way through the game?  It falls in to the same trap as infamous. Zeke is your best friend! Trish is your girlfriend! Your lurrrrveee her! No I don’t, I don’t even know who they are. Multiplayer throws all scripted things out of the window and pushes in a completely blank slate full of juicy little moments.

I think this is what gets me so excited for Brink. It has two completely separate game stories, in one, which excites me already… but they can be played online. The only defined things about the game world are the names of the characters around you, and they can be played by anyone. I watched a few videos where, in the same repeated sequence, it looked like two entirely different maps. When, actually, it was the same match but the player had chosen a route which branched open the story in a different way. I look forward to see how this one plays out.

Multiplayer in Brink could also be defined as a semi-co-operative experience. You’re playing with your mates, playing through a nice little tale and enjoying all the juicy emergent gameplay that pours out. If this was a singleplayer experience, I doubt it would have as much of a charm. The experience would be largely restrictive and less non-linear, and you’d probably be dictated a few character relationships than your actual mates. Just as an example, let’s say Singleplayer Brink has your best friend killed; you don’t care one bit and carry on shooting things. On the flip-side, the game gives you a cutscene of the guy running away and your Captain telling you to “Chase that bastard down, he killed your friend, didn’t he?”

But, multiplayer Brink, let’s say it has your best friend killed. You chase after him, without even the audio-cue coming on. It’s not even necessary; it’s just something we do when our mates are gunned down in front of us. I’m excited about Brink because it includes some single-player narrative tools within a multiplayer format. So it’s still largely a one-on-one experience, but within such a massive game world that makes you care for the people around you without having to do all the relationship management that big singleplayer titles do.

Half-Life 2 could pretty much be called the perfect singleplayer game. You’re not dictated the relationship of Alyx, you meet her at the same time as Gordon, and so you grow to care for her as much as he does. Or you do. Ever notice how Gordon never says anything? Ever notice that the whole of Half-Life 1, which everybody congratulates you on, is all of your doing. You saved the whole of the universe, not Gordon Freeman, it’s just a nametag to universally appeal to every gamer who picks it up. I imagine people actually called ‘Gordon’ might even relate to it more than I do.

From a multiplayer perspective, it would be pretty hard to perform such tightrope relationship as the one with Alyx and Gordon. I think it’s impossible to actually care for your mate in such a way, maybe if it was your girlfriend/boyfriend then maybe, but the relationship between Gordon/Alyx is one that matures throughout the experience. If you replaced it with a multiplayer one (your mate playing) it wouldn’t have the same effect.

But what if it was both you and your mate who was playing through the experience together? Two Gordons, One Alyx. Both of you experience the same person, the same maturing relationship and this allows for some nice little co-op moments. I was thinking, during the Ravenholm levels, how nice it would be to add co-op in to the same. Who doesn’t like co-op? It can show the really good sides of the gameplay, and show it on a more interesting level. I’m not sure how it would pan out with Alyx though; it depends who you’re playing with. For all I know, your mate could be jumping up and down in front of Alyx while she gives you both one of ‘those looks’ that she always gives Gordon.

One interesting though I had was while playing Half-Life 2: Episode One, right at the beginning where Alyx hugs you. It shows that the relationship is growing in stride, and the actual waiting for Episode One (in the real world) helps you sub-consciously thing about your relationship with her. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t like Alyx, even just a tiny bit. She’s not perfect, but that’s why she’s so perfect as a game character. Anyway, in this little sequence at the beginning of Episode One, Dog picks you up out of the rubble and Alyx hugs you… what would happen if you were playing it as a co-op experience?

Who would she hug? Who has done more for her, saved her from headcrabs and given up their ammo? Who cares? Your mate might just see her as a friend, a best friend… maybe you would fight over her. This has been done in some co-operative modes of certain titles, but it’s always been dictated. You’re both asked to care about this pre-determined character, and fight over her, and there’s only been one instance where it’s truly shined as a little gameplay event.

In the co-op of Splinter Cell Conviction (WARNING: SPOILERS) right at the end, after all the hard work you’ve done with each other, you’re asked to kill your friend. I was playing with Adam (KrazyXP on Platform Nation), and it definitely made for an interesting experience. I didn’t actually know Adam or had played with him before picking this up for review. I guess you could call us acquaintances before-hand, but at the end, we were friends. We weren’t asked to fight over a character, but just to kill the other so that one may live. What made it more interesting is that we didn’t see the other side of the tale. As I was in my own locker-room, being told that I had to kill Adam, he was in his own locker-room, being asked to kill me.

Anything could’ve happened. I could’ve asked him where he was, I could’ve lied, I could’ve done anything. Adam could’ve slyly asked where I was, and I could’ve replied “My character’s just sleeping in the locker room below.”, before diving on him and snapping his neck. Or, we could’ve intentionally come out and asked to die. Friends don’t kill each other, unless ordered to. (SPOILERS GONE)

This could not clearly happen in a singleplayer mode, even if it did, it would not be as interesting. What a multiplayer mode like the one in Conviction does is tell a bare-bones tale with a true character arc. Even if you played with a randomer at the start of the game, I trust you’d be sending them a friend-request before the end of it. If it’s an actual friend in real life, you may feel some empathy and just allow yourself to be killed. What makes it so interesting is that, anything could happen. I even consider Conviction to be one of those few games that make you feel guilty, after popping lead into your mate, and it’s sad to compare it to such a title of high standard a la Shadow of the Colossus, but that’s genuinely how capable it is.

Singleplayer has its shining moments. The ‘Would You Kindly’ moment in Bioshock, the ending of Shadow of the Colossus and (to an extent) the end-scenes of Red Dead Redemption.

But it needs to die.

By all means, have multiplayer/co-op experiences that can be played offline or locally splitscreen, but pin-pointing an experience to a scripted one, within a game, is not health. Games should not be scripted, they are games. Films should be scripted, whereas games should be as original and random as possible. Not random as in OMG AM SO FUNNI AM SO RANDUM XD but just generally… open-ended.

Shadow of the Colossus could have made for the most breakthrough co-op experience of all time, but the technology just wasn’t in place yet. Now it is. The Last Guardian, I’m looking at you.

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