The Death Of Single-Player

Update: The earlier headline image/thumbnail has been removed. I apologise for any offence it may have caused.

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 [email protected]

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 spawn points 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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  • a really good read but i disagree with the comment “This is why singleplayer must die.”

    In a niutshell, I do not play games to be social, I play them as escapism, as chance to forget about the real world. Multiplayer generally means going up against other players with more free time on their hands to hone their skills and hand my ass back to me on a plate. It’s just not fun for far too much of the time. I work during the day, I do not want to have to work to level up just so I can stand a chance against some 8 year old halfway across the world.

    Co-op as you touch on is a good blend of single and multiplayer experience but even then, to enjoy the full experience you need to have at least one oother person who is available at the times you are so that you can progress at the same pace.

    Multiplayer modes for me are simply bolt ons to true gaming experience. I hated Quake 3 when it was released as it signlaed the start of the shift from strong story driven single player games to carefree and quite frankly waste of time multiplayer maps.

    Muiltiplayer is the driver behind dumbing down gaming as a medium.

  • First off, you should read this article:

    It’s about a slightly different topic but it touches on a few points you made here.

    I have issue with the collective of people who think that if you don’t feel like YOU”RE the character, then the developers have failed in some way. It’s that whole buzz word mentality. The idea the “immersion” is everything, and “non-linear” games are superior to their counterpart. If you watch a movie and the characters are well written you start to care for them. Are you apart of the movie? No, you’re not. But you feel a connection to whatever you’re watching because you’re receptive to the writing. It’s no different in video games.

    The author of the article I linked mentions the disconnect between what the player does and what the characters in the story do (Ludonarrative Dissonance). People argue that this is usually a fault on the developer, that because in GTA4 Niko claims to want to get away from all of the violence of his old country but as a player you go around shooting innocent people, the game has failed in telling a story. But let’s flip the argument. Maybe it’s YOUR fault that YOU go around shooting people. Yes, you should have the choice, that’s the point of interactivity, but you should take responsibility for the outcomes, like most things in life. Hey, you’re fucking up the narrative. You chose to go against your characters motives, it’s like acting or any other form of Role-playing. You are interacting with the game which means you have some responsibilities to uphold to. Just because you can do whatever you choose, doesn’t always mean you should. Or rather, yes do it, but don’t call it a fault of the game when the characters don’t uphold to how you act.

    Singleplayer doesn’t need to die. Actually, I think it would be a step back if it were to go away.

    I want to say more but I have no energy to do currently!

    • Good read, nonetheless, but I do disagree with some of your points.

  • Alnilam

    I have to agree with Mark.

    Single-player is what I buy games for. While I’m being somewhat tempted by FFXIV, I don’t play games to be social either.

    I haven’t played any Rockstar games, as I don’t like their subject matter, but I do love Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls (and I’m currently playing Fallout 3, although I’m not sure I like it or not).

    I play games mostly for the same reason I read books. To get into a good story and to get to know new characters.

    If I can see the world through the eyes of Harry Dresden, I can also see the world through the eyes of Snow and Lightning. Or I can have a game where I make up my character, but that still allows me the flexibility to play a completely different game from what my husband would play.

    The thought that single-player might die makes me really sad. If it does, then it might be time for me to die as a gamer…

  • erik

    solid points and well written. I hate that games are focusing on online, and getting away from single player. I do, however, find it extremely disrespectful that you publish a photo of a dead soldier’s funeral in a video game article. There is no room for that in this article.

    • Nathan Hardisty

      You’re entirely correct, my friend suggested it and I put the post up a few hours ago. I only just got in.

      The photo has no been removed.

  • DonabateGuy

    I disagree with you about single- player but will agree that some games do work better co-op.

    I feel the whole horror genre would not work in any other form other than Single player. In my own experiences, Dead Space would not have been half as scary if you were playing co-op. Look at Resident Evil 5. It’s been heavily criticised for not having the ‘fear factor’ that the series used to .

    That’s not to say that some games wouldn’t benefit from Co-op integration.

    At the end of Army of Two:40th Day, when you have to decide who to shoot, I was playing with one of my best friends, who really enjoys playing games co-op. I was sitting there talking to him on mic, and with no decision made, I decided to shoot him as a joke. We haven’t played the game together since.

    My point is that there is still times when a single player experience trumps co-op/multiplayer, and I for one would be fairly annoyed if the single player games die off.

  • Red

    I don’t buy the “games as a social endeavor” argument. Games, despite becoming more and more multiplayer centric, are also somehow becoming less social from a substantial standpoint.

    What we get these days is the mass proliferation of multiplayer separation. In the old days of online multiplayer (and still today on the PC), you got to know the people you played with, even if none of them ever made it onto any kind of friends list. Games had communities that knew each other, and these communities shared knowledge about the games through these shared channels. There was a deeper understanding of the game you were playing because you the lines of communication were much stronger, allowing information on players and the game itself to find its way to more people more easily.

    Fast forward to now, and the landscape is almost designed for a sedentary experience. Dedicated servers, where you found a few you liked and got to know the people who also played on them, have taken a backseat to matchmaking, which forces you to either only play with people on your friends list (or the lists of your friends), or play with complete strangers. There is no encouragement of community forming in this model, you always see people on opposing teams as faceless enemies.

    We’re given all this “social” bs like forums, Facebook, and Home, but these things are a far cry from real interaction with the people you are sharing a gaming experience with. Five years ago, we hardly had any of the social features that are pushed on us from manufacturers, yet we were all much more connected with each other than most console gamers now will ever understand. Social gaming means playing games in a social manner, not uploading your gameplay to Youtube and updating your Facebook status to “ghostin noobs”.

    Social gaming is as much a joke as social networks, and for all the same reasons. You want real social gaming? Bring back the ability to talk to people on the other team; bring back custom servers that allow you to play the way you want with anyone who also wants to play that way; do away with matchmaking; bring back a real sense of community.

    Single player isn’t dead, its just less profitable.

    • Nathan Hardisty

      I am saying that single-player needs to die, but I think you will agree that an experience in single-player is always better with a buddy.

      A co-operative story that’s still capable of being played by yourself can still have the effects.

  • I see what you’re saying and I couldn’t disagree with you more.
    Maybe it’s just me and how I grow up as a gamer… never having siblings to play with, but enjoying games nonetheless. Back then there was no XBL/PSN and when I was a child I never heard of online gaming before, however I got on just fine!
    Or maybe it’s just because I am not that social of a person in general and I do not play games to be social. I understand that this seems to be the “in” thing this gen, but I am just not crazy about it like everyone else appears to be. I’ve just never been much of a social gamer. I know that it is extreme popular these days (with things like the wii and some great MP games) but damn the thought of losing all the awesome experiences I have had in SP disturbs me greatly.
    I for one truly get immersed in the story and you know what else? I was Gordon Freeman! and no, my name is not Gordon. Despite your inability to relate, I happened to BE every character I play from Nathan Drake to Niko Bellic, from a badass super soldier to a sword wielding legend etc…. I put myself in their place and get lost in their world! That is why gaming is so awesome to me! I don’t want to be me; I want to be a badass! I don’t want to play with friends I see everyday I want to get lost with new characters in the game! This all comes down to one thing for me –Escapisms!
    I remember when I first got a PlayStation as a birthday present and started getting into survival horror genre around that time. If you had told me than that I would be playing a franchise like Resident Evil cooperatively and it would have a versus mode… I would have laughed at you. Hard. This is not bashing RE5, which I do find to be an awesome action game, but it has lost all survival horror appeal to me.
    Regardless of what your experiences may have been, there have always been games where I truly cared about its characters, and or its world etc. I know that is difficult for some to comprehend. The only way I could describe it, is by trying to describe a survival horror game like Silent Hill for example. I would play a game like that so completely immersed in its world that I would actually feel its fear. Even though you are completely aware you are not the character and it is not you trapped in the nightmarish realm of Silent Hill. You are still able to feel emotions that the game triggers, and that is why single player never should die. You could never have that same experience in a MP or coop game.

  • LordCancer

    I do not understand why an individual feels the need to pronounce the one true path for all. Maybe I don’t want to drink your brand of soda, worship your god, or play only the one kind of game type you think is the only one worth playing. Grow up Nathan, the world doesn’t revolve around just you and your ridiculous proclamations.

  • While your argument is well-written, I think it is fundamentally flawed.

    You are arguing that people should not play golf because soccer is fun. You are arguing that people should not eat chocolate because candy is delicious.

    Certainly, multiplayer games are best for allowing emergent narrative play where the players own unique, unscripted narratives can emerge. However, it is a flaw to pressume that this is the only meaningful experience gameshave to offer.

    Single-player games (when done correctly) can offer other great things, such as enacted narratives (I am stealing terms from a Henry Jenkins article, btw). Single-player games allow you to enact the narrative of a specific character (Niko Bellic, Commander Sheppard, etc.). They also allow for games such as Super Mario Galaxy that pit a single player against specific challenges. Though you may not personally enjoy these experiences and narratives, it is wrong to assume they should all die because of this.

    Games can do many amazing things. Multi-player competitive and co-op games are just a fraction of that. Single player games are another. Both are equally valid forms of play.

  • Fernandez

    For you to say the single player is dead and no longer needed is the same as when people were saying that video games didn’t need a story. I am sorry sir but get your head out of your ass and look around. If anything showed us that single player is very much so alive it was COD: MW2. Also for someone to be talking about CO-OP you forget that many Xbox users still do not have live let alone friends. The amount of systems sold and the amount of people online just don’t add up. I imagine when you were researching for this article you didn’t look into the amount of online gamers to offline gamers. If single player is taken out of games then sir I believe that one is handing me crap. Gaming is about options, thats what keeps us playing the games we play. If you take out that core option of a single player experience then you are going to have a lot of angry gamers. As much as one would love to argue that Co-op is better when it comes down to it, it’s really not. When one plays with a friend one tends not to fully pay attention to whats going on. When one plays by them selfs then it is easy for the story and events to sink in, due to the fact that there is no friend talking in the ear piece to divert ones attention. Now I will say I enjoy multi player games more then single, but the games I play tended to not have any sort of single player in the past (i.e. Battlefield). Yet if they were to take away any sort of single player from halo I would dismiss it and most likely rent it instead of buying it, and believe me thats saying a lot. I believe this article to be nothing more then just someone over analyzing a current trend. like I said before this is just as bad as when people were saying stories are not important to a gaming experience.

  • Tim

    This article sums up absolutely everything I hate about the modern game industry. You take lazy developers and mix it with retarded people satisfied with the same old multiplayer game over and over again and you get people like me who have been playing games for 25+ years having terrible thoughts of giving up the hobby. Multiplayer is so overplayed, boring, and almost never introduces anything new. Sandbox games are ruining single player. We need more strong narrative games, that really focus on delivering top notch single player experiences. It’s almost impossible to find nowadays, but I’m not giving up yet. Sadly, it seems more and more people are starting to think like you and are okay with playing multiplayer forever, Terrible

  • Hans

    While you do have a valid point when you say that Singleplayer is mostly scripted, and multiplayer isn’t, thus ensuring a more fresh and new experience, you seem to be forgetting that as multiplayer is evolving, so is singleplayer.

    I’m a singleplayer man at heart. One of the singleplayer kings out there is Bethesda (well obviously before they took over ID). I love roaming around the capital wasteland (FO3) or Cyrodiil (TES4) till late at night, walking through caves, looting everything I find and storing them in my house in Megaton or Chorrol. Meanwhile completing quests and gathering valuable collectables.

    I hate the thought of wanting to join the Dark Brotherhood and finding a line at the door, or finding that secret cave behind a waterfall and finding a bunch of people jumping repeatedly up and down. I know these points are a bit silly, but they do illustrate my thoughts. I love being the only wasteland wanderer and champion of cyrodill.

    As for bonding to a ‘scripted’ character, that depends on every individual player. I am someone who gets sucked into a story and does his best to save and defend NPC’s. Would I want to marry Alyx? No. Would I be sad when she dies, or for that matter when Ely died at the end of EP.2? Yes. Maybe that’s childish, I don’t know. But that’s just the way I feel.

    I don’t think singleplayer will die, not for a very long time. It will evolve just like home-experiences (wii/move/kinect) and multiplayer will. Singleplayer will be far less scripted in the future and stories will depend more on player choices, which also will greatly increase. Singeplayer will also be a fresh new experience, every time.

    Great column and keep it up!

  • Dean

    I don’t understand your point. So what if multiplayer/co-op is better? (and that’s debatable). Why does single player have to go? How does the fact that single player exists affect you or your MP experience? You sound like you’re afraid to do anything alone.

  • Optimus!!!!

    I find it funny how everyone posting a response is like “Youre wrong Article Writter.” “Id stop playing games if Single Player died.” “Its why I play games.” If these statements (from actual gamers) are true then why is single player dying? Good developers (unlike movie producers) try their best to make games people will like/play. If single player shouldnt/isnt dying, why is it then? The devs give ppl what they want. And right now based on the fact they cram MP into well crafted SP games like Bioshock, thats what ppl want. So either some of you are 1)Lying or full of crap or 2)Not making your voice loud enough to devs. I was born in the late 70s so I remember the early pong game screen tape on the tv, Atari, Commadore 64, Sega Master, and the VG revolution starting NES all the way to now. Multiplayer was the 2nd controller and that was just fine. I was peeved when I started playing modern day FPS and the stories were tact on but the MP was the bread and butter. I remember playing Doom and Wolfenstien and those FPS had no MP and were considered classics because of yhe stories. And the removal of bots from FPS and 3PS is also taking away from the experience. Thats why I love Gears Of War so much they program bots for an extended SP experience.