In Defense of the Single-Player Narrative Game

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

I grew up with games in my periphery. My brother played them, my friends played them, but I never quite understood the appeal. That is, until I made the discovery that, “Oh! Games can tell stories.” And not just mirages of stories that do more to give structure to a game than tell a meaningful narrative, but stories that move a player to laughter (think Portal) or tears (think The Walking Dead game) or inspire connections with characters (Bioware, I’m looking at you!).

This revelation was a pivotal moment—the key to kindling a love and appreciation for a medium that, up until recently, flew completely under my radar. I found that while I’m not attracted to MMOs or other multiplayer experiences, I do enjoy smaller, solitary journeys with characters. However, as current discussions on single-player games may suggest, these are a type of gaming experience we stand to lose.

In a recent article by EuroGamer on The Twilight Zone revival being headed by BioShock creator Ken Levine, Levine was quoted as saying that, “The AAA, single-player narrative game is starting to disappear. Kind of games like BioShock. There’s fewer of them being made.” That’s a distressing thought for fans of this kind of experience.

“The real reason is they’re very expensive to make and I think gamers are saying pretty loud and clear that if they’re going to spend $40, $50, $60, they want an experience that lasts more than 10-12 hours. That’s a lot to ask somebody to spend.”

With the threat of less single-player games looming on the horizon, the question remains: what is the value in keeping these games around?


1. Stories

Whether becoming entangled in the mystery of the Origami Killer in Heavy Rain, embarking on Indiana Jones-style adventures in the Uncharted series, or trying to protect your family by hunting down your former gang in Red Dead Redemption, the story is often what is driving your experience in a single-player game. And, likely, it is what sticks with you long after the game has ended.

While multiplayer games emphasize human to human interaction, this creates unstable ground for storytelling. Humans are unpredictable, and thus cannot be relied upon to carry a narrative in any particular direction. Single-player games, contrarily, often rely on compelling stories to create a sense of investment and draw the player into the experience.

Mass Effect

2. Characters

“I’m in the middle of some calibrations,” says Garrus, a character in the popular RPG Mass Effect. You snicker, wondering why it’s taking him so long, or if he’s trying to avoid you. But after every mission, you return like clockwork to see if there is anything new you can discuss with him. He’s your friend—or maybe something more. You decide.

This sort of experience is unique to the single-player game. Rich characterizations are made to help you invest in non-player characters, to make you create connections with them. In multiplayer games, these types of interactions are traded in for human to human communication.

Fallout 4

3. Variety

Even if most of the hours you log playing games go to League of Legends or DOTA, odds are you also like to play games like Fallout or Final Fantasy or Grand Theft Auto. There’s value in variety, in not burning yourself out doing one thing over and over again. It’s nice to take a break from an ongoing MMO game to play a singular experience or to diversify your game collection by picking up games that span a variety of genres.

Metal Gear Solid V

4. The Emergence of Unique Voices in Gaming

From Hideo Kojima to Peter Molyneux to Anna Anthropy to Mike Bithell, a growing number of voices have begun to color the gaming landscape. All of these creators focus their efforts (primarily) on single-player narrative games, and each of these creators’ voices differ greatly, bringing a specific vision to the table. By keeping these types of games around, individual voices are allowed to flourish.

Skyrim, The Elder Scrolls

5. Demand from Gamers

Despite the often deafening decries of “This game is too short!” or “I’m not going to pay $60 for a 15-hour game!” the fact is, there’s still a market for single-player narrative games. Many gamers come to games for the characters, or stories, or single-player journeys through open-world landscapes. To cut out these games entirely would leave a portion of the gaming community to drift away from the experiences they often tout.


5 thoughts on “In Defense of the Single-Player Narrative Game

Add yours

  1. Awesome article. I think it boils down to what gamers look forward to in a video game. A lot of the gamers I talk to confuse replay value with unlockables and online mode. Of course replay value includes new game plus mode, unlockables and rewards and co-op but it could also mean things that are in the actual game and make gamers want to go back and play it. What makes me wanna go back to playing a video game? The setting and locations, the buildings, the cities and towns, the designs, the scenery, the soundtrack of course, the side quests, the different scenarios, to be able to view a particular scene or an exchange that invokes nice memories or has a big impact on me i.e. nostalgia. For challenge, because I’m a completest, I love grinding…etc. Replay value is more than just co-op mode and new game plus. If devs don’t think anyone can go back to playing their games without the “additives” then that is an honest testimony of their games not being of quality substance? Replay value is subjective.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I could not agree more! This is such a great article. 🙂

    I also got into games when I found out they could tell such incredible, immersive stories. It totally changed my world! And while I do enjoy co-op once in awhile now, my heart remains with single-player experiences and I am sad to see them disappearing. I would emphasis in-game moral choices — even using stealth or not — as being a key thing that makes single-player necessary and remarkable for some games!


  3. I mainly play single-player narrative games and the game’s narrative is one of the reasons why I’ll replay a game. I like to approach the issue as the glass is half full and a place of many options for singer-player narratives. Especially now-a-days, there’s tech available to create great stories and experiences.


  4. Great article that’s earned you a follower. I’ve been playing video games since the 70’s as well as pen and paper RPGs. While I do love to read or go to the movies, give me a great single player experience in a video game over those any day. It allows me to interject myself in the story in ways I truly cannot express in words and I will always love them for that.

    You mention games like Fallout and Mass Effect which give you plenty of freedom to allow for different endings depending on the choices you make. But I also love even the linear experiences that always end up the same no matter what you do. It’s the same as watching your favorite movie again or re-reading that killer novel or comic once more.

    I’m positive single player will never die. Especially in this age of indie developers and Kickstarter. No, SP is here to stay. Especially with gamers like us keeping it very much alive. Thank you. 🙂


  5. Honestly without singl player games and single player games with strong narratives, I don’t know that I would game all that much. I sometimes like multi-player, but it so often so hostile and toxic that I can only stand it for so long.

    It’s in single player games where I truly let go and find my self in a new world with new ideas and perspectives.

    Honestly I don’t mind paying full price for a 10-15 hour game if it has an interesting and engaging story. I’ll often play them 2 or 3 times even if the story doesn’t change all that much – I view it like re-reading good book.


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