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?
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.