Games Feature: Never Alone

Could offline single player games soon be a thing of the past? Duncan Wallace scrutinises the concept of ‘online single player’

Cevat Yerli, the CEO of Crytek (the developers of Crysis) recently suggested that “the notion of a single-player experience has to go away” to be replaced by a “connected Single-Player or Online Single-Player instead”. This was nominally à propos of the success of single-player games that require constant connection to the internet, such as Diablo 3 and more lightweight titles like Farmville. But while this concept is primarily being broached to promote social media integration and curb piracy, the idea in itself is full of potential.

In multiplayer games today we are generally presented with characters that endure, but worlds that have no constancy. The environments, matches, conflicts, and campaigns tend to be entirely palimpsest. There are no multiplayer shooters where you can see the effects of prior battles. Notwithstanding official patches for bugs or balancing, maps are in no way changed by the scores of people that have fought over them since their inception.

This has, in fact, become a defining point of most shooters, where ingrained strategies will spring up through the fixity of the environment within which these matches are held. Sure, many games today allow locations to be totally wrecked within the course of a match but once it is over the transience of this conflict is revealed; there is no permanence except in the users’ profiles. The settings of most online games have neither episodic beginning nor end, the narrative life is tied to the players’ interest. If you delete a user’s profile or character, it would almost be as if they had never played at all.

Compare this to the traditional single-player game. It doesn’t even matter whether there’s a plot: the arc of the gameplay has a clearly defined beginning and end. To a large extent, everybody plays the same game, as if engaging in an interactive movie.

Even games where we are given the illusion of open-endedness, such as Fallout 3, Far Cry 3, Grand Theft Auto 4, or Mass Effect 3, players are forced to engage in a central linear plot quite at variance with the freedom felt in the relatively inconsequential side-quests. The problem for programmers is obvious: the more possibilities presented to a player, the greater work there is to implement the different routes the player may take. Bethesda Softworks has had notorious problems with bugs that have taken years to both discover and fix; largely due to this sandbox environment which they have attempted to develop.

Yet the real limitation of games with side-quests becomes obvious when you see that these side-quests are almost entirely independent of one another. They are generally mini-campaigns in themselves, where the main option is whether or not you choose to take up these campaigns in the first place. But what’s the point of freedom if your actions have nothing but local consequence?

Traditional single-player games also feature the issue of replay value: the disposable nature of campaigns where (particularly in more linear first person shooters) there’s rarely much inclination to retrace one’s footsteps or start over. Compare the vast swathes of environment traversed, never to be witnessed again, with the tiny, claustrophobic environments, epitomised by something such as Counterstike’s de_dust, upon which countless scores of people played and replayed matches for years.

So we are left with the dichotomy between offline and online worlds: the static and the dynamic, consequential and meaningless, the episodic and cyclical. Is it possible to merge the two? Leaving aside the technical difficulties for a moment, suppose a multiplayer game were given the typical plot of a single player game. But if a game has this sort of narrative, what happens if you aren’t there at the beginning, or equally, the end? What if you don’t happen to be present during the most important parts? The traditional narrative framework seems to present as many problems for the potential player as it does the developer.

But that doesn’t mean that a different type of narrative cannot be achieved. Online games do not need to be compartmentalised into matches that are tiny relative to the absolute number of simultaneous players. Persistent worlds have long been an aspect of massively multiplayer, as has the concept of very large servers. Eve Online has shown us that very large, persistent universes are possible. Yet such games have, to date, focused almost exclusively on character progression, instead of an overarching narrative.

A persistent world does not preclude an evolving story. Our world is persistent, but that doesn’t mean that global events are only conceivable as a great incoherent cacophony where the only voice you can hear is your own. Sweeping generalisations and unsupported assumptions concerning events may make archival academics weep; but it is this very process that we all use to draw meaning out of the maelstrom of information, every single day. As Stalin (somewhat anachronistically) said: “A single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”. Roughly four and a half million people died last month. How many can you name? Hugo Chavez.

So we shouldn’t necessarily be concerned that people entering an evolving story in media res will be left adrift, or be afraid to end current events lest the game itself end. Like in history, conflicts begin and end, but that doesn’t mean that there is an end to conflict.

It is hard to imagine how a heavily scripted single player games can ever be shoehorned into a multiplayer environment, or if we would ever want to. However, the very real possibility of multiplayer games that allow their environments to evolve, and for the actions of players to create their own history, can be realised. As it stands, Yerli’s “connected Single-Player” is merely a buzz-term. It remains to be seen what path developers will ultimately take in the merging of single player experiences and online media.

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