The Game Boy: Single-Player and Multiplayer -- Two Tastes That Go Great Together?

Nathan Grayson

Every gamer has a story. A story assembled from countless in-game experiences, a collage of victory, defeat, heroics, and villainy. There is, however, a schism in the way these stories play out. Ask someone who’s lived out their gaming days in solitude and they’ll tell you of superhuman feats, epic dramas, and non-player characters who may not have been real boys, but were certainly close enough that Geppetto would’ve been hard-pressed to tell the difference. Pose the same question to multiplayer-centric gamers, though, and you’ll get an earful of teamwork, commitment, practice, and good old fashioned competition.

Neither side, of course, is wrong to enjoy games for their respective reasons. It’s merely a case of different strokes for different folks. However, what happens when single-player and multiplayer modes get married and pop out a child? Well, if you ask developers like BioWare and Splash Damage (who are working on fusing multiplayer and single-player with Star Wars: The Old Republic and Brink , respectively), they’ll tell you such all-encompassing modes are just The Next Big Thing. And they may very well be right about that.

Forgive me, then, for objecting to this holy matrimony.

Now, I’m not saying that Brink and Star Wars: TOR are going to be bad games, nor am I claiming that they won’t knock our collective socks off. However, I’m not so sure aspects of both single-player and multiplayer games can dance together without stepping on one another’s toes. Why? Well, let’s break it down.

Central to my fears are the goals that single-player and multiplayer modes seek to achieve. Single-player games – at least, as they are today – strive to guide players through an experience. BioWare games, especially, focus on story and well-developed non-player characters. Meanwhile, multiplayer games revel in competition, chaos, and adversity. Fail in a multiplayer environment and the developer’s certainly not going to kiss your bruised ego and make it feel better. That’d only get in the way of other players’ good times. Suddenly, you’re no longer some big damn hero; you’re just an unskilled rookie. This fact alone makes many multiplayer tropes inhospitable to the types of experiences many single-player games try to carry you through.

The biggest problem, I think, is that single-player games attempt to empower only one player, while their multiplayer counterparts try to treat everyone fairly. Thus, single-player modes lend themselves well to a story in which everything is yours. You’re the main character. You’re the star. The fate of the world rests on your shoulders. Generally, then, people fly solo in order to immerse themselves in an escapist fantasy – to escape from the suffocating realities of our mundane, unfair, unpredictable world and be something more than an average-Joe human being.

By adding multiple human beings into the mix, however, the opposite affect is achieved. Odds are, if you’re throwing down with real people, you’re bound to encounter someone better than you. Or, if you’re part of a team, you have to worry about having teammates’ backs, not letting others down, and – if you’re in a guild or clan – keeping in people’s good graces, or even committing to participate in events at scheduled times. That stuff? It’s work. Plain and simple. Fun sometimes, sure, but tedious at others. Moreover, many of the aforementioned multiplayer game elements unintentionally remind you that you are just a normal, everyday person – mostly because they mirror the mundane things you likely do on a day-to-day basis, except now you’re doing them while wearing midriff-revealing armor and doing the same canned dance animation all the time.

The stories that come from multiplayer-centric games, then, aren’t developer-driven; they’re based on your interactions with the game world and other people. Sure, they tend to skew a bit more toward the ordinary instead of the extraordinary, but in a way, they’re much more personal than single-player stories, even though you’re not the muscle-bound, infallible hero of each tale. As such, an orchestrated, single-player-style story only serves to constrict the environment in which such micro-stories can occur.

Honestly, though, I don’t believe multiplayer to be inferior to single-player. I merely think they’re diametrically opposed experiences – both enjoyable for wholly different reasons. And therein lies the reason I’d rather not see single and multiplayer joined together: In hacking the two apart and then sewing them together into some kind of Frankenstein monster, we risk deemphasizing the things that make each mode of play great.

Perhaps, for once, we should keep chocolate and peanut better separate – lest we soon discover that they’re actually water and oil.

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