The Solitary Path, and Finding Your Own Way
“The worth of single-player comes in the form of narrative. As with any good novel, or a finely crafted film. It is the equivalent to literature. While multiplayer is an ill-informed argument. It has no direction, no beginning nor end, no meaning.”
So says John Walker of Rock, Paper, Shotgun fame. While what he is getting at is vaguely understandable, the statement strikes a very poignant nerve with me, and hopefully many others too. Some of us are single player gamers: we crank the difficulty up as high as it can go, and butt heads with the AI (and more often these days, the designer). Others, myself included, prefer the realm of online play, or the apparently meandering mess that is multiplayer. But whichever camp you sit in, the ideas expressed in the above quote should not be considered lightly.Consider the following my manifesto, my gaming raison d’être. The above quote irks me for two reasons. Firstly, the implied ideas and roles of narrative in games, and secondly the thought that multiplayer is some hazy after-thought. I shall breakdown each point, and explain exactly why the opposite is true.

It’s been notoriously difficult to pin down exactly what makes a Game, let alone what makes a game Fun. The definitions get argued over endlessly. But without a doubt we can acknowledge that games require interactivity, and as a result, choices must be made. Applying a narrative should, by nature, remove much of the interactivity and ability for the player to make choices. Authorial control is a curse on what digital games are capable of. Jonathan McCalmont sums it up nicely:

“One of the most disastrous things to ever happen to videogames was the emergence of the belief

that being a game designer is a bit like being a film director and that it is the job of a game’s designers to create a story.”

I would argue that the job of the game designer is, first and foremost, to create a series of mechanics and rules that interact tightly, providing the player with meaningful choices (initially on a ludic level). From this Emergent Gameplay and Emergent Narrative can begin to take shape. I’m not saying that games can’t have a fixed narrative, but great games, the games we want to be art, have to play to the strength of the medium. And that strength is interactivity.

By designing with the end user experience in mind, a more free flowing narrative will form. Humans naturally want to fill the gaps, explain the unexplained, make sense of the seemingly illogical. Rather than strict authorial control over the player in order to tell another crass plot, the focus should be on the rules, or ‘ludemes’, of a game. Forget cutscenes, forget taking control from the player; it should be all about letting the player make choices in a given ruleset. Once we have the rules, our minds do the rest:

“Overreading is a phenomenon that is frequently cued by the masterplots in which our fears and and desires are most engaged.  It is what allows some people to flesh out an incident involving inexplicable lights in the night sky with a chain of events involving extraterrestrial beings.  It is what allows others to load up a stranger with an unflattering moral character, cued only by the color of his skin.  Our minds seem to abhor narrative vacuums.  We try to fill them in.” – The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (2008), pp89

A good example of how not to tell a game story can be found in Battlefield 3. The singleplayer is one of the most scripted and heavily guided asset tours on the market. By asset tour (courtesy of Keith Burgun) I mean an entertainment product that shepherds the ‘player’ down what is essentially a corridor, and makes them look at scripted sequences. It’s meant to be exciting, but it is fundamentally not a game. Sure, there may be moments of gunplay that resemble whack-a-mole, but that’s barely interactive. Ralph Koster would spit on such design, as he says, “Not requiring skill from a player should be considered a cardinal sin in game design.” And it isn’t just the FPS genre that suffers. Action games and many modern RPGs also suffer from simplistic or repetitive tasks. Press X to win. A game is destined to become boring anyway, so why give in to that.


“I think the time has come for game designers to realise that the best way of ensuring

that their games tell good stories is for them to refrain from telling a story at all.” – Jonathan McCalmon

You should not tell a game story with interactive dialogue trees and branching narrative lines. You should not replace interactivity with cutscenes. And at no point should control over the avatar be taken away from the player. Obviously you can do these things because surprisingly it sells, but this not what we should be doing with the medium. In order to reach the equivalent of literature in games, developers should play to its strengths. That is, make your rules, weave your ludemes, and let the player make their own tale. And that’s where multiplayer comes in.

Apparently multiplayer has too much freedom. It has no direction, no beginning nor end, no meaning. I can’t even begin to fathom how that conclusion was made.

Multiplayer does have a direction: that of defeating a human opponent. Players have clear goals—sometimes even their own—and will quickly work out the best way in which to achieve them. The rules are always plainly set out, and it’s up to the human participants to cooperate or scheme in order to win.

It does have a beginning and an end: a session can take anything from a moment to a week, depending on the game. Perhaps you want to jump on to a Counter-Strike server for a few minutes, snap some headshots, and then move on. Maybe you want to play a game of Solium Infernum with some bros, waiting eagerly by your Inbox for the next turn. Or maybe you get addicted to League of Legends and just keep playing round after round after round.

And of course there is meaning, otherwise what is the point of sport? Does chess have no meaning? Chess is probably the most fully-formed argument for the legitimacy of games there is. The possibilities are endless, and thus the space for emergence enthralling. What I find fascinating is that despite huge development teams working diligently on their rich and fully-realised worlds, competitive multiplayer games provide far more room for spontaneous narrative than most singleplayer games.

Again, Battlefield 3 is the perfect example. When you’re on the real battlefield—not the Tour of Duty that is singleplayer—anything can happen. Sure the sound and aesthetics help, but that’s the same with chess; who doesn’t like a beautifully carved play piece. To quote Koster again, “The more formally constructed your game is, the more limited it will be. To make games more long-lasting, they need to integrate more variables.” That is to say, there needs to be choices for the player. In Battlefield, you choose where to go, what kit you take, and how you get there. You’re given tools of destruction, and left to your own devices. Players will recall moments from their favourite server, and not the part of the game where they had to stab a rat.

If there were ever an example of the beauty and chaos of multiplayer, it’s Left 4 Dead.

Video courtesy of my old clan, ogl.

Multiplayer games let you prepare, give a strong sense of space, focus on one mechanic, offer a range of challenges and ways to overcome these, and finally require skill. This is the list Ralph Koster attributes to successful games. League of Legends as an example has all of these things, and is currently one of the most highly played online games (that isn’t an MMO). It also has a variable feedback system for rewarding skill, a cost to failure, and at least tries to deal with the Mastery Problem (higher skilled players dominating lower skilled ones). If you look closely, most multiplayer games have these elements. In the end multiplayer games are what games should be, and were originally: something to learn and master, and something that rewards this mastery.

This is why I can’t get enough of online competition. Counterstrike, Left 4 Dead, League of Legends, Bloodline Champions and now Battlefield 3 have all sucked me in with their never-ending possibilities. A good game doesn’t end. Re-playability isn’t about collectibles in the story mode; it’s about whether or not each return to the game will offer something new. And multiplayer does this each and every time.

  • Homemaster

    Sigh, I just couldn’t get the damn layout working. Would be interested to hear from both singleplayer and multiplayer players, depending on your own bias.

  • Evil Tactician

    Whilst I agree that a lot of singleplayer gaming has taking a turn for the worse, with games getting more shallow by the minute – I actually believe that this is largely attributed to consoles rather than a strict multiplayer/singleplayer argument.

    There are still games where the story matters quite a bit.Take Mass Effect, if I have to be brutally honest the gameplay sucks balls and is even outright boring and obnoxious at times. However, the story is good enough to keep playing it through.

    Dragon Age: Origins was an example where both the story and the gameplay were excellent – almost a throw back to the good old days of Baldur’s Gate. Not everyone will agree, but personally I loved it.

    Ultimately though – in my experience the first and foremost aspect of any game is that it should be fun to play. This is usually accomplished through excellent gameplay, as far as I am concerned. If it looks good on top of that, that’s a bonus. Even better if you have the ability to co-op it with a friend, an aspect that I feel should be included in most games these days, but not at the cost of the singleplayer experience. A game which did this exceptionally well is Dawn of War 2 – which was good when played alone and even better when played in co-op, without diminishing the game in any way or changing it to fit the co-op mode.

    Long story short – stop dumbing our PC games down with console-based developments and give us more depth, great gameplay and games which allow the flexibility of both enjoying them alone as well as in multiplayer. That’s what makes a great game :)

  • Kraken Wakes

    I don’t think singleplayer PC games are getting more and more shallow by minute (Skyrim? Deus Ex: HR?), I think we expect more and more as the bar gets raised. If you’d played Mass Effect 2 five years ago, you’d probably have cried tears of liquid joy over story, gameplay and graphics combined.

    Now and again, something comes along and lifts our expectations, and then everyone else scrabbles to match that for a while before the bar is lifted again. We’re a jaded and spoiled lot – the games we have now are generally better written than those of our youths. Not always, of course, and that’s what makes a classic like Planescape Torment, Half Life or Populous.

    But really, that’s true in every field in art, from books, films, paintings, tapestry – you name it. Most of it’s okay, a few bits are awful, and a few more are like the beautiful sapphire eyes of an otherwise dirty brass statue.

    Not that I disagree overall – games must be fun, or they’re not games. And the more intelligent you assume your audience is, the more intelligent it will become.

  • Evil Tactician

    Skyrim and Deus Ex are typical examples of games which will be classics though – I meant that the general trend is that singleplayer games get a lot more casual over time. At least, that is my experience. Take the move from Morrowind to Oblivion – Morrowind was incredibly in-depth and they cut a lot of this out in Oblivion to make it ‘easier to play’ on consoles.

    Mass Effect, at least in my opinion, was also an example of a game which could have done with more depth. ME was a good game, but it didn’t even come close to, for example, KotoR.