The Growing Illusion of Single Player

Posted: September 15, 2014 in Opinion Piece

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by Patrick Klepek

I would mostly describe myself as someone who sticks with single player. Crucially, these games have a beginning and an end, which lets me feel comfortable with moving onto the next game. Not having enough time needed to become skilled in multiplayer is certainly part of that, but I also like playing lots of games, and seeing whatever games can offer me. Credits give me that cue.

Even though I’ve played 20 or so hours of Diablo III in the last two weeks or so, there’s precious little I could tell you about that experience. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun–I had a total blast. It was just a blur. Attack this, dodge that, equip this, upgrade that. Rinse, repeat. Diablo III is pleasurable repetition incarnate. I played the game co-op, and conversation dominated much of it. Even on expert, Diablo III is a cakewalk whose delicious loot is best enjoyed with a friendly companion. On the occasional night I was on my own, it felt completely alien. It was certainly something that I had the option to do, but I was only doing it because I had to.

We’re seeing more and more games designed with multiplayer from the outset, but out-and-out excluding the option is heresy, so games come up with ways to include it. Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall includes a light campaign mode, but it might as well not even count. Titanfall became one of the first truly big games to say goodbye to single player.

Enter Destiny, Bungie’s ambitious post-Halo experiment to mingle shooters and MMOs.

While playing Destiny, it gives me Diablo III vibes. And I now understand why Bungie won’t allow matchmaking for endgame raids, instead making players group with friends to take them on. In some ways, Destiny feels like this enormous compromise, a way of bridging the gap between the game they want to make and the games they’ve been making for years now. It’s not hard for me to imagine an early meeting where Destiny could only be played together.

It’s why I’m of two minds when I play Destiny. In one world, we have the traditional way I approach games. It’s me vs. the world, a solo journey. In that case, it feels weird to play a game that seems as though it’s meant for you, but it’s not. It’s an illusion. This looks like Halo, it plays like Halo, but, oh boy, this is definitely not Halo. Your ingrained Halo skills may transfer over, but any idea it’s designed to be played by yourself are quickly washed away.

In Halo, it’s a great singleplayer experience greatly complimented by its co-op and multiplayer. It doesn’t feel like one is sacrificed for the other. In Destiny, it’s a great multiplayer experience that just so happens to include a single player experience, even it’s not really recommended.

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One of the common examples I’ve heard about how Destiny should work is a scenario in which you’re playing on your own, struggling to stay alive, and suddenly a bunch of friends swoop in to save the day. But that situation should never happen. If you’re playing by yourself, it’s not the same game.

But when I play Destiny with a friend, it’s transformative. With both Diablo III and Destiny, I’m not sure where and how to attribute my enjoyment. Yes, the mechanics of both are sound, but given the resounding emptiness felt when played solo, perhaps the co-op element is compensating. I’d go so far as to argue games can be less mechanically compelling, so long as the multiplayer element is engaging. The thrill of barking orders at friends can, in a way, cover design flaws. I hem and haw on the quality of each game’s mechanics because the co-op aspect literally distracted me from engaging with them to some degree. (For what it’s worth, the way Destiny’s difficulty spikes meant that I was paying far closer attention to it.)

But “cover” might be the wrong word. Even if Destiny or Diablo III feels fundamentally less interesting without other people around, that may merely reflect the original design goals.

This isn’t meant to be a deep critique of Destiny, but a gut reaction to a very particular transition. I’m merely wondering when games will become more honest about what they’re actually offering.

When Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer took off, the copycats were endless. It wasn’t just that every shooter started aping Infinity Ward’s leveling system, but games that never would have otherwise included multiplayer suddenly had new teams assigned to building it. The thinking was that singleplayer brought people to the table but multiplayer kept them sitting down (read: not selling their copy).

Now, we may be seeing the rise of games that ditch single player entirely. It’s not a great PR message. Many are going to be reluctant to actually pull the trigger. But that may be a disservice to everyone involved. Players go into the game thinking they can get something they can’t, and developers are forced to compromise a gameplay experience, knowing it’s not what they’re truly building. That’s a lose-lose.

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