Published Oct 25, 2010I come here not to praise multiplayer, but to bury it. Oh, I know I'll have little luck ― even Jay-Z couldn't kill Auto-Tune and multiplayer is far more prevalent, especially as we roll into the holidays with nearly every new game tacking on multiplayer modes whether it makes sense or not. I totally get the attraction of multiplayer, particularly the view that it makes games a better value by increasing replayability. But that quantity-over-quality argument is akin to the '90s music industry putting more songs on every album rather than lowering CD prices. (How'd that work out for them?)
The Wall Street Journal is also reporting that multiplayer is eating into game sales because people are playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 or Halo Reach far longer than if it had only a campaign, and so aren't buying new games. That's an industry problem, not a gamer one, but it's convinced game-makers to increasingly devote their resources to simplistic multiplayer modes at the expense of complex single-player stories.
Yes, some multiplayer-specific games ― the Orange Box's cartoonish cult classic Team Fortress 2 or the zombie-slaying Left 4 Dead co-op franchise ― can transcend the format's limited trappings through bold game design. But for the most part multiplayer offers endless humdrum variations on deathmatch and capture the flag. Not to mention that multiplayer ultimately appeals to a small (if vocal) minority of hardcore gamers. The medium itself may be increasingly mainstream, but the coarseness and, yes, pointlessness of online gaming keeps most folks away. These retrogressive killathons are anathema to gaming's sophisticated single-player experiences.
Look, online multiplayer must have been awesome when it first arrived ― "dude, we can shoot each other from our couches!" ― but those old-school LAN parties still offered in-person interaction, even if on separate PCs. Going online created anonymity, and as on message boards, that soon devolved to lowest-common denominator douchebaggery.
There's incredible skill involved, sure, but online gaming also encourages every clichéd gamer stereotype, becoming a bacchanal of virtual teabagging and offensive epithets spouted by basement-dwelling teenagers. (Yeah, I know, get offa my lawn!) If adventure games like Assassins Creed: Brotherhood and Uncharted 2 include multiplayer for no apparent reason beyond checking that marketing box, it at least makes perfect sense for shooters. But lately multiplayer modes have become so important that single-player campaigns are short and often multiplayer-inspired pace of non-stop intensity that all but abandons narrative to string together set-pieces. Yes, Saving Private Ryan opened with an intense beach storming, but like all great war movies, there was story and subtext to give the action meaning.
Spielberg was also behind the original 1999 Medal of Honour, and though the new reboot dared to engage in current geopolitics by abandoning WWII in favour of post-9/11 Afghanistan, the game has been soundly criticized for offering a mere four or five single-player campaign. Albeit, not as soundly as over the summer when right-wingers and government officials, including defence minister Peter McKay, complained that MoH multiplayer allowed gamers to play as the Taliban, rather than just killing them, so EA changed the name of the keffiyeh-clad enemies to "OpFor" (opposing force). But the bigger issue should be that the multiplayer offers only killing ― it's exclusively in story mode that a war game can add the plot and character development needed to make it resonate beyond the leaderboards.
Not every game needs to be Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, a new action-adventure game that placed its story in such high regard that Namco Bandai hired cult novelist Alex Garland (The Beach) to pen the script. But a great narrative, even in a non-linear open-world game, provides much needed structure and pacing, not to mention a compelling reason to find out what comes next and the emotional connection to make those set-pieces matter. Game designers should aspire to create the best possible interactive experience, not simply hand over their toolset and say, "have at it."
Ultimately, single-player games inhabit worlds while multiplayer offers only maps ― and the end result is as superficial as those semantics imply. Perhaps innovation will come down the pipeline, but for the moment multiplayer essentially reduces your game to a toy. And I don't know about you, but I'm too old to play with toys.