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My brother has almost exclusively played sports games in the last decade, although recently he has started playing other kinds. A couple weeks ago he bought Call of Duty: Black Ops, and after playing a few story missions he’s been pretty exclusively playing the online with his friends. There’s nothing wrong with this, but he made a comment I disagreed with, to the effect that playing with your friends is much better than single player. I’ve seen even more extreme versions of this idea in posts on the Internet, going so far as to say even including an offline component in an online-focused game like Call of Duty is pointless. I’m not actually worried about developers abandoning single player modes in games in the future, but I thought I’d explain why I think it’s an important part of gaming and why I like them so much.
I don’t want to seem like I don’t like multiplayer – I’ve had a ton of fun shooting other people online, especially in group-focused games like Battlefield 2 and Team Fortress 2. But If I had a choice between a really good multiplayer experience and a really good single player game with a good story, I’d take the latter every time. Online can be a blast, but there’s such a variety of experiences you can get when the game is designed with only you in mind, and the opportunities for doing something interesting with narrative are endless and have only been partially tapped to this point.
One reason why I care less about multiplayer is that the feel is almost always largely the same. Lots of factors can vary – the number of players, how much teamwork is rewarded, the pace of the movement and activity, how much opportunity there is to have fun even if you aren’t that good at the kind of game you’re playing – but beyond a few games with truly unique ideas, you kind of know what you’re getting before you start. Single player can be like this, but there are so many other things it can be too. Just look at the difference between playing Black Ops’ campaign and experiencing Shadow of the Colossus. Or Ratchet and Clank versus The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. So many different moods and atmospheres and styles of play can be explored, in a way that multiplayer just can’t.
Some people don’t like the way heavily scripted games like Call of Duty lead you along and basically give everyone the same experience, but that’s just one way of doing things (and if you ask me, the best moments of those scripted games are far more thrilling than a typical deathmatch in the same engine). Plenty of games basically place you in a world populated by computer-controlled enemies and let you run wild, and those can be as unpredictable and exciting as if they were other people anyway. Those are two extremes of design philosophy, but everything in between is possible, and enjoyable in its own way.
And one of the biggest reasons why I like single player games and am excited for their future is the unique way the medium can tell stories. Lots of people have made the point that even the best game stories would make for barely passable movie plots, but that’s beside the point. The ways that games actually present those stories make them more interesting than they would be if you were just sitting and watching them. Lots of games offer the player a hand in how their tales play out, either by working what they do naturally into what happens or presenting them with choices that will have repercussions in the future. A lot of times these moments are forced and nonsensical, but they’re getting better every year and can only improve with time. And as cut scenes fall further by the wayside, Half-Life started a movement of letting the story happen around you while you’re playing, a technique that can be thrilling and immersive in a way that watching a movie or TV show just isn’t, and it’s another thing that developers are getting better and better at doing. Outside of co-op campaigns, these are things that online modes just don’t offer.
Again, I like a good multiplayer mode, and I don’t begrudge anyone who would prefer to play that rather than whatever new single player thing is out. But I know that games designed to present an experience to one person still have a future, and I hope I’ve given you an idea of why I think they’re important and fun for their own reasons.