Opinion: Today’s Multiplayer Games Struggle To Balance Gameplay, Worldbuilding and Storytelling
Something that’s stuck with me about the original Left 4 Dead was its fascinating capacity to not just tell its own pulpy zombie stories but also enable players to create their own narratives within the game’s sandbox-like campaign mode. I’ve written about this elsewhere before but there’s a fascinating tension between the canon of Left 4 Dead and the unique experiences the game’s AI director creates over the course of a session.
With Evolve, developer (and Left 4 Dead alumni) Turtle Rock Studios went all in on the latter kind of storytelling – and it’s to the detriment of gritty sci-fi horror setting they’ve created for the game. A lot of time, energy and care has gone into the aesthetic and atmosphere of Evolve’s eerie alien landscapes and badass bounty hunters. However, this worldbuilding often feels like it falls entirely by the wayside.
Respawn Studios’ Titanfall suffered from a similar problem. Aside from the occasional bit of background chatter, the only place where the story really manifests is in the short ten-to-twenty second pre-game cutscene. EA and Respawn even produced an enormous amount of concept art for the game, but – like Evolve – all this worldbuilding ultimately amounted to nothing of consequence.
Despite being lambasted year on year for delivering an unsatisfactory single-player experience, it increasingly feels like Call of Duty is one of the few FPS franchises out there that even bothers with having a campaign anymore – especially given Activision have plenty of reasons to not to. Quite infamously, the development team behind the popular Michael Bay-simulator revealed that the number of players who didn’t even bother to play through the lavish single player campaign were shockingly high.
Statistics like these have had a fascinating influence on AAA shooter development in recent years. Games like Battleborn are stripping down on single player content and even more traditional shooter experiences like Star Wars Battlefront are launching with little more than a handful of single player missions. If you’re a fan of single-player shooters, there’s not a lot to look forward to these days.
Sometimes, I come to a game looking to be told a story. To learn about interesting and well-written characters and explore exciting and well-designed spaces. To feast my eyes on something awesome. Other times I come to a game looking to be part of a story. To be placed in an open-ended scenario with other players and come away from that with a story worth sharing. An experience that I played a role in crafting and a story that’s mine.
Multiplayer games have this fascinating ability to cater to both of these desires – and I hope that’s not something developers lose sight of as more and more single-player campaigns slip off the back of the box.