Party of One

Some of the first video games I played as a kid were arcade games and a few home console games centered on not just playing with someone else, but playing against someone else. People forget that one of the first megahit video games, Super Mario Bros., wasn’t really a single-player game—unless you had absolutely no siblings or friends. At the beginning of that game, you can select either “1 Player Game” or “2 Player Game.” If you select the latter, you and a friend (or older brother, in my case) control the plumber Mario and Mario’s brother Luigi through the different stages, each of you getting a turn when the other dies by falling into a pit, getting hit by a flying Bullet Bill, or running into one of those damn rotating bars made of fireballs.

When you think about it, if you had siblings who lived with you or if you had friends over, every video game became a multiplayer experience whether or not it was designed to be one. Some of my favorite gaming memories involved what I call “communal single-player experiences.” Now, I’ve had a lot of fun fighting against my friends in Tekken 2 and Tekken 3, as well as a host of other multiplayer games in those years before online gaming, but the most memorable experiences involved what were designed to be single-player games. One of us would actually play the game while the others watched, sometimes trying to actively participate by telling the player what to do or where to go. Many times, though, the ones not playing would just simply watch.

The communal single-player experiences that stand out the most in my memory?

— Playing the first two Tomb Raidergames and Final Fantasy VII with one of my closest friends, Will. We played so much, in fact, that it nearly cost me my relationship with my girlfriend at the time.

— Playing Myst and its sequel, Riven, with Will and a few other close friends. At one point in the game, while staring through a telescope at a blank white screen, we were all shouting out that we saw some nearly invisible shape that we could use to solve one of the frustrating puzzles. (“It’s a half-circle!”, “No, you idiot, it’s a square!”) Turns out, there was no shape.

— Playing Tomb Raider III, probably the last semi-decent game in that series until 2013’s reboot, one Christmas while my dad, who had never before been too interested in video games, watched. I had to explain to him details about that particular game (“Lara’s like a female Indiana Jones, Dad.”) and about video games in general (“You can’t just jump over to that ledge, Dad. It’s not that easy.”).

— Playing, in one Funyuns-and-Mountain-Dew-fueled weekend in college (a time when I took an unintentional break from gaming), both Parasite Eve and Parasite Eve II while my roommates watched.

Something magical happens when a group of friends plays a single-player game in a room together. Usually it’s best when done in the wee hours of the morning and in almost complete darkness, when the only light comes from a buzzing TV screen. For me, this particular kind of magic is now mostly lost.

Why? Well, when I play a single-player game these days, it’s exactly that: single-player. I’m a grown man who’s married (without children, praise be to the gaming gods), and I don’t live in the same town as my gamer friends, so those sleepovers of yore (when we played Myst and Riven) don’t happen as often. I keep telling my wife that I’m going to make her sit down one weekend and play through both Portal games, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m hoping that when (or if) it does, I can recapture some of that communal single-player glory from days gone by (cue Springsteen’s “Glory Days”).

But I don’t think it’s just me. The games themselves have changed too.

Some games have gone the co-op route, where usually two to four people play alongside one another. This is typically seen as a subset of multiplayer gaming because the players are working with each other toward some common goal instead of against each other. Some games have done this successfully (the Contra series, the Left 4 Dead series, the Gears of War series, Rayman Origins) and uniquely (Journey, Portal 2) — others, though, not so much (I’m looking at you, Fable II). These co-op games are in a way trying to emulate or recreate or innovate on the communal single-player experience, in which a few players all work their way together through a game’s story as opposed to fighting against each other, which the developers (and many gamers) view as a “better” way because this gives all players something to do instead of the “one player, several viewers” dynamic.

In the years after Super Mario Bros., many games added more robust multiplayer components so that two to four players could face off against each other on the same (split) screen. Then came LAN (local area network) parties in which many people could come together and connect several consoles and all play simultaneously. Then there was online play, which allowed dozens or even hundreds of people from all around the globe to face off in races, gunfights, fistfights, loot raids, or anything else that their gaming hearts desired. This, of course, revolutionized multiplayer gaming, but for some, like me, this seemed to be a death knell (or at least a bad omen) for single-player gaming.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy online multiplayer. In fact, it’s what lured me back full force into the world of video games after my six year semi-drought in college and grad school. (Although, to be perfectly honest, it wouldn’t have taken much to lure me back.). After I finished graduate school and got my first full-time teaching job, I spent the next couple of years occasionally dabbling with the PlayStation 2 that my parents had gotten me back in 2000. Then I reconnected with some of my close friends from high school (as well as a couple of new friends of theirs), who were big into Halo and Halo 2 on the original Xbox. I had missed out on these two games, which were largely responsible for bringing multiplayer gaming to the console masses, and missed out on the Xbox in general. As soon as the Xbox 360 was released, they all bought one and were anticipating the release of Halo 3. While Halo 2 had already introduced online multiplayer, Halo 3 promised to make it even better. They knew I really loved video games, so I just had to get an Xbox 360.

I was reluctant. I did love video games, but my only previous experience with multiplayer first-person shooters was brief and rather unpleasant. When I was a college freshman, one game popular among my peers was GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64. I didn’t own an N64, but several guys in my dorm did and they’d spend hours playing GoldenEye. What made this game great wasn’t its James Bondness. It was the split-screen multiplayer matches that pitted you against up to three other players, all of you trying to shoot or stab or explode each other. At the time, I hadn’t seen any console game like it. So I tried playing GoldenEye with (against) them, and they proceeded to riddle my virtual carcass with lead. I knew it would take a lot of practice to reach their skill level, but if I practiced GoldenEye for hours, my grades would suffer and I would risk flunking out altogether, which is exactly what happened to several of the guys in my dorm’s GoldenEye Gang.

This made me apprehensive about getting an Xbox 360 and playing online multiplayer with my friends. I’d have to invest many hours just to be decent enough that I wouldn’t get killed immediately when each match started, and I’d have that Mom voice in my head saying, “If you play those kind of games, you’ll end up a flunky, a loser, just like those flunkies you knew in college.” However, the opportunity to play video games with my faraway friends — and to talk to each other, taunt each other, shoot the shit with each other, and occasionally have heartfelt conversations with each other — was too enticing to pass up. That Christmas my wife gave me a 360 and a copy of Halo 3 when it was released a few months later, and my obsession with video games began anew.

Since then I’ve played hours (days? weeks?) of online multiplayer (besides all the Xbox 360 Halos) in games like Grand Theft Auto IV and V, Destiny, Minecraft, and various Maddens, just to name a few. Multiplayer is a rockin’ good time, but it has had some not-so-rockin’ effects on the gaming culture. One practice that I’ve abandoned entirely is chatting with random strangers in games. I always seemed to find the most hateful, usually prepubescent, individuals whose language seethed with vile, uninhibited vitriol. Keep in mind, I have one of the filthiest vocabularies and senses of humor that you’re likely to find, yet the things that would spew forth from these people’s mouths would shock and horrify even me. A more daring man than I might try to include here, à la George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” monologue, a list of the Seven Most Horrifying Things You’ll Hear While Playing Call of Duty Online Multiplayer. Alas, I won’t.

While playing in the same room with people, you can laugh at each other, taunt each other, or even punch each other in the leg when someone keeps sniping you from that hidden spot on the map all night long. While playing worldwide online multiplayer, you lose that close camaraderie that forms when you’re playing in the same room. Players are spread out in rooms all across the globe, and instead of friendly and fairly harmless taunts or insults (or even leg-punches), you have the mask of internet anonymity to hide behind while you hurl your genuine hatred at others.

Another problem of multiplayer that a mute button doesn’t solve, however, is that in many cases it has begun to diminish the quality of the single-player experience. As developers invest more resources into making the multiplayer aspects of a game more extensive, that game’s single-player suffers. Over the past decade, we’ve seen many high profile game franchises that began as mainly single-player (Halo, Call of Duty, etc.) become these “conjoined twin” games of multiplayer and single-player. The trend has been for the multiplayer portion to get nourished more and the single-player portion less to the point that it’s not really there at all. The single-player campaign is just a tacked on afterthought included with the game so that the publishers can add the “single-player campaign” bullet point to the back of the box. Also, many single-player games have recently tried to shoehorn in some type of online multiplayer just to say that they have online multiplayer, which ends up being not well thought out and not very enjoyable to play. (Mass Effect 3, Uncharted 3, and the Tomb Raider reboot are three examples that come readily to mind.)

Then there’s a game like Titanfall, which is essentially an online-multiplayer-only game. Did Titanfall’s success signal the end of the single-player game, the death knell I mentioned earlier? Hopefully not. What it did indicate is that developers are moving away from making those multiplayer/single-player “conjoined twin” games toward a separate-but-equal system in which multiplayer games and single-player games are developed independently so that each type can focus on its strengths. (Of course, we’ve seen just how well the “separate but equal” doctrine has worked out in the past.). Some developers can make multiplayer games that provide us with those thrilling dozens-of-people-all-blowing-up-shit-at-the-same-time experiences, while others can make single-player games that provide an individual gamer (and perhaps a few of his or her friends watching in the same room) those true single-player experiences.

But will developers and the companies that back them do this? Titanfall seems to be a good sign of the former, of studios making multiplayer-only games. The future isn’t as promising for single-player games, though. Well, as far as those games coming from huge Triple-A studios at least. After all, they have to think about what kind of game is going to make the most money (not just to line their pockets, but to justify the ballooning costs of producing those games). Along this line of reasoning, which do you think will make them the most money: a game designed to be experienced by one player at a time or a game designed for dozens or even hundreds of people to all play at the same time? For what it’s worth, I predict the big studios and companies will begin almost exclusively making those multiplayer-only titles, leaving the smaller studios and independent game developers to create the single-player titles with few to no multiplayer components.

In the meantime, my wife is visiting her sister this weekend, which means I have three days of single-player gaming ahead of me. Bring on the Funyuns and Mountain Dew.

Scott Hughes received an MFA in creative writing from Georgia College & State University in 2004. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in such journals as Crab Creek Review, Crazyhorse, Redivider, Carbon Culture Review, and Compaso: Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology. He is currently at work on a young adult novel. He has been an instructor at Central Georgia Technical College since 2007.