Over the past three years or so, various game developers (and often more notably their publishers) have come under fire from gamers and industry folk for the so called “shoehorning” of multiplayer elements into what are often primarily single player games. Many consumers feel that this shift in focus is detrimental to the original single player experience and that it acts as a gateway for more sinister downloadable content, season pass and online pass practices.
Most of these criticisms are justified, and few developers have actually managed to prove dissenting voices wrong. Rather than question the addition of lacklustre multiplayer modes as a business practice, I’d rather question its addition on the grounds that, all too often, it makes no sense within the games lore or “universe”.
As despicable as online pass schemes and the belligerent homogenization of some games are, the blatant lack of respect for a games appeal that some multiplayer developers seem to show is of much greater concern to me.
Think back, if you will, to the release of Mass Effect 3 in March of 2012. Many fans of the series, myself included, were apprehensive, if not wholly pessimistic about the addition of a multiplayer mode in the latest instalment of what is predominantly a single player experience. When I got my hands on the game though; I was treated to exciting, intense, albeit simple wave based survival matches. The addition of free characters, maps and weapons (apology almost accepted EA) helped to ensure ME3’s multiplayer had some kind of longevity, and the fact that the mode was co-operative kept the majority of in game chat civil.
But there was another reason why ME3’s multiplayer felt like a breath of fresh air in a sea of vapid multiplayer shoehorning: it makes sense within the Mass Effect universe, and within the context of the game. Sure, you might have to suspend your belief when you see the Reapers send down waves of increasingly stronger enemies to engage in skirmishes with you, instead of just wiping you out with a giant laser, but such allowances are generally made across all games. What I mean is that for a game about the plight of a few brave warriors in the face of seemingly insurmountably odds, a wave based mode makes perfect sense.
Mass Effect 3 is a game about community and teamwork, as Commander Shepard must unite races with rather questionable morals and/or histories with each other, and trust in their ability to work as a team together. This is exactly what ME3’s multiplayer seems to be showing you. By teaming up with Quarian’s, Batarian’s, Turian’s and others, you’re essentially playing out Commander Shepard’s greatest wish: a unified galaxy against an undefeatable adversary. You are, in effect, the end to his means. This is why, whenever you play Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, it never feels like it is misplaced or pointless. Because whenever a brave, lowly Turian Sentinel is struggling to hold out against a wave of cold, unforgiving Geth troopers, you know that (within Mass Effect’s universe) this is something that is happening everywhere, to almost everyone.
Compare this then, with other examples in the industry. EA is adamant that the Dead Space series should include multiplayer, despite that fact that Dead Space is supposed to be about loneliness, isolation and the inner psyche of a single character. Isaac Clarke is supposed to be trapped, alone and out of his depth, in a giant tin can in space filled with bloodthirsty mutants. Throw in four random players to go repeatedly gallivanting around the ship fighting necromorphs in order to level up, and things get a little weird. Dead Space is about survival, and, although you’re supposed to want to be there you’re not supposed to expect Isaac (or anyone else) to want to be there too. Repeatedly returning to a necromorph (an army with relatively few numbers) infested area seems like a fool’s errand, whereas fighting off against hordes of Reapers (with a seemingly limitless supply of troops) is a necessity; it has to be done.
For similar reasons, the concept of an Elder Scrolls or Fallout MMO just seems flawed to me. Whenever I play Fallout 3 or Skyrim, I want it to be a lonely, solitary experience, and as such; roaming around the wasteland with K1LLSnyPZ14 and urMUMizaF4twhoreee sounds about as appealing as meeting either aforementioned delinquent in person.
Furthermore, several clueless people have voiced a desire for online multiplayer to be included in the next main series Fallout game. The Fallout series is set within a post-apocalyptic alternate reality, and in any world wherein 95% of the population was wiped out by nuclear war: there aren’t many people left. Once again, having online multiplayer doesn’t make sense within the context of the Fallout universe.
Now, I’m not saying developers should sacrifice fun in favour of realism or a sense of narrative cohesion. But I must insist that they at least try to respect the world in which their game takes place, and in turn, try to develop multiplayer modes that work within that world.
With EA now declaring a “no single player games” policy, it’s unlikely that this incessant multiplayer shoehorning debacle will end any time soon. Hopefully, though single player games will still be able to thrive on their own merits, and people will realise that Fallout 3 boasts an 100+ hour campaign full of exploration, intrigue and most importantly: fun. Insisting that the Fallout experience would be enhanced by online deathmatches or intrusive drop-in-drop-out co-op is plain ignorant.