Anyone who has read any of my reviews knows that I don’t even look at multiplayer when it comes to gaming anymore. I used to, in the time of the N64 when we had Goldeneye, or Perfect Dark, or Super Smash Bros., but not anymore. The last game I played online for any length of time was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It was mildly enjoyable but quickly became tedious, repetitive, and just loud.
I don’t want to think I am an elitist when it comes to video games; there are certain things I don’t particularly enjoy, turn-based strategy for example, but I can understand why others might have an interest in those types of games. But I find that a multiplayer experience nowadays, which almost always means online, is like going to watch a Michael Bay film. Full of explosions, high octane chases, but very little substance. While single player campaigns, if any good, can evoke emotion, and feeling, and draw a player into another world. It is used as a powerful narrative to tell a compelling story. Now the Michael Bay movie will rake in millions of dollars and that is why they continue to be made, while the powerful story rarely gets to be seen by a large audience.
Where did things go so horribly wrong? I think a large distinction has to be made between multiplayer and online gaming. There is still something to be said by sitting in a room with 3 or 4 friends together and playing a game together. There is immediate social interaction, you are bonding with friends, and the focus isn’t really on the game but rather on each other. I still have a large affinity for cooperative gaming, because it requires a team to communicate well, strategize, and reinforce each other in the virtual world. But for this to really work, the team needs to be physically in the same room. If this is done completely online, then really everyone starts doing whatever they like and it’s not so much a team as people just running around with their own agendas.
The large culprit in this whole mess of meaningless action games has to be the Call of Duty series. A series that was held in such high esteem before has become an annual event of people lining up to play the same game that they picked up the year before. Personally, I love a first person shooter because there is something interesting and satisfying about experiencing an event from that perspective. But without a meaningful story, or compelling characters, or good environments I can’t be engaged. When I reviewed Call of Duty: Black Ops, I thought it was one of the most interesting stories with a great twist I had seen from the series. But those types of experiences nowadays seem to be rare, and they’re getting rarer as we go along.
While Call of Duty is the big name when it comes to online gaming, we can’t forget others such as Battlefield, or dare I say Halo. All are very similar in the way they play and while they have their differences, their core game play is simply to “kill the other team”. Of course we haven’t talked about the Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs) which is a huge market out there. I have played two MMORPGs, Star Wars Galaxies and City of Heroes, some years ago and while I found the experience much better than I had with the online shooters I still found the game play to be very repetitive in the end. I felt like I was doing the same missions over and over again until I could level up in order for me to do a new, harder mission over and over again until I could level up some more. The exception I do have to make in this genre is Star Wars: The Old Republic because I haven’t played the game but have been told that even though it is an MMORPG, they have an excellent story line and some great voice acting. However, the largest problem with the majority of the most popular MMORPGs (World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Final Fantasy XI) is that they still have a monthly subscription cost. And while this model is not being used much anymore (Star Trek Online has dropped its monthly cost), it is still abhorrent in this day to ask gamers to cough up a monthly fee when they have to pay $60 for your game to begin with.
But I think that the ultimate problem I have with the online gaming experience is that there doesn’t seem to be any point to it. There is no clear structure that a typical story would have. You, as the player, jump right into the action with no background, no development, and no purpose other than to ‘win’. A good video game is like any other story out there, it’s like a good movie, or good book, that when it is over there is a certain sadness because you enjoyed the time you spent in the world. And every year or so, you feel like coming back to it and reliving it and enjoy it all the same. And don’t get me wrong, there are some terrible single player games out there. Just like there are terrible movies, or really boring books. But I have yet to find an online experience that can rival the best single player experience.
And I haven’t mentioned the quality of people that do play online yet. This is where I want to tread carefully because I know many people who play online, and 95% of people who do play are really great. That being said, with a lot of people, when they have anonymity and an audience they tend to act like complete ass-hats. When anyone plays online, you will inevitably get a 12 year old (or someone acting like a 12 year old) making obscene comments to me, or my family. Not that I take any of that personally, it would be ridiculous to do so, but it makes the whole experience negative. It is a kin to going to a movie theater and having someone with their phone on the whole time. I can block it out and ignore it but it is really just annoying and makes me not want to come back.
I don’t care that games are designed strictly for online gaming. Because on the flip side there are quite a few games that developed as a single player experience only as well. The problem that I see with the current trend is that more and more developers are sacrificing the development of the story and characters in order to include a multiplayer experience, a recent example of that was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which was just a rehash of what came before.
Why do people who play online not constitute as real gamers? Gamers have taken a lot of slack for the past 30 years, whether it’s because video games are not considered a ‘legitimate’ form of art, or gaming is considered a lower form of entertainment. The reasons are irrelevant, but true gamers are highly adaptable, and often highly intelligent. They can form a variety of different strategies to conquer a given situation, they are required to solve all sorts of different puzzles and riddles, and can change their style of gaming dependent on the situation. Those who almost solely play online are often not required to do any of these things. The online gamer often figures out a particular strategy and uses it again and again for hours upon hours because (a) it is effective, and (b) the goal of an online game rarely changes. While single player campaigns (good ones at least), try to throw different situations at the player and therefore require you to be adaptable. For example, in Batman: Arkham City (one of the best games ever), the strategy to defeat Mr. Freeze would be different than how you would approach Ra’s Al Ghul.
Anyone can enjoy anything they like, as long as they take some satisfaction from the medium, then by all means enjoy yourself. Online gaming does have a place in the world, but I will warn you that if the quality of single player narratives starts to wane, so will the quality of the online experience. If your entire gaming experience revolves around online play, then you can’t really call yourself a gamer. Just as much as people who rank their favorite movies as Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, or Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, or any one of the Twilight films, can’t really call themselves cinephiles. You can enjoy these films to be sure, as much as I have enjoyed playing some games online, but I can also recognize that these are not quality experiences and that true gaming comes from the single player narrative.
Now that I have finished my piece, let the attacks commence…