Thoughts on Multi-Player and Game Stories


It’s been around in one form or another since day one—the ability to have more than one person playing a video game at the same time, or roughly the same time.  There are two main flavors of it—competitive play and co-operative play.  What does it mean for the medium in general—if in fact it means anything at all?

As mentioned, games have had multi-player since the first popular home video game, Pong.  Another popular one would have to be pre-super Mario Bros., where one player played as Mario, and another played as Luigi, a trend that would continue through most of the Mario-themed games.

These days, you have games that are almost centered around multi-player, with the single player part not played up, not as developed, or whatever else.  Of course, the opposite complaints have been lodged concerning other games.  Few really seem to get it balanced right, and, interestingly, the few that do seem to get it right only when dealing with co-operative play.

For example, the PS2 game Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven.  A good game on its own if you like stealth games, but one area it really outdid itself was the co-operative mode.  Two players could sneak their way through missions, which had their own (loose) story.  It wasn’t the greatest story, but it was created specifically for that mode.  It wasn’t just “You and a friend kill these people”.

There were a good number of games that did that sort of thing, some even better than Wrath of Heaven.  To me, that’s what makes co-operative play worth it, when there’s more depth to it than just you and a friend going nuts.  Competitive multi-player doesn’t seem to have that; at the least it’s not as common by far.

I have to wonder why that is.  Can it really be so simple as most players finding fun in mindless action when playing with a friend?  That certainly seems viable.  No matter how old you are, your friends may not be free the same times you are, so getting the time together to work through a game’s story together is likely difficult, plus it really wouldn’t be as easy to get into the story if you can only play once a week, or even once a month.

And all of that is only if your friend likes the same game in the first place.  We as gamers have such an eclectic mix of tastes that even best friends may have completely dissimilar tastes in video games and as such won’t really find it easy to come together to go through a video game.

That’s what makes things like the tried-and-tried “death match” sorts of things fun.  There’s no real depth to it, but there doesn’t have to be.  You don’t even have to otherwise enjoy the setting to get into such a thing.  If you don’t really like the setting of the game your friend has, you can still get into that game’s death match set-up.  All you need to know are the controls themselves.

Is that really a good thing, though?  In some small way, doesn’t that propagate the notion that video games are mindless wastes of time?  Think of what non-gamers see—commercials playing up the action of nearly every game with the story reserved for, perhaps, a voice-over blurb that gets back to extolling the myriad ways you can destroy buildings or other players.

Then you have non-gaming friends or loved-ones of gamers.  When they meet up and the gamers head off for some first-person-shooter death match, all they see is their friends/loved-ones blasting the holy heck out of each other.  You can talk all you want about how this game’s story is great and thought-provoking, but we as a species are more visually-oriented.  We generally remember things by seeing, and if what they generally see is mindless violence, what are they supposed to think?

One can make the claim that if they live with the gamer, they’d have more exposure to video games, even if they themselves don’t play.  As such, they should know that games can be as in-depth as anything else, right?  Well, that’s not necessarily true, either.  Generally-speaking, when people live together (whether with blood-relatives or romantic relationships) when they spend time together they don’t really (or at least shouldn’t, but that’s for another blog) do something only one person is interested in.  When they don’t spend time together, they generally don’t pay a lot of attention to what the other person or people are doing.

Even then, if the other person isn’t interested in video games, they usually aren’t going to remember a whole lot about the games their friend/loved-one plays.  They’d probably remember things like genres or titles, but not much beyond that.  As such, when they talk about the games their friend/loved-one plays with their friends, they won’t usually be able to talk about them beyond things like “Alice used some sort of big laser-gun-thing on some squid-alien-things.”  Alice might be playing a game where the squid-alien-things are from a dying planet and are trying to bargain with Earth for resources, but the protagonist isn’t told that; while Alice knows the truth, the character she’s controlling was only told that they’re “evil jerks trying to steal our resources”.

As deep and interesting of a story as that might be, Alice’s friend/loved-one won’t really know it or even remember it if Alice tells them about it.  They’ll just remember Alice mashing the buttons to shoot at the squid-alien-things.

That apparent digression was to say that while multi-player games potentially bring the games to a wider audience at least in that the gamers may bring friends or loved-ones with them, that doesn’t mean they’ll see the game as anything more than mindless action.

Another argument can be made for on-line multi-player, which is certainly a very popular concept.  The things that were said before about friends being in the same room can be applied to on-line multi-player as well, for the same reasons.  Think about the people over-hearing their friends/loved-ones on the microphone.  They’ll hear comments about damage and battle tactics, but not really anything about the story.

Is multi-player as a concept at fault?  Of course not.  All it can really be said to be is a way to get more gamers playing the game, and that’s not a bad thing.  It’s not a good thing, either, really.  In the words of a certain fictional boxer, it is what it is.

Really, it’s just a shame that multi-player games aren’t more in-depth, even if it’s understandable why.  Even many co-operative stories are either not as in-depth as the single-player version, or it’s the same but with differences in enemy numbers.  I think that, again though it’s understandable why more multi-player games don’t offer much in-depth stories, if they did I think we’d find gamers purchasing them.

While it might be argued that there’s a vicious cycle between publishers only publishing certain types of games, so that’s what gamers bought, so that’s what publishers come out with, so on and so on—while that might be argued, I don’t think it’s the total answer.  I think if there were even more options in depth and breadth of game stories than are already present, I think they’d become just as popular.

I don’t think there should be fewer “mindless” multi-player games.  They’re easy to get into and fun in their own right.  I do believe, again, that if there wree more options, they’d be popular, they’d draw in more gamers.  I can’t see how that would be a bad thing.

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