In Praise of… Single-Player Adventures
Recently I had the pleasure of completing Respawn’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. I had a lot of fun with it and found it a challenging but satisfying experience, despite nodding along with many of the issues highlighted by excellent reviews like ours. But what elevated it for me were the story, sense of adventure and fantastic settings in which the game took place. Oh, and it certainly helped that it was one of those increasingly-rare beasts (on Xbox in particular) – a AAA, narrative-driven and entirely single-player game.
Which is strange isn’t it, given the huge success that Sony has had with its first-party titles over this generation in particular. Games like God of War, Horizon: Zero Dawn and Spider-Man have not just been hugely popular with the public but have also cleaned up in terms of review scores and awards. And while Red Dead Redemption 2 obviously did have a multiplayer component, I’m pretty confident it was the epic single-player story and believable world that led it to be the best-selling game of 2018 AND some of the best reviews of all time.
And I’m grateful for them because, despite the way most of the industry seems to be moving, it’s those kinds of story-heavy, solo experiences that are still my preferred way to play. One of my favourite aspects of gaming is just throwing myself into new and interesting worlds. Wandering those dead-ends for no other reason than the joy of exploration and discovery; making all those dumb mistakes that trigger my frustration, embarrassment or (usually) laughter; and stopping to take in the view or smell those virtual roses.
I’m an adventurer, a hero, or perhaps sometimes a villain. I’m whoever I want to be, with a sense of freedom and immersion that I just haven’t found yet when playing online. And that’s partly because, in single-player games, I get to do this at my own pace and without mockery, distraction or the risk of spoiling the fun for others. No small talk, no idiots, no spoilers, no lectures. And just about as much stupidity as I think the story can handle.
Because, as a film fan, perhaps it’s no surprise that I tend to be drawn to games with a strong sense of narrative. While it’s easier to find a place in my week for a quick game of FIFA or blast of arcade-style action, it’s games with strong stories and character work that tend to be the ones that hold a place in my heart. The intrigue and escalating “march to war” of the Mass Effect trilogy, the matinee-style thrills of Uncharted, or an emotional few hours with a game like Unravel, or What Became of Edith Finch. Big or small, epic or intimate, relatable or fantastic – I love investing in their stories and characters just as I would with a good film or book.
I sometimes wonder if this is the reason that I’ve been putting off playing some of larger games in my backlog. After all, if I’m going to start them, I’m planning on finishing them – and that often means committing to a 40+ hour experience. I find it so weird to hear just how high a proportion of gamers simply don’t complete most stories – even for some of the best and most lauded titles. According to Amy Hennig, director and writer on Uncharted, the stats show this can be as low as 10% of all players. Can you imagine doing that for a film?
And, while I’m sure it is possible, it’s pretty clear that this kind of storytelling is just really difficult to pull off within a multiplayer title. We hear this from the developers, but gamers only need look at recent releases to see it for themselves – from Anthem’s dual personalities to Bungie’s “hey, just go read the website” approach in the original Destiny. Which, despite how it might sound, is not really meant as a criticism by the way.
For example, just how can you tell an effective and compelling story when players could be jumping in and out of the session at multiple points? How do you keep the focus of a diverse group of gamers without restricting their freedom or forcing them into something like an un-skippable cutscene? I’m yet to see any multiplayer game solve to this problem – but if you have then please do let me know in the comments as I’d love to give them a go.
Single-player gaming has also always struck me as the most inclusive gaming experience for a variety of reasons. As great as the communities of some games can be, and as far as matchmaking has come, online gaming can be a pretty intimidating and unforgiving place.
Anyone unfamiliar with a genre or buying-in late to the party in multiplayer is likely to encounter a community who have been honing their skills and uncovering secrets for some time before. Even worse, anyone really late to the party might find no player at all, or long waits in match lobbies while they are paired up with an ever-decreasing player-base. And as for someone wanting to dive in maybe years later? Well, let’s hope the game is still supported at all.
In contrast, with no time or peer-pressure, as well as selectable difficulty levels, it feels like it’s easier for gamers of all abilities to find an enjoyable experience in a single-player game. It’s also a level playing field for gamers living in all areas of the world and of all budgets, providing gamers with the same experience regardless of the internet access they can afford or that’s available in their country or region. And, speaking of affordability, with a single-player title you’ll get the same experience whether you buy at full price on day one, in the sales a while later or play through something like a Game Pass subscription.
And while the focus of these articles is always on praise over protest, let’s not ignore the small but significant number of cretins that can make online gaming such a hostile place to play – particularly for minorities or anyone who they deem to be different. As a white English-speaking male, I am rarely targeted directly. However, even witnessing their poison and bile can still have the capacity to ruin my experience however much I and other might stand up for our fellow gamers. More needs to be done, but it has been heartening to see some progress appear to be made through initiatives such as last year’s (admittedly clunky) ‘trash talk’ guidelines from Microsoft. I truly hope that this is just the start.
And speaking of the need to clean things up, one final strength of these kinds of single-player games is their general reliability and quality out of the gate. Although my internet connection is pretty good, I’d still rather be actually playing games than waiting to re-join a lobby or to download the latest game-fixing patch. And it’s a blight that seems to affect both online titles and the more sprawling open-world collect-em-ups that Ubisoft seems so fond of making.
In contrast, I feel that focused single-player titles like Sony’s portfolio and Red Dead Redemption have a level of overall polish that is generally so much stronger. I can’t really imagine the work that goes into making this a reality but I appreciate when makers invest the time and the money to achieve it. Which is why I feel the criticisms of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order were so on the money, because we as gamers are right to expect far better than the early experience that EA managed to deliver. Playing the game on Xbox One X and a month or two after launch I didn’t seem to encounter as many issues as some other players but it still had a certain jankiness that was both frustrating and unexpected for a big-budget single-player title.
And while I’m certain that companies like Microsoft, EA and Activision must have put a similar level of investment into testing any of their huge online multiplayer titles of the current generation, the results have typically been a bit of a mess. Crashes, matchmaking issues and buggy code seem to be the common price for early adoption. In some cases, and despite enough alpha and betas to form an American fraternity, games seem to have launched near-broken or incomplete and then take weeks if not months to get up to a respectable standard.
Again, while I’m not here to make excuses for billion-dollar corporations, I suspect this is not for the want of trying, but rather speaks to the complexity of developing and testing that type of game. Perhaps it’s that the number of variables is simply much bigger, or that the game is dependent on technology that sits somewhere outside of each of our plastic boxes. A game like Apex Legends has shown this is not how things have to be, but it’s more like the exception than the rule – which is to expect and have to accept a certain amount of immersion-blowing, fun-sapping bugginess. I’m happy for people who feel this is a trade-off worth making it’s just not for me.
Instead, my heart and spare time will remain with the kind of single-player adventures that Sony have been so good at and that Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (mostly) delivered. The good news is that The Last of Us Part II is coming soon, Microsoft seems to be brewing up something at new studio The Initiative, and Jedi’s sales of over 8 million must surely encourage EA to make more of them soon. So, as a fan of single-player adventures, I might not have full confidence in the way things have been heading but I do at least have a new hope.