Editorial

The Theft of Single Player Stories By Multiplayer Games

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So, I’ve recently started playing Final Fantasy XIV. For those of you who don’t know, Final Fantasy XIV is Square Enix’s most recent attempt at an MMORPG after the mixed results of FFXI back in 2002 and the miasmatic and toxic original FFXIV release in 2010.

I know this is Only SINGLE Player dot com, but stick with me.

Now, I’m no connoisseur of MMOs. In fact, I avoid them for the most part. I’m a huge fan of the single player experience, the idea that I am somehow the only competent individual in the entire universe and it’s up to me to save the world from some incomprehensible evil. Or pay off my home loan to some crooked raccoon with secret mafia connections.

Damn you, Nook.

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That’s not to say I don’t enjoy them occasionally, however. Despite my love of the significance I am afforded in a well-crafted single player experience, I am not opposed to the concept of being a small part of a greater whole, working my way from a green-faced, wet-eared novice to someone of note in a sea of other nameless, unimportant schmucks. The idea of becoming important despite your inherent smallness in the game world is not unappealing.

There is also something fulfilling in the feeling of camaraderie – or perhaps competition, one eye on the boss the other on the DPS meters – you build when working through tough content with 4 or 9 or 24 or 39 other players of varying skill levels (and mental capacities DON’T STAND IN THE FIRE YOU FOOLS) and establishing yourself as exceptionally skilled in a group of your peers can be a huge motivator.

It’s a terrible shame, then, that so few MMOs go that route in their actual stories, opting instead to focus on the same old, worn-out tale about how you are important and somehow it is up to you to save the entire world.

It baffles me, with such an interesting and fresh avenue to video game storytelling available to them, that many of these games choose instead to tread down such well-worn and frankly unimaginative roads, that they choose to go the route of making you out to be the chosen one, either explicitly or implicitly. They tell you that your story is the story of the world you’re in rather than just one story of hundreds (or thousands or millions). They tell you that you are somehow the only hope this world has left despite the fact that everyone else around you is equally equipped to handle the same threats… and you have a sneaking suspicion they’ve heard that exact same tripe.

Hell, most of them probably just finished doing the exact same “mission of dire importance” as you. What banal nonsense.

I suppose in a way, making you a small part of a big whole runs contrary to the idea of empowerment that so many games strive for, that making you out to be the hero of the story is what gamers crave. But it doesn’t change the fact that MMOs do this sort of thing so poorly. Because in MMOs, no one is the hero. Or everyone is. Which is the same as saying no one is.

Okay, so that’s not entirely fair. There’s no reason MMOs can’t do such a storyline as well as any single player experience. But there are plenty of reasons why they shouldn’t. The biggest of which is that it’s entirely disingenuous.

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Whenever some hapless NPC goes off about how important I am individually to the fate of the universe I’m playing, I feel cheated and a little betrayed. Because I know the guy that was just here before me (and is now dancing naked on top of a mailbox) heard the same thing. And the guy traipsing up behind me will hear it when I’m gone. It’s like when your parents put your stupid macaroni art on the refrigerator and told you that you were the next Rembrandt and you later find out that it’s just stupid macaroni on a page and you’ll never be an artist and your parents were lying to you about how special you were all along you’re doomed to die alone and unloved in a cold, uncaring world of misery and hatred.

…moving on.

You might argue that it would be silly to have the “heroes” of the stories be NPCs (because every story needs heroes, right?), to which I might agree. Forcing you to play nursemaid for the inept but still somehow epic and significant protagonists of the world is both anti-climactic and dull; World of Warcraft taught us that. But my response, then, is find some other story to tell. Find some way that utilizes the strengths of MMOs – exploration, coordination, camaraderie – and stop trying to subscribe to the conventions of another genre of games.

One of the worst offenders in this regard was City of Heroes. Before all the ten or eleven City of Heroes fans get on my case, let me first say that I loved City of Heroes. I feel like it was the quintessential superhero MMO (and yes, I realize there wasn’t much competition) and I was exceedingly sad to see it go. However, the idea that my superhero is one of thousands flying around in the same city was so deflating to me that I had a hard time taking the game seriously as anything other than a purely mechanical experience. And for someone who values immersion and roleplaying as much as I do (yes, I’m one of those people), that can be a death knell for a game.

And all of that is to say nothing about the destruction of immersion that such stories run into when faced with the necessity of repetition in MMORPGs, most of which are based on the idea of repeating (or “grinding”) the same content over and over and over and over and over again. Far better, I think, to battle some nameless soldiers in a game’s dungeon rather than Arthas the Lich King, or Ifrit the Primal of Fire, or Lord Recluse, or Tequatl the Sunless, or whatever other named and epic characters the world has to throw at you.

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But I think the thing that bothers me most about this convention is the fact that many of these games would probably make perfectly functional or even exceptional single player experiences – the niggling suspicion that the MMORPG beast is stealing potentially great single player games. I can’t tell you how much I would love a Final Fantasy game with the character creation and customization mechanics of FFXIV, not to mention the expansiveness and exploration and even the aimlessness. City of Heroes was the same way. It’s been too long since I’ve been able to play a superhero game in which I have been able to create my own colorful, spandex-clad hero (this is a vastly undertapped market and I really think someone should jump on it, preferably with the Saints Row 4 engine).

I just can’t help shaking the idea that all these MMOs are coming out at the expense of the single player market.

Granted, single player experiences are often tightly corralled and the idea of turning FFXIV or CoH into single player games as they are (or were in CoH’s case) is ludicrous. But there’s no reason they couldn’t have been designed from the ground up as single player games.

I guess at the end of the day I just feel like too many developers are jumping on the MMO bandwagon – probably for monetary reasons but I don’t want to be cynical – but don’t want to put forth the effort to make a game that really capitalizes on the potential strength of the genre. MMOs have every right to exist, of course. But I feel like if the creators of a game want to tell a story in which one player is made to feel important and powerful, then they should make a single player game. And I think making such a game into an MMO is not only taking away something very special from the single player experience but also undermining the very idea of a massively multiplayer online game.

What about you, fair reader? Are MMORPGs stealing perfectly functional single player experiences? Would you jump on an MMO that did not over-stress your own, personal importance and instead emphasized your part of a larger whole? Or do you need to feel important and powerful within a game world (no judgment, as I said, I love to feel important)? Or maybe you think that an MMO is only there to be conquered and raided until your fingers bleed, story be damned (to which I would argue why bother with a story at all?). Sound off in the comments below.

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