I’m a bit of a story person when it comes to games (have I mentioned this before?). Terrible graphics, iffy gameplay, bugs: as long as a game makes up for these deficiencies with a cracking good yarn then I’m not overly fussed. Some of my favourite titles – KotOR 2, Mask of the Betrayer, pretty much any Prince of Persia – have some glaring issues, but I love them regardless. Planescape: Torment, despite being frequently cited as one of the great RPGs, if not the greatest, is a very difficult game to, well, play: those familiar with Black Isle games (as I was before I played Torment for the first time last summer) will get used to its quirks speedily enough, but newer gamers bred on relatively user-friendly modern epics like Mass Effect and Oblivion may well have a tough time finding out what makes the game’s fans laud it so loudly.
Consequently, the games I like to think of as ‘art’ (yep, I’m going there – time to get up-of-myself) are those which tell the best tales. These games are inevitably for one player and one only. So what about multiplayer? The biggest titles of this generation sell themselves on it (as World of Warcraft and Call of Duty show) and I dare say one of the more popular images of gaming outside of the industry is the teenage boy, sat in front of his telly, not experiencing a story, but killing other players over and over again on Xbox Live. Is it this image, of gaming not as a place for storytelling, or emotional engagement in the manner of a novel or a film, but rather as a blood-sport arena or a place for party games, that is holding gaming back from recognition as an artistic medium? I’m not so naive as to think it the only factor, but I do think that it’s a powerful one nonetheless.
So, what now? It’s pointless to raise single-player examples as a counter-argument, since we’ve been trying that for years now. So instead, why not look at multiplayer itself and try and work out what its artistic contribution to the medium is? Is the art of Modern Warfare 2 found in the intensity of its main story and its impact on the player, or through the hours spent (likely more than on single-player) re-running the same maps, killing the same enemies, pursuing the same objective a thousand times over? Is single-player art and multiplayer, for want of a better word, sport?
I’ve thought about this topic a few times, but I’ve decided to write on it now because of a multiplayer game I had last night. I discovered that Dawn of War: Dark Crusade works on my laptop thanks to my housemate showing me how well it runs on his. Naturally, a LAN game quickly ensued: the forces of man, led by myself (as the Imperial Guard – nothing like taking a WW2 tank division to a laser fight) and my housemate (Space Marines) took on a computer-controlled alliance of the Eldar and the Tau (the blasted, stealth-suited Tau). It was a good ’un. The Marines were quickly pegged back by an early rush until a few squads of guardsmen, toting some lovely grenade launchers, rushed to the rescue. Wave after wave of assault flooded on, but the heroic defenders dug in and threw back the alien horde, retaking the centre ground. Then, accompanied by the rumble of tank engines and the whine of jetpacks, we swept on into the enemy bases, overthrowing their defences and routing them from the field.
Was this experience made all the more potent by my ally being another human being? Certainly, and the same goes for many other multiplayer games as well. Knowing that the people you are fighting with or against are not faceless bots magnifies the consequences of victory or defeat. In the very best games, the hardest won-battles against the most formidable foes, where you nailed that impossible shot, pulled off the perfect combo or scored the finest team goal in history, the feelings attained are exuberant.
I feel the need to return to the sport analogy. For all the emotions raised by these experiences, they don’t amount to much in the long run. In large part, the consequences of multiplayer games are bragging rights, points for some sort of player profile, or a feeling of unity amongst a slickly-drilled team: precisely the same consequences we get from sport. Someone wins a match, the league comes to an end, then we start all over again.
In this light, multiplayer is certainly an emotionally charged setting, played for much the same reason that we play football, tennis or golf. It is, however, a very different area of experience from that which is satisfied by a concerto, a play or a volume of poetry. Gaming has a unique appeal to both these emotional centres, artistic and competitive. As of yet, it hasn’t managed to do it at the same time, but the first indications are on the horizon. Portal 2 could be a game-changer, if its co-op manages to be more, to mean more, than just a set of test chambers with a sarcy GlaDOS voiceover. Likewise, Bioware could really be on to something with Star Wars: The Old Republic, merely by adding some narrative context and immersion into a very familiar MMO model. Make no mistake, I don’t see either of these examples as revolutions, but rather very small steps in an intriguing direction.
Both of these examples, however, are co-op: sure, SWTOR will have PvP, but I can only see that as being an enjoyable version of what we’ve seen previously. Where I think the gold-dust really lies is in competitive multiplayer. If a developer manages to create a game that can connect our desires for art and for competition, they will have something very special on their hands. Imagine a nation in wartime: its people can be passionate supporters of their country, waving the banner and doing their bit just as they might for their local team: but this fervour is enough to lead them to fight and die for their families and homes. Give me a competitive multiplayer game like this, with real context, real consequences, real impact beyond the brief high of victory or annoyance at having just been owned by the archetypal 12-year-old CoD junkie. Give us a game like that and we’ll have a multiplayer epiphany in the industry.