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The Decline of Single-Player Games

With increases in technology come bigger environments and more interactivity. The rise of social media pushes people into contact online and on-the-go, and why should video games be off limits? With systems like Xbox Live integrating Twitter, YouTube, and Skype, and gamers scribbling messages to the world in games like Demon's Souls, who's to say we can't play together in one giant sandbox?

The single-player gamers, that's who. Solitary adventurers who want whole worlds to themselves. They want their names inscribed in gold as the hero of all heroes. They want to tumble down the rabbit hole and have a grand and imaginary story all to themselves. And who's to blame them? Not everyone has a competitive spirit or likes to team up to take down the big baddies. Sometimes, a little peace and quiet with a controller in hand is all it takes to make someone forget their troubles. They don't need other gamers complicating all their fun.

Yet the multiplayer argument still stands: why keep the spoils to yourself? Or better yet, why not beat someone else to the spoils, or use teamwork to get even more spoils? The odds seem to be against single-player enthusiasts. When is too much multiplayer a bad thing, when games like Demon's Souls are helping to knock down boundaries and set new and better expectations as to what video games can do?

The first thing to remember is that the multiplayer experience is built on the single-player foundation. That means that whether you're sharing the same screen or splitting it, you're still thinking and acting independently, even when you're cooperating or competing with other players.

That's where the AI versus human player debate comes into conversation. Take Resident Evil 5, for example. People who played it by themselves probably had to struggle to keep Sheva in line, while those who sat down with a friend likely had a much easier time progressing through the game. When relaying information to a human teammate, killing Majinis is a much smoother process. You don't have to worry about your partner incessantly using herbs because she lacks the know-how or strategy to save it until the moment is just right. Of course, human error accounts for some accidental misuse of items, but usually a human player is preferable to the AI one.

So if companies like Capcom are taking properties that have been single-player domains for years (like Resident Evil) and are turning them over to multiplayer addicts, what's the harm? In making multiplayer the focus, the single-player gameplay can suffer greatly. Case in point: RE5's single-player is unbearable because gamers must manage a partner who needs supervision at all times, detracting from the fluid pace of gameplay. Not to mention, some multiplayer games have no single-player modes at all. This seems to be the issue with the upcoming RE: Operation Raccoon City game, which in its "single-player" puts players on a team instead of letting them choose to go solo.

However, if you have multiplayer as good as it was in Resident Evil 5, even a botched game can be fun to play. After all, RE5 was full of bad developer choices, like an overabundance of quick-time events and shameless reproductions of Resident Evil 4's innovations, but it was still one of the best games to come out that year. Gamers have to remember, though, that the success of RE5 was only due to its human-to-human co-op. If everyone had to deal with an AI partner, well, that would have put a lot more pressure on the company responsible. So if Raccoon City forces players to choose between online multiplayer and AI multiplayer, but the player prefers a human teammate who's in the same room, what are they to do? Even advocates of multiplayer games have an opinion about online and local gaming.

As shown, multiplayer can make a world of difference to even an average game like Resident Evil 5. But what about games that are designed to be played alone? Limbo is a great example of a game that depends on atmosphere, ensnaring players by twisting their expectations after they're left alone in a dark and scary place. Should we cram multiplayer into that game, as well, or respect what it contributes to the medium as a single-player phenomenon?

When a game is released, it shouldn't have to come under the judgment of multiplayer fanatics, who ask, "Why doesn't this game have multiplayer?" and bump it down a score. Multiplayer is great, but it shouldn't be tossed around wily-nily. It should be carefully and thoughtfully incorporated, if at all—and especially if the game is primarily a single-player game. Demon's Souls added a good touch when it gave players the power to leave each other helpful or deceitful messages, but it didn't go overboard. Players who didn't want their games invaded could simply play offline or stay in spirit form as much as possible.

While games like Resident Evil 5 prove that multiplayer can stretch possibilities and enlarge potential, games like Limbo remind us that single-player still has its worth, and games like Demon's Souls tread a fine line between the two. The only problem is that more and more single-player games are being taken over by multiplayer. It's nothing new to RPGs, which have undergone the multiplayer treatment for decades, but in some instances, single-player games are better left untouched. Currently in development is a multiplayer Silent Hill game called Book of Memories (for the Vita). Silent Hill, a game that works with individual psychology, should not have its tools tampered with. Could it still be done? Predecessors like Silent Hill: Homecoming say no—dragging Elle along in the sewers did not make for a scary good time.

But for franchises like Assassin's Creed, multiplayer is a blessing in disguise—literally. Brotherhood, the latest installment, wasn't exactly Assassin's Creed 3, but in reviews, the usual single-player gameplay didn't suffer even when the newly added multiplayer was praised for its depth and creativity. In the "Wanted" mode, for instance, players were asked to lay low and pick the false NPCs (their fellow assassins) out of a crowd and kill them incognito, before their friends caught on.

So to answer the unanswered question: are single-player games on the way out? No. They're still alive and well, under the mess of multiplayer games. There's The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim waiting for us later this year, and it's going to be top-of-the-line impressive. There's Tomb Raider in 2012, reviving one of the longest-running single-player action-adventure games in history. Multiplayer games might be more common than ever, but single-player games are everywhere you look—whether they're given their own spotlight, strapped in a backseat to multiplayer, or put in a combination pack to sell more copies. Before you think single-player with a side of multiplayer is a bad thing, remember that most of the time developers are merely trying to put a fresh face on their games with something new and different. More games are purely single-player than they are multiplayer, but most are at least both. Gamers just don't want the inconvenience of always relying on another person to play.

If you're still scared that single-player games will disappear, consider this. With console games as prominent as they are, do you whimper when mobile game developers wag their fingers and tell us the home console market is doomed? The likelihood is slim: people like playing on their couches and on their big screen, high-definition televisions, on a console that purrs. So chances are that single-player games and the platform on which multiplayer games are built aren't going anywhere, no matter what form they take. You just might have to sift through the bravado once and awhile to find them.

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Stephanie Carmichael Twitter: @wita
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