Waiting to Respawn: Don't Take The Story Out of Multiplayer

Last week, Bitmob staff writer Rus McLaughlin pondered the usefulness of narrative elements in multiplayer modes in his piece “Multiplayer Doesn’t Need A Narrative.” You can probably guess his stance from the title.

McLaughlin admits that certain games have incorporated stories effectively into their multiplayer concepts, like Max Payne 3’s evolving conditions for each session of Gang War mode or Assassin’s Creed: Revelations’ use of unlocking cutscenes. Overall, however, he finds that the structured, linear nature of most multiplayer match types seriously bogs down their ability to extend a title’s life towards infinite play.

That’s the core argument he postulates – single player is a finite experience while multiplayer is an infinite experience. Both have merits but ultimately serve different needs in selling a game, and thus, don’t really need to intermingle very much.

But are they really that different? Can you really label any part of a game as strictly “finite” or “infinite” in terms of subjective enjoyment when the features drawing in players range so wildly?

Stories and scripted events imbue us all with wonderful moments to enjoy and tell our friends about. Everyone remembers climbing the Throat of the World in Skyrim, seeing Aeris’s final moments in Final Fantasy 7, or struggling through the village encounter in Resident Evil 4 for the first time.

They may be supposedly finite gameplay segments, but for millions of fans, they give reason to come back again and again. Just like revisiting a favorite book or movie, a well-crafted experience can draw followers in long after the initial thrills have passed. There is no specific or even implied expiration date on their magic.

On the other side of the coin, multiplayer eventually passes out of style for every game despite how hard developers may try to hold our attention. Quake and Halo 2 became a way of life for many people, but the crown has long been passed.

While a few titles like Street Fighter 2 or Team Fortress 2 may be lucky enough to persist thanks to devoted fan bases, a new game’s multiplayer is just as vulnerable to passing fancy as any other suddenly popular thing, especially now when yearly iterations consistently threaten our wallets.

So if story and competitive modes both deal with the same challenges in remaining relevant then why not blend them together and share the burden?

Team Fortress screenshot

And that’s exactly what many developers have been doing this generation. Thanks to online co-op and the success of games like Gears of War, story modes have done a phenomenal job integrating the dynamic human element that traditional multiplayer rests on. Last week’s announcement that the Demon’s Souls servers would be remaining online clearly demonstrates people’s hunger for cooperative story environments and defies the notion of finite experience.

Competitive gameplay has had a tougher time successfully mixing styles, though. As McLaughlin quickly points out, these can often seem forced and like a cheap attempt to remind people of awesome story moments. Instead of reworking those mechanics into something coherent for head-to-head gameplay, they often fall into simple mid-game setting changes.

But that’s no reason not to keep trying. Narratives in competitive multiplayer modes are still relatively new to the arena and need more solid examples for other developers to build from. The basic framework presented in Halo 4 to explain the absurdity of Spartans fighting Spartans as training missions could be a bold step in the right direction. Sony’s next God of War also looks poised to fill the spot with dynamic modes, such as one where teams race to complete goals like eviscerating a cyclops while keeping control of the area.

Not only do these blend story into competition, but they work as a bridge to bring in players that might shy away from the usual multiplayer tropes. Even if most people only try them out a few times and decide to stick with the main game, it only takes a few sticking around to justify the effort.

So yes, blending narratives into multiplayer hasn’t quite reached the fine art stage yet, but practice and a handful of embarrassing attempts are the only way to get there. In a few years time, these experimental gameplay modes could easily and comfortably sit next to deathmatch and capture the flag as standard. And if they can encourage more people to branch out and fully experience everything their $60 entitles them, then that would be just swell.

I mean, awesome.