As writer Alex Perry bemoaned on Twitter, Destiny has definitely ruined video games. Not loot boxes alone. Not other microtransactions, but where those things find a home: in streams of endless "content." In the dreaded "games as a service" trend.
I say this as a fan of Destiny, and as a fan of some multiplayer games—namely Destiny, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, Splatoon 2, Overwatch… wait, fuck, I'm part of the problem, aren't I?
While I am a bit guilty in that camp, I do relish in the rare single-player game that crosses my path. Games that have almost no multiplayer components. Experiences like The Witcher 3, Persona 5, or even in other games that show that it's possible to have the best of both worlds: multiplayer and single-player. We saw this with Titanfall 2 and its excellently concise campaign. We've seen this with recent Naughty Dog games, even in The Last of Us, which had a surprisingly solid multiplayer mode.
And yet, games like Destiny are clouding single-player experiences. Destiny has shown triple-A publishers and developers that hey, what if your single-player wasn't really single-player at all? What if everything was multiplayer? What if this was a player's forever game, the only thing they buy all year, attached with a funnel (read: microtransactions) to pour more money into as time goes on? As I said on a recent episode of The USgamer Podcast, people are savvier with their game purchases now. They wait for a sale to buy a game for half-off or more. Microtransactions like loot boxes are a way to counteract that.
Today EA shuttered Visceral Games, a studio once known for their tight single-player experiences, most notably of the claustrophobic corridors of Dead Space. They later pivoted to multiplayer with the flawed Battlefield: Hardline. Yet with the hire of Uncharted writer Amy Hennig, Visceral seemed back on track to linear single-player goodness, with an unnamed Star Wars game in the works. We never saw much of it, honestly, but just with Hennig's name attached (the writer behind one of my favorite games ever, Uncharted 2), my interest was piqued. With the closing of the studio, that game's future seems troubled. Or at least, it sounds like nothing close to the game we desired in the first place.
A key word in that thread is "linear." Linear meaning not open world; something more curated, refined, something with heavy detail. Final Fantasy XIII, a JRPG from Square Enix, was bashed for its linearity. Other games, like BioShock and Uncharted, have been praised for it. They are experiences that feel carefully constructed with an artist's eye.
Some folks online are lamenting that single-player experiences are dying as a whole, but they're not. In reality, they're just being padded out incessantly, whether that's Destiny-fying it with multiplayer hooplah, or being ushered into open world environments (or what I like to call "checklist games"). Some are financially successful—see this year's new IP Horizon Zero Dawn, or Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (the latter, by most accounts, busts the "checklist" trend and actually offers wondrous exploration). Breath of the Wild reinvigorated my interest in open world games, as did The Witcher 3. The rest, even in offering me the world as my oyster, end up actually offering so, so little.
The open-worldness plaguing single-player games is everywhere. Rise of the Tomb Raider had it. Nier: Automata, an excellent narrative driven action game, even had an open world that was incredibly lackluster. There were tedious side missions to do, mostly resulting in additional flavor text for its world. Other single-player-minded busts of the past year or so were also "open" to some degree: Dishonored 2, Prey,, and most recently—Middle-earth: Shadow of War and The Evil Within 2. Resident Evil 7, for the better, managed to skate around this trend.
Linearity in triple-A games as we once loved and knew might as well be dead at this point. Long live open worlds. Long live artificially long, needlessly padded out experiences. Long live the forever game.
Shooters, at least, are keeping single-player campaigns alive to some degree. Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus showboats its Nazi-killing frenzy in just a couple weeks time, with not a hint of multiplayer sprinkled in-between. Last year's DOOM, while it had multiplayer components, was praised highly for its intensely self-aware story mode. Even Star Wars: Battlefront 2, EA's other Star Wars game, is introducing a new single-player campaign as part of their way of winning back players who shied away from the first Battlefront. Big budget campaigns aren't dead-dead yet, they're just living on in shooters.
Smaller developers, from the few-person studios to the ones a step below what we know as triple-A, have also put forth linear adventure games that are worth exploring. This year's Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was among them, a tight six-or-so hour game about a woman's struggle with psychosis. (Nowadays, I love when games fall under the ten hour mark.) What some call "walking simulators," like What Remains of Edith Finch or Tacoma, may present things in an open-ish fashion, but have a linear, refined story to tell players. In a way, these feel closest to the single-player experiences I grew up playing. Just in some cases, I have to wade through waves of multiplayer this and that to get there.
So while the big budget, linear adventure games of the last console era may be fading out, developers from said big budget games—such as BioShock 2's DLC's writers going on to make Gone Home and Tacoma—are keeping their spirit alive in smaller scale games. But that doesn't mean I don't miss the time when Uncharted games didn't flirt with open worlds; when they instead relished only in lavish set pieces that made me feel like I was in an Indiana Jones movie. It doesn't mean I don't miss when single-player games were largely just that: single-player. Experiences of solitude. A story that let me have fun on my own for a bit.
But I guess I should just wake up to the times. The big guys in the industry largely just don't make games like Uncharted 2 anymore.
Edit: Minorly edited to reflect that RE7 was not quite as open as other major single-player releases recently.
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