EA's Frank Gibeau turned heads when he recently expressed pride in the fact that he has not greenlit a single game for production without some sort of online component. While he says that he intended his statement to refer to interconnectivity features, in addition to games that specifically have multiplayer components, the original controversy his words stirred had to do with the assumption that Gibeau was indicating that single-player experiences no longer had a place in the gaming industry.
While my knee-jerk reaction is to scoff, could he have a point? Have we moved past a point in gaming history during which isolated, disconnected experiences are desired or even acceptable? Could it instead be that, even for those of us introverted folks who rail against forced social integration, we secretly crave the sorts of features the online experience provides?
In early August, while playing Darksiders II for review, I had my Xbox 360 set up on the HDTV in the den. I have an older model of the system, white with a 120GB hard drive I purchased separately. Unlike the S, it lacks a built-in wireless receiver and, given that the router and modem are both in my room, where I tend to play games on a monitor via VGA cable, it never made sense to purchase the wireless adapter since I generally have a wired connection.
I was playing entirely disconnected. I couldn't log into my online gamer profile, couldn't see what my friends were doing (nor could they see that I was playing a pre-release game; I'd like to think I was acting in the review embargo's best interests) and, while it may have been that I was monopolizing a television typically used by my parents for never-ending marathons of Maury, M*A*S*H, and Law & Order, I found that the lack of connectedness made me anxious.
I don't do much with social media, being largely Twitter-averse and posting on Facebook once in a blue moon; I use both services more to keep in touch with people who are more active on them than anything else. This has applied to Xbox LIVE as well, but I didn't realize until I was playing Darksiders II totally solo that there was something comforting in being able to hit the guide button and see that I had friends who were playing a game right then too, or watching something on Netflix. Eventually, I realized that I wanted to try out The Crucible, which required a download, so I moved the console back to my room and returned it to its connected existence.
There's more to interconnectivity than direct socialization, though. Both Xbox LIVE and PSN offer achievements/trophies, as does Steam on the PC. In addition, many games have achievement systems built in, which would be largely meaningless if it wasn't possible to, in some way, share them with other players. Often, in scored games such as Ninja Gaiden, there are leaderboards. Such things spark our competitive spirit, drawing even unwaveringly single-player games out of their vacuum.
Is this the future of gaming, though? For every title to have its own, or be part of an existing, online community? I've also been playing the original Wild Arms lately, and Xenoblade Chronicles, neither of which offers any sort of communication or interaction with others, no leaderboards or auction houses, multiplayer or social features. Sometimes, it feels like the difference between watching a movie in the privacy of one's home versus at the theater.
At the theater, the movie is still itself, fundamentally unaltered on any given visit and, ideally, identical to the product that eventually makes its way to DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital delivery. The experience, though, is affected by who you go to see it with, who else is in the theater, even though no one in that group is directly influencing the film. It's almost a form of exhibition. Look at me, out in public, watching this movie! In the same way, look at me, on Xbox LIVE/Steam/PSN playing this game! Behold my accomplishments, my triumphs and travails!
There is certainly a place for online features in games, but that doesn't mean that the truly single-player experiences should disappear. Especially given that online passes for single-player games often seem to serve more as an excuse to lock solo content behind the purchase of a new copy. It can lead to one feeling that the $50 or $60 product they've purchased is in some way missing something, and, without this additional and secondary layer of functionality, it's not a full-featured game. In the end, this was the sense I got from playing Darksiders II without an Internet connection. The game itself? Unchanged. But there are elements of it that require an Internet connection, and, even though I wasn't using those elements, I felt an almost obsessive, completionist compulsion to have them available.
I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes I just want a game to be a game rather than an "experience." But not always.
Date: October 10, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*