I’m a big fan of narrative in video games and, if I’m being entirely honest, that is the lion’s share of why I play them. In fact, shorter games that offer a linear story are some of my favorites. But those games don’t offer quite as much bang for the buck and, while they are beautiful, they sometimes lack a unique aspect of storytelling that is unique to video games.
When gamers play multiplayer games, they are forming their own stories that exist outside of what is scripted. These tales of conquest are often retold with the same excitement and vivid detail of a “real life” event that happens. These tales often revolve around the bonds formed with multiplayer partners.
The MMORPG genre is notorious for this. These games take a good amount of time and dedication and, as players progress, bits of the world’s lore are revealed. In the game’s proper narrative, big, evil bad guys and formidable foes are introduced to the player. Seeds are planted. Outside of the game’s narrative, the community members share their stories of conquest. Add to that the promise of powerful loot and there’s an emotional draw to encountering these foes. But, to do so, people need to team up. Often, these foes are difficult and there is a series of trial and error which makes the victory all the more sweet. All these elements, from the lore of the enemy to the intense battle, coalesce to form a significant story that is particularly exciting. Ask any Destiny, Final Fantasy XIV, or World of Warcraft player to tell you a story and watch their eyes light up. You just don’t get that from a single player game.
Of course, this experience isn’t relegated only to the MMORPG genre. A Way Out, an adventure game in the style of Telltale games or Square Enix’ Life is Strange, exemplifies this point. A Way Out puts a twist on the genre by requiring players to find a co-op partner. The dramatic tale unfolds as players make multiple practical or moral decisions that won’t only affect them but their co-op partner as well. Between these decisions and their direct influence on the narrative and the teamwork required to navigate the game’s action sequences, players learn more about their co-op partner. Their decisions also have consequences that extend beyond their own personal experience; they affect the team. The ability of games to immerse players in a narrative that takes their personalities and skills into account is compelling and, in my experience, forces them to form an attachment to the character’s fate. The multiplayer aspect also instills a sense of responsibility.
Perhaps this is why the “two friends take on the world” narrative is a popular approach. Sure, games like Halo allow for cooperative gameplay and they, without a doubt, help players witness and tell stories that are beyond the scope of what a scenario writer can account for. But games like Kane & Lynch or Army of Two really seek to emphasize the unique roles players occupy in the games world and serve as a reminder that their friendship with another person is valuable. In a way, the exploration of relationships within the game is compared and contrasted to the relationship a player has to their co-op partner. Shared experiences are powerful.
By no means am I suggesting that single player games are somehow lacking. In fact, they have the potential to tell emotionally affecting stories that other mediums simply cannot. One only needs look at games like Bioshock or Fallout to see precisely what I mean. When you get down to it, the interactive nature of games adds to an audience’s ability to identify with a protagonist; It’s active rather than passive participation. But by adding more players interacting, a developer is able to take a different approach to storytelling that increases the extent to which players can inject themselves into something legendary.