Nowadays, it seems that I can only enjoy the multiplayer aspect of gaming, though once there were numerous draws to the pastime. From childhood, I have enjoyed titles for their “wow” factor, their stories, their gameplay, and their characters. I would marathon 12+ hours a day in front of a screen all by myself. Then, I made the mistake of getting older, and all those things I once loved about gaming just weren’t enough.
In my early gaming years as a kid, the sense of wonder that games provided was enough to keep me enthralled all on its own. That’s what being a kid is about: new experiences, the excitement that comes with all the first-times. I crave that sense of wonder still – I seek it in the books I read, the games I play, and the shows I watch. It’s the reason I prefer the sci-fi and fantasy genres to the realistic ones.
I remember my first great solo experience: Pokemon Red version.
I will never forget how it took me hours to figure out how to get out of the starter house because I didn’t realize that moving my character across the doormat was the equivalent of him opening a door that couldn’t be represented in the game’s limited graphics. Though frustrated at first, the world I walked out into took it all away. I met Professor Oak, chose my first Pokemon, started the epic journey. I was immersed in a world that didn’t exist. It didn’t even have today’s graphics to make it look realistic. It was black and white! But I loved it anyway, because every corner I came to made me wonder what was around the bend.
The first games to draw me in purely for gameplay were Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. for the N64. I didn’t need a story. I didn’t need big, flashy set pieces to wow me. I just needed some NPCs to beat up on in fast-paced, skilled mayhem. It took practice to be good, and these games were, at the most basic level, fun of the sort that makes you look at the clock and say, “Midnight already?”
These two qualities of gaming, the “wow” and the gameplay, carried my interest for years before I started to need other qualities. But that’s how it goes as you get older; you have more memories to draw from and compare new experiences to. I started looking at new games, thinking about old games, and deciding which I liked best and why.
By the end of my comparisons, I realized that the games with the best heroes and the best stories were my favorites. Back then, I defined a good hero or story as the one that was most epic. So as my games library grew, I started making a hierarchy of which games did epic the best. I lived for these adventures, the quests they contained. Defeat the dark lord! Save the world! Be the Hero!
Then, as I grew older, I decided that being a hero is boring.
It wasn’t until I began my consuming dream of writing and studying novels that I realized that character arcs drive stories, at least for me. The arcs represent themes, and the flaws and dimensions that make characters relatable. Tropes I once loved – the good guy who does good things for good reasons, and the bad guy who does horrible things because, “being evil is fun lol” – just don’t work anymore. Characters, at least successful, memorable characters, aren’t black and white like that first Pokemon game I played. They’re gray. And they have as many dimensions as Porygon.
Well-developed characters show up in a sad percentage of games. Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Black Isles Studios’ Planescape: Torment are often the go-to character-driven mentions when I ask for recommendations, and they both released over a decade ago. When good characters are present, the rest of what makes a good game – the “wow,” the gameplay, the story – just isn’t there to a degree that’s memorable. This isn’t to fault the gaming industry for being unable to do it all. It’s a different format than TV or a novel. It doesn’t have the same luxuries that those do, and the purpose is to entertain you, not make you ponder the human condition. So they focus on gameplay, or characters that are cool as ice but deep as a puddle. Think Master Chief in the Halo series. His armor, his voice, they’re iconic. Could you tell me, from the information readily available in the games, why he wants to defeat the Covenant? Could you tell me what his arc is, or what his flaws are and, better yet, why he has them? Gaming just seems to forget that, when you’re telling a big story, it’s not going to have much thematic resonance (with me) unless solid characters get involved.
So that’s why I can’t enjoy single-player gaming anymore; it feels like, if I’m doing it purely for entertainment, and good stories are what entertains me best at this point, I have access to better options such as the masterfully crafted TV series Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.
Don’t get me wrong, a single-player experience can still hook me, but only for a time. The “wow” factor now has to be compared to all the other “wow” moments I’ve experienced across books, games, movies, and shows. The single-player gameplay, while normally fun, can’t carry a title on its own forever, though it’s often forced to. The characters, don’t even get me started.
I want to love single-player gaming. I want to go back to being wowed, feeling like I have amnesia because so many hours have passed while I sat gleefully button-mashing. Maybe I’m just waiting on the right game to come along and answer the question I always ask myself a few hours in: “what’s the point?”
As always, thanks so much for reading. Let me know about your great single-player gaming experiences and what made you love them. I’m always open to suggestions!