It’s not hard to get most people to love multiplayer. People love it for the same reason we love tag or water gun wars, it’s friendly competition. Multiplayer in video games for most of its existence has never gone beyond the barest of reasons to justify what is ostensibly a game of digital laser tag. Team Fortress 2 doesn’t even bother at all, you’re Red, they’re Blue, now go murder each other. Which, by the way, what is it with video games and assigning the default team colors as red and blue? I like to imagine that colors exist in a relationship similar to the Serpents in Ultima 7 Part 2: Serpent Isle, where red and blue represent opposite forces and they have to be kept in order by yellow; the balance color. And then yellow disappeared so now red and blue must battle for all eternity.
But I digress, my point is for some reason context gets chucked out the window the instant five or six complete strangers get dumped into a room together filled with guns, in fact some see context as a barrier to enjoying the ensuing mindless carnage. People actually praise Team Fortress 2 for its complete lack of plot or justification for why all these unique, colorful characters are murdering each other in industrial facilities. Which I find really strange because in single-player land people actually get very frustrated when they aren’t given a clear indication of what they are doing and for why. Story in games essentially evolved out of a need for developers to explain to players what’s going on and why they should care about their game about shooting squares. This was really important back in the Atari days when graphics weren’t good enough to describe anything but the most basic and generic of objects.
But I am glad that as graphics became more sophisticated so two did our ability to convey more and more complex stories and more interesting characters through a game’s single-player experience. We have effectively created a brand new storytelling medium, as long as you’re playing on your own. For several reasons multiplayer hasn’t changed to keep up with the highly contextualized nature of single-player, and most people like it that way.
But as of last year I’ve noticed a strange new trend amongst developers, namely that some of them actually want to contextualize multiplayer, and the results have been pretty scatter shot. Splash Damage created and brand new intellectual property for the sole reason of contextualizing multiplayer, and insanely risky endeavor whose success is debatable. Brink didn’t just sit around content with being another game about Red and Blue duking out their endless conflict, they created the world of the Arc and gave compelling reasons and justifications for why the Resistance and Security sides were fighting. I love Brink the setting, and I like the game, but their efforts at combining single and multiplayer were anemic. A brief cutscene before every match does not a story make. I would still like to see Splash Damage return to this IP, maybe do a real single-player game given how much work they spent fleshing out the world of the Arc.
Recently the most successful form of bridging the single-player/multiplayer gap was The Old Republic, which I’m sure most of you have at least heard of. The game’s big thing is have Mass Effect styled interactive cutscenes in place of the typical MMO answer to context, blocks of text no one reads. BioWare also decided to go completely beyond what was necessary and created 8 different storylines for each class and have just as much content as one of their single-player RPGs. People have asked “When is there going to be a Knights of the Old Republic III?”. Well, The Old Republic is Knights of the Old Republic III through IX. This attempt has been far more successful, currently ToR has about two million subscribers which makes it the most successful MMO to come out in recent years that wasn’t World of Warcraft. By giving us better reasons for going out and killing X number of creatures beyond because that’s what a block of text told me to do, ToR has held my attention far longer than any other MMO has had any right to, and by giving a multiplayer game a stronger story focus BioWare were even able to bring in people who normally wouldn’t be caught dead playing an MMO.
But in my opinion, the best attempt in contextualizing multiplayer is right around the bend; Mass Effect 3. Now when I first heard Mass Effect 3 was going to have multiplayer I was firmly in the DO NOT WANT camp. This had to be EA’s doing, turning our beloved RPG setting into another competitive shooter to steal dollars away from Call of Duty by pandering to the mindless, knuckle-dragging grognards who sit in a near vegetative state playing the same map with the same weapons over and over until they level up their skill scores or whatever. Then I heard it was going to be cooperative. Then I saw the trailers. Then I heard how it would work. Then I changed my mind.
Mass Effect has a pretty damn big, well realized universe that succeeded because it always felt like it existed beyond the limited scope of Commander Sheppard and the Normandy. In the second game you start it by dying and spending two years in experimental surgery to come back, and the galaxy kept on turning all that time. Now with the galaxy wide Reaper invasion we’re being promised, it’s clear that the game needs to encompass a scope larger than Commander Sheppard. The game does this by having a map of the galaxy depicting which systems are being attacked and combining all this information with a “Galactic Readiness” bar. That would have been fine, but BioWare went one step further, they claim that the Galactic Readiness screen also takes in data from how well you do in multiplayer. This is why this multiplayer is so brilliant, the single-player storyline and universe provide the context for your matches, and the matches feedback into the single-player and provide context for what would otherwise be a pretty abstract system that wouldn’t be able to capture the impact of a galaxy wide war on its own. Unlike Brink, which tried to use multiplayer to tell a story and failed to realize it, Mass Effect 3 is still going to maintain some level of separation between its two game modes, but they aren’t entirely separated. Much like how the dialogue wheel bridges the gameplay and the story, the Galactic Readiness and the context of the game’s universe will bridge the multiplayer to the campaign. And honestly, this is the best of both worlds, multiplayer fans don’t have the story getting its dirt all over their carpet, and us story lovers get to have a justification beyond the endless color war of Red and Blue.