Table For One: Playing Alone in the Era of Multiplayer

Opinion by Mark Delaney,
Being alone. Besides love, which is in some ways its antithesis, it might be the most prevalent theme in the history of music. From The Beatles instructing us to "ah, look at all the lonely people," to Roy Orbison's melancholic line about how "only the lonely know the heartaches I've been through," loneliness has long been played out in song for musicians to express their desire for companionship. A hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on, a voice on the other line — whatever the exact relationship, musicians, and people in general, crave that closeness. Video games have been packaging this desire in the form of multiplayer gaming for years. For the past decade, it's taken over the landscape of the industry.

LAN parties in Halo gave way to co-op campaign in Gears of War. Couch co-op and split-screen competitive play turned to full lobbies in Call of Duty, Mortal Kombat, and so many others. Even traditionally single-player-only series like Tomb Raider and Mass Effect couldn't resist the allure of multiplayer offerings. Now games like Destiny and Tom Clancy's The Division have created living worlds where the action goes on with or without you and the fear of missing out keeps some players coming back day after day. It's clear why so many games now offer some sort of multiplayer component. It extends the lifespan of a title, and the inclusion of the now ubiquitous microtransactions and DLC mean that the money keeps coming too. It's also clear why gamers generally love multiplayer games. They provide a new experience every time that you play, and you're doing it with friends in the spirit of competition or cooperation, often both. For me, though, the allure of being the best in a lobby, leading my team to victory, and improving my skill level just doesn't keep me engaged. A single-player experience will always be much more enjoyable music to my ears.

It's not that I don't like any multiplayer games. The first year I bought my Xbox 360, 2008, my disc tray was essentially reserved for Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Left 4 Dead. I still recall my first night ever in GTA IV's free-roaming online mode. It was an absolute blast, a memorable one. Even today, playing online with my brother in GTA V or Madden at least one night every few weeks is necessary to keep me content. However, I think the bar that I've set for multiplayer games is high, as is the one I've set for single-player, but only single-player reaches or exceeds that bar often.

 Dying Light was really fun in co-op, but I still preferred doing things on my own. Dying Light was really fun in co-op, but I still preferred doing things on my own.

I think the difference comes down to what each game mode is selling us. Single-player games, usually, are trying to tell a story. Recent favorites like Quantum Break Achievements, OXENFREE, and Layers of Fear are excellent examples of what makes a story-driven solo game so intoxicating for me. They have atmosphere, excellent music, deep mysteries and unanswered questions. These are things that multiplayer games almost never offer. Sure you could name some, like The Division, for example. It has the atmosphere, a lingering mystery, maybe even the music is what you would call memorable, but not on the level of the games that I mentioned. It never wanted to possess those qualities, because those aren't its selling points. In turn, they become superficial. Present enough to draw you in before they step aside to let the focal points of the product take over. The living, breathing, post-pandemic New York setting and the free roaming multiplayer gameplay are what keep gamers returning, and that's awesome if that's your thing. It's just not mine.

If I'm being really honest, it's not just multiplayer's lack of immersion that turns me away: it's my own introversion. I've always liked being alone. I have no qualms about seeing a movie or a concert by myself if no one is around to take part in those things with me. Why should I care? I'm there for the experience of that film or that music. Those can be social activities, or they can be solo activities — either is fine with me. The same is true when I turn on my Xbox, only I almost always prefer the games I play be played alone. Social interaction can be very exhausting for me. I don't play a lot of online games because speaking into my mic to a stranger, especially if - worst case scenario - we're the only two in the lobby, can actually be nerve-racking. Most of my Xbox friends list has never heard my voice, but I'll let it happen if I'm in a party with others. Don't bother inviting me to Xbox LIVE parties, though; I won't join out of apprehension that I'll be a stranger to everyone in the chat.

A world without single-player games would mean a world without most horror games. That's scary.A world without single-player games would mean a world without most horror games. That's scary.

Gaming has always been something that I did on my own. Nowadays, if I'm not playing by myself, I love playing with my girlfriend, our son, or a small selection of a few others, but it's getting harder. Games are moving toward multiplayer more and more. Recent online-only games like Titanfall and Star Wars Battlefront are, without a doubt, making a lot of money from a lot of people. Keeping lobbies full, content fresh, and microtransactions so tantalizing are keys to a successful product of their nature. I don't fault studios and publishers for going down the online-only route, but they're leaving behind a perhaps inconsequential-to-them demographic of people that are completely disinterested in playing their games online. Whether it be out of actual disinterest, or social anxiety, or something else that plagues a number of us, bad internet, some people will always be dedicated single-player gamers.

Some have speculated that single-player games will eventually fall away to irrelevance. I contest this idea wholeheartedly, but maybe because I don't want it to be true. I just don't see how games like The Witcher and Fallout could someday stop existing. I think there's an innate desire for storytelling within us. We want to tell them, we want to witness them, and multiplayer rarely offers that. Like I said, I have fond memories from some of my favorite multiplayer titles. Last second wins in Modern Warfare's Search and Destroy mode and hours of hilarious moments in Los Santos are the highlights of many memorable evenings for me, but these moments are far outweighed and outnumbered by the memories of how I felt when I discovered who the Arkham Knight is, or when I traveled across the post-apocalyptic US with my surrogate daughter, or when I dove into the darkness of Cauldron Lake to rescue my wife.

Rumors say Titanfall 2 will include a single-player mode. If so, it would be a great deviation from the current trend of doing the opposite.Rumors say Titanfall 2 will include a single-player mode. If so, it would be a great deviation from the current trend of doing the opposite.

Narrative moments move people in a way that multiplayer can't ever do in its current form, and it's difficult to think of how it someday could. Multiplayer games operate on two poles: triumph and defeat. Single-player games provide players with a range of feelings, questions, and enduring thoughts when they're done well, as many have been over the years. As gaming becomes more social, more interconnected year after year, I'm just hoping that developers remember that sometimes I do want to be all by myself.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.