1 April 2001
In the future, everybody will be members of improvisational amateur dramatic societies. They’ll meet at the local church hall and script their own theatrical narratives off the cuff, thus enjoying an exciting new social milieu and being forced to think more creatively. No one will actually bother to watch television soaps or films any more. Why accept the linear creation of some arrogant, god-like author when we can make it up ourselves?
Sound ridiculous? Yes, but that’s what many people are saying about videogames, too. Online gaming, especially in the shape MMORPGs, is these days hailed in many quarters as the inevitable ruling paradigm of the future. Clearly, there are ways in which such developments are exciting and valuable, but the idea proposed by many – that solo videogaming will eventually become a thing of the past – doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.
For a start, it’s historically obvious that networking an activity does not render the previous, unnetworked form of that activity redundant. Networked voice communication, in the shape of the telephone, did not stop people enjoying monolithically authored, one-way mass communication such as novels or newspapers. Conference calling over telephone lines, meanwhile, has not replaced face-to-face meetings in the business world, and most internet companies still require you to turn up physically at their offices. Networking increases some opportunities (convenience of communication at a distance), while necessarily compromising others (subtlety of face-to-face communication). And a trade-off of different benefits and defecits operates with videogames too.
The psychological distinction between solo videogaming and multiplayer online gaming boils down to who you think your opponent is. Sega’s wonderful Phantasy Star Online induces a marvellous feeling of transgeographical, multilingual solidarity, because you know the other polygonal characters on screen are controlled by real human consciousnesses half a world away. Team strategies can be discussed and refined, and players can congratulate each other on vanquishing the Nano Dragon. In essence, co-operative MMORPGs such as this are rather like a sport such as football, with humans on one side and enemy AI on the other.
Combative MMORPGs, on the other hand, can be compared to football with two fully human sides. They offer the distinct pleasure of knowing that you have triumphed against the organic skills of another human being, rather than an AI bot who has been programmed to aim wide on a set proportion of shots. Like an epically contextualised Quake III, a game such as World War II Online promises to integrate air, ground and sea combat into a huge, evolving counterfactual military scenario. It offers the intriguing combination of human-on-human bloodlust and the sort of team spirit exemplified by PSO. Games hovering between these two extremes, meanwhile – the Everquests and Ultima Onlines – are still essentially predicated on a sort of team effort of imagination. They furnish a space wherein the players enact a consensual mass hallucination that, for better or worse, many prefer to the more sordid aspects of the real world.
So far, so good. MMORPGs have an exciting future. But it might be that their importance is exaggerated in some quarters precisely because of the work they cut out of the developer’s schedule. We need not suppose that creating an environment and rules for an MMORPG is in any way a simple or uncreative exercise, but it seems obvious that it at least frees the developer from having to make many creative decisions in terms of scripting and character interaction. A simple comparison of Phantasy Star Online with Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time bears this out.
The gameplay mechanics of PSO are really very simple: run around with your new intercontinental friends and shoot or slash the monsters. The gameplay mechanics of Zelda 64, on the other hand, are probably the most beautifully fertile ever created. But what makes Zelda such an involving single-player experience is the player’s involvement with a dramatically scripted world. Try to turn it into an online, multiplayer experience, and what would you have to do? You could retain computer control of the NPCs and allow many human-controlled Links to be following their quests simultaneously; but then you run into seemingly insoluble problems of environmental consistency – for example, the sky should be scorched and thundery for player A, but bright and sunny for player B. The other way you could do it would be to assign every player in the online world a specific character within the adventure. But who would be satisfied with being assigned the role of a Kokiri elf who only enjoys a tiny walk-on part? Wouldn’t everyone want to be Link or Gandondorf?
This is not the place to get into the brain-achingly complex arguments about the artistic status of “interactive storytelling”. Suffice to say that while some videogames are like team sports, others are more like stories, without actually being narrative arts in the sense we know them. The team-sport games work well as multiplayer networked experiences; the story-like games don’t. It is refreshing in this respect to notice that, after the single-minded concentration on multiplayer of the last batch of Quakes and Unreals, John Carmack is working his magic to ensure that the new Doom game will be above all a thrilling, involving one-player experience.
The most aggressive proponents of MMORPGs offer as proof that singleplayer is outmoded the idea that a solo videogamer is “just playing against the computer”. There are two good replies to this. One would be that the sensation of interacting with something that you know is not human or animal, but somehow exhibits intelligent behaviour, is a wonder of the modern world that we should be terrifically excited and grateful to experience. Black and White is the summit to date of this extraordinary new art, and it also has a highly revealing delineation of solo versus networked features. Clearly it would not be nearly as engagingto play the game if we knew that the creatures and villagers were controlled by other humans; on the other hand, the prospect of our unique creatures meeting others in the online world is deliciously intriguing.
In other circumstances we could reply to the charge of “just playing against the computer” as follows. Hardware is a screen, not an agent. The computer or the console is not an actor, but a medium through which the player tests her skills and imagination against the wily creativity of the game designer. A videogame is not a novel, but in certain respects it can mirror the creative relationship between novelist and reader. Hideo Kojima, Shigeru Miyamoto or Warren Spector offer us an artistically coherent universe to explore, and one that a controlling intelligence has worked hard to make the solo player’s dramatic experience consistently satisfying. There are no such guarantees in multiplayer worlds. Democracy can easily degenerate into a meaningless rabble. In the field of electronic entertainment, we will always love dictators.