Preparing for this article was quite a headache. Trying to be really objective about something that’s subjective: What makes a video game “great”? For me, an intriguing story – and I’m kinda cheating here as I’m grouping world building and characters into this one category – is far and away the most important thing, followed by gameplay (as in, how the game plays in general) and finally, the least important thing to me is graphics. If a game plays really well, I will ignore poorer graphics. If a world is beautiful to look at but navigating is difficult/confusing, I won’t enjoy it.
Video games are a form of story telling and an engaging world and fascinating characters will have you returning to it time and again, regardless of how beautiful the graphics are. A great example of this is the Grand Theft Auto Series. Vice City(2002) and San Andreas(2004) often rotate as the top GTA titles, despite coming out very early in the century and having 4 major releases come after them. I recently played through SA on the 360 port, it still plays really well BUT it looks like crap. Of course, compared to more modern releases, it has its limitations but it’s nearly 15 years old, there are not many games that age that can still be played today.
I recently took to surveying people at every opportunity and asking them to name the first game that came to their mind when thinking about great games and I got some really interesting results. Some of the games mentioned are: Red Dead Redemption(2010), Final Fantasy VII(1997) and VIII(1999), Half Life(1998), Majora’s Mask(2000), Ocarina of Time(1998), Resident Evil 2(1998), Street Fighter(1987), Mass Effect(2007), Parasite Eve(1998), GTA:V(2013) and God of War(2018). The first thing that I noticed here is that many of these games are almost 20 years old, or older! It’d be easy to dismiss this as nostalgia blinding people but these are some of the biggest and most influential games of all time. Resident Evil 2 brought survival horror to the mainstream, Street Fighter took fighting games to another level and Half Life is almost solely responsible for just about every FPS game in the last 20 years.
So this got me thinking, are there no great games any more? In just the last year we’ve had Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War released on the PS4 to universal acclaim. Surely with them still being so fresh, more people would bring them up? Will they still be talked about in 20 years? I really hope so, but video games are in a rocky place.
With the exception of God of War, the newest release on the list above is GTA:V, released nearly 5 years ago and actually being re-released on the next-gen of console – something else that’s causing concerns with players. I’m not against remakes, the upcoming release of the Resident Evil 2 remake has me very excited but it will have been out for 20 years, GTA:V was out for less than a year before being “re-released”.
We live in a time when video games should be at their peak, we have never had better hardware so readily available and there is a huge demand for video games now but the market is saturated with online only games that are designed to have a lootbox-like mechanic in them. Developers have discovered that people will happily pay money, on top of the purchase of the game, to get a leg up on the rest of the world. From a business point of view, of course they’d latch onto this, it’s a cash cow but it is harming the rest of the market.
More and more devs are pushing towards this type of release or adding it into games that it has no place in and resulting in some huge controversies (hello EA). Instead of focusing on developing great stories, worlds and characters, we’re seeing the focus move towards, “how can we make them pay us again?”. DLC is another tool that is used to entice players to part with more cash. Instead of releasing a full game, larger and larger chunks of games are being cut and held behind pay walls, sometimes even on disk and requiring a minimal download to unlock. While many games are now pursuing the model of loot-filled, multiplayer-based, always online offerings, there are multiplayer titles that still deliver a solo campaign. Clearly, there’s an audience out there that still craves the single-player experience and the devs need to still realize this.
Recently multiplayer games have been increasingly on the rise, at the expense of the traditional single-player campaign. So with all this taken into consideration you’d be forgiven for thinking that single-player stories are heading towards extinction.
In the past few years we’ve had The Witcher 3, The Last of Us, Uncharted, Horizon Zero Dawn, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, God of War and a host of others show how well a primarily single-player focused game can still do well in the current market. Calling a game linear is often used negatively but it doesn’t have to be, as long as it’s done well. The Evil Within 2 (which I’m yet to play) was praised for its improvements on the first, including adding in some more open areas alongside the more linear sections, while the likes of Uncharted 4 and the spin-off The Lost Legacy feature large, open environments too.
Some people have been saying that single-player games are dead and that they have been for a while, but that’s clearly not the case. There’s definitely still a place for solo, narrative-led games and an audience out there that desires them. Yes, there are single-player titles that have failed to deliver, one example being the story of Dead Space 2, which cost an outrageous $60 million to make and sold 4 million copies.
Normally, 4 million units would see a game considered a huge success, but with huge expectations (Square Enix expected its 2013 Tomb Raider reboot to sell 10 million, but it took until April 2015 to reach 8.5 million units sold), Dead Space 2 simply didn’t sell enough but how much of this is down to unrealistic targets? Alien Isolation is another example. A game franchise that has had more than a little bit of failures along the way, Isolation released to rave reviews and sold really well. Shifting well over 2.5 million copies but Sega announced that it had performed well below it’s expectations.
Single player games aren’t dead, but they are down and need our help to get back up!
So what do you think? Are single player games dead? Should they die? Are devs unrealistic? Or are they stuck in an impossible situation? Let us know your thoughts