I’m a vocal proponent of good storytelling in video games. A rich plot and interesting characters propel me through a campaign…they can even keep me playing if the gameplay itself feels underwhelming. Those experiences stick with me for weeks, months, years.
So imagine my surprise a few summers ago, standing in IGN’s war room at the Electronic Entertainment Expo and watching embargoed preview footage of Uncharted 2’s co-op mode. We gathered around an LCD screen and watched players work through multiple stages together, each ending on a small cut-scene. It took a few minutes to get it, but then the lights went on: Developer Naughty Dog had woven a narrative into their multiplayer game.
At the time, that struck me as interesting, if a little odd. But take a look around, and you’ll see that top-line developers increasingly feel compelled to throw a little context into their deathmatches. And here I am, a champion of story in games, not entirely convinced it belongs.
Any way this turns out, it's going to be hysterical.
See, multiplayer primarily exists as Infinite Mode, a forum for pure competition where you go to bust heads and have a few schadenfreude laughs with friends and strangers. It extends a game past its finite campaign into something that lasts as long as you want it to. But — and here’s the thing — stories end. I have to wonder if tying an open-ended game so closely to a closed narrative doesn’t inadvertently add a time limit. At some point, you’ll get tired of that story.
Take Uncharted 3’s online co-op modes, where you essentially play the same old chapters of the same old story (quite possibly way out of order) over and over and over. And it's a continuity-destroying story at that, pitting Nathan Drake and his crew against the mercenary forces of Zoran Lazarovitch…the psychopath who already met a gruesome end back in Uncharted 2. That design choice mystifies me. If you plan to carry your beloved characters over to another menu option, why split it out into an imaginary, disposable story instead of making it integral to the canon?
At least Naughty Dog’s consistent in their narrative disconnects. Over in the versus multiplayer modes, a thrilling chase between good guys trying to escape on an airplane and bad guys trying to storm it feels broken because nobody can win or lose. Defenders can’t definitively repel attackers. Terrorists can’t shut the heroes down right on the tarmac. Regardless of who does well, the game automatically progresses to the next stage.
A progression through different stages with different goals does feel cool, though. That's one reason I'm seriously digging Max Payne 3's multiplayer, and particularly the Gang War mode, because it constantly shifts goals and advantages depending on how well your team did in the last round. Won control of turf? Now you've got to defend it against bomb attacks. Lose that, and you lose major advantages in the next round. Each encounter directly affects the next, so forget getting complacent. It'll only cost you down the line.
You'll believe a man can fly.
Still, that's not really a narrative no matter how much developer Rockstar advertises it as such. Game Wars gives you cause, effect, and narrative glue, but no characters and zero plot.
Neither does Mass Effect 3's multiplayer , though it ostensibly takes place during the main story and bumps your war effort preparedness a percent or two (a metric that's largely unimportant when it comes to how that story ends). Meanwhile, as the new house of Halo, 343 Industries recently revealed that Halo 4's iteration of the franchise's online gunfights will finally explain why red Spartans constantly fight blue Spartans. Spoiler: it's a simulation run aboard a starship amusingly named Infinity…also the name of the mode itself. That's a fine nod to a longtime superfan debate, but honestly, did anyone feel that information was missing from Halo multiplayer? Was anyone struck by a crippling lack of motivation during their last Slayer match?
By far, the most intriguing — and overlooked — approach belongs to Assassin's Creed: Revelations. Multiplayer-specific cut-scenes unlock as the player levels up, granting new (albeit limited) insight to the franchise's antagonists at Abstergo, and even letting slip a major piece of information affecting series protagonist Desmond Miles. If only the majority of its eight-minute story didn't consist entirely of a talking head.
That's a smart format. It enhances and rewards without intruding. I wouldn't mind seeing more side-stories like that folding organically into multiplayer games, but it won't kill me if that never happens. Competitive online modes are a different beast, and in truth, they don't actually need a plot.
Here, let me help you with your fear of heights.
See, while story beats can make lasting impressions in a campaign, it's the camaraderie of friends, the Hail Mary shots, the that just happened! moments that define multiplayer. Max Payne's acidic narration fits into a Gang Wars match just fine, but diving out of a second-story window and shooting up some poor schmuck on the ground below in slow motion, all John Woo and two-gun fury? That's the film playing in my head. Totally covers the price of admission, right there.
And you only get unexpected thrills like that when playing off-script with live human beings. Hell, that's why some people blow off the single-player mode and jump headfirst into the nearest free-for-all.
I'm not saying you can't build a narrative in multiplayer or add context to each match. In fact, if you tied them to objective-based games, you could turn out a real winner. But we're talking two vastly different psychologies here… plot-based vs. competition-focused, measured vs. instant, finite vs. infinite. It's also worth questioning what you gain by crossing those fences. If the answer is "not much," then take a step back, provide a simple frame, and let gamers make their own fun. After all, that's what we do.