There’s no denying that 2016 has been a monumental time for single-player campaigns in first-person shooters. With DOOM, Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 breathing life into the almost forgotten importance of a great campaign to balance out its multiplayer in a predominantly multiplayer-focused age, the bar was set for many future shooters to follow suit. However, having seen the backlash of Activision’s latest offering in the Call of Duty franchise, Infinite Warfare – with many criticizing its mostly stale campaign – perhaps it’s safe to address just how important a great campaign can be to the genre.
Going back to the inception of first-person shooters, with the starting point being Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, the single-player experience was key. This was just a bit before the time when multiplayer would bring about the exceptional arena shooter with Quake, developers focused on telling a coherent story as its primary selling point. I recently covered why storytelling in video games was paramount, and pointed out that the story aspect of any game certainly helped in its world-building and immersion. However, once that is removed, what is left is a multiplayer experience (which in some regards could be great), but still feels relatively empty. Prime examples of these are Star Wars: Battlefront and Titanfall, both exceptional shooters that simply felt incomplete without some form of single-player campaign to ground it.
The single-player campaign in a shooter once took center stage over the multiplayer, with certain games expertly managing to balance them out. We need to look no further than the Call of Duty series, especially earlier titles in the franchise like Call of Duty 3 and the Modern Warfare series, all presenting gripping campaigns that catered to both sides of the gaming spectrum: the story-driven gamers and the competitive gamers. It’s interesting to note that the developers responsible for the highly acclaimed Modern Warfare series, Infinity Ward, dropped the ball with their two latest outings in the series, Ghosts and Infinite Warfare, with abysmal stories that couldn’t scale the heights of their predecessors in terms of great campaigns.
Part of this reason for the immense focus on multiplayer really stems from the gaming industry’s exploitation of the online social gaming market. With the internet becoming a prominent feature in modern gaming, the online multiplayer scene exploded with peaked interests in competitive online play. I can’t really blame them, as part of what makes gaming so entertaining and accessible to wider audiences is the social aspect of it. Gamers were no longer constrained to the experience of a single-player now that they were able to perpetuate their own skills and styles of play with others for lengthier periods of time outside of the single-player campaign. This also extended the longevity and value of the game as players who completed the single-player and enjoyed the gameplay could continue enjoying it well into multiplayer. However, companies took note of the growing popularity of the multiplayer, and jumped at the opportunity to exploit it.
This lead to a pretty rocky period in the first-person shooter where the multiplayer aspect of the genre became its greatest selling point. But one may also ask what made it so different to the arena shooter? After all, wasn’t that focused on multiplayer too (sometimes purposefully removing single-player content)? The difference between the online-focused arena shooters and the modern online shooter is, oddly enough, the time period. Nowadays, internet connectivity isn’t a great issue and as gaming has evolved, so has the technology to support faster internet speeds and connections. However, at the time of the arena shooter, there wasn’t an overall reliance on the easy accessibility of the online market. It was somewhat of a luxury, which meant developers had ample amounts of time and effort to pour as much content and detail into the game to make their projects appeal in conjunction with its already limited internet access. The reason behind Quake III: Arena and Unreal Tournament’s success was largely due to it being among the first of its kind at the time; pushing the idea of the online shooter without falling back on a single-player offline campaign.
However, over the decades, the online multiplayer shooter had become a large saturated part of the market. Competitive gaming was on the rise, and this lead to a larger appeal in the online scene. With eSports players now being treated like celebrities, it was inevitable that it would become a highly sought after dream for gamers wanting to make a name for themselves. But what did this mean for the single-player campaign? Did they suddenly become irrelevant as a result of this? I found myself feeling less interested in shooters over last few years, mainly due to this feeling of detachment from the game itself. The reason we were so invested in first-person shooters was its extraordinary ability to immerse us in the world and be inventive with its gameplay and design. In my opinion, this was lost somewhere along the line. Even Star Wars: Battlefront, which I still consider the pinnacle of immersive Star Wars games because of its great attention to visual and sound detail, didn’t evoke much emotion at all from me except the occasional frustration of spawning and immediately dying in an online multiplayer match.
With nothing to evoke an emotional response or reaction from the player except a heightened sense of reflex and skill, the first-person shooter lost some charm in feeling like an immersive game with its own personality. Instead, they are more akin to processed pieces of quick, consumable entertainment without much of a lasting impact than a game worth remembering, worth feeling genuine emotion for, or worth the story it could’ve potentially told. There’s a disconnected relationship between gamer and story, and this is so troubling considering the first-person perspective is extremely immersive and benefits greatly from a good narrative.
However, 2016 has surprised me. It seems like we’re seeing a resurgence of the single-player campaign, with the aforementioned DOOM, Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, among a few others, implementing amazing single-player experiences balanced with their multiplayer. Perhaps developers are realizing the importance of the campaign and the emotional connection that can be made through this that multiplayer simply cannot achieve all that well. The most memorable games for me all revolved around single-player experiences that moved me in so many ways. Gaming is largely a medium of interactive storytelling and escapism, and we may finally be taking a few steps back to move forward.