The Decline of True Single-Player Character-Driven Stories

The last few years have seen single-player character-driven story experiences gradually falling out of the spotlight, but for a few notable exceptions. Instead, we’re seeing a big push towards online play and indie games with silent protagonists. Let's look at why.

The Decline of True Single-Player Character-Driven Stories Cover

E3 season has come and gone once again. With it, we’ve seen a whole host of interesting and intriguing announcements for new games coming up in the next few years. It’s an exciting time for anyone who likes playing games and with the breadth of the current market, there’ll be something for everyone. Despite that, however, as I sat watching the Summer Game Fest last Friday, I couldn’t help but think that the line-up of 36 games and add-ons announced over the course of the show was woefully lacking in what happens to be my personal favourite genre: single-player character-driven stories.

For many gamers, this isn’t a problem at all; if you don’t like the genre all that much, then it’s no great loss to see it absent here. However, the critical and commercial success of games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, The Last of Us and its sequel, and, more recently, Mass Effect Legendary Edition, are clear indicators that I’m not the only one excited to dive into a character-rich story for an adventure. Why, then, did the Summer Game Fest only arguably feature four such titles? Worse, one of those was technically a rerelease of a game that originally came out two years ago.

As you might expect, the matter is complicated, but there are a few key issues that keep cropping up. Let’s take a look at the big ones:

The Characters Themselves

One of the core problems at the heart of this issue ultimately comes down to mass-market appeal. Games are, at the end of the day, a product that companies are looking to sell. Unsurprisingly, the huge amount of money that goes into making them means that developers have to target as broad an audience as possible.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this. Game development will only continue if it turns a profit and I don’t think anyone wants to deprive all the talented programmers and developers of their hard-earned reward. That said, the sharp focus on what has the broadest appeal unavoidably factors into every stage of game design.

For the core aspects of a game, like genre, art style, mechanics etc., there’s less of a problem. Developers have to make a firm decision regardless of whether or not their choice will limit their audience. You can’t not commit to the art style of your game out of fear that some players won’t like it.

A far more fluid and much more easily dodged factor is character design. Not all games have, or even need, characters in the traditional sense. Even genres that usually tend towards them don’t necessarily require more than a blank avatar for the player to use. Think of the protagonist in Dark Souls, for example, who is undeniably a character in the story, while lacking any sort of personality. Such an approach provides the ability to meaningfully interact with the world, without running the risk of players turning away because they don’t get along with the personality on offer.

After 15 years in development hell, Duke Nukem Forever was panned by critics across the board

After 15 years in development hell, Duke Nukem Forever was panned by critics across the board

By actively choosing to focus on a character with a specific, defined personality, developers are inevitably shrinking their market. There is no one character archetype that is beloved by everyone. No matter how much work goes into developing a well-rounded character, there will always be people who just don’t like them. For some such players, the character then becomes something to be tolerated while they enjoy the rest of the game. For others, it may be enough to bail out of the experience altogether. One of the most infamous game failures of all time, after all, was that of Duke Nukem Forever, due in no small part to its truly objectionable protagonist.

That may be an extreme example, but it’s not alone. There are countless other titles that have come under fire for offensive, unlikeable, or just plain dull main characters. If such a protagonist is your game’s central focus, a lot of players aren’t going to stick around. 

Continuous Income

Returning to the titles featured at the Summer Game Fest this year, there’s a clear slant towards multiplayer experiences. Of the 36 games on display, there were 2 MMOs, 4 battle royales, 5 PVP match-based titles, and 2 Left 4 Dead-style PVE titles, give or take a little bit of wiggle room for a few of the newly announced games without clear gameplay mechanics attached to them yet.

While I have no desire to diminish any of these games – and am genuinely excited for several of them – there’s been a noticeable spike in such titles over the last few years. The shift can, in part, be attributed to the increased accessibility of online gaming, but there’s another, more pressing influence. Unsurprisingly, it comes back to money.

Generally, single-player story-driven games have an upfront cost, beyond which players won’t need to spend any further money for content. In larger titles, this may be supplemented with DLC that introduces short, self-contained pieces of content. Regardless, the overall total still only amounts to a few payments over a game’s entire lifetime.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt had two pieces of paid story-driven DLC: Blood and Wine and Hearts of Stone

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt had two pieces of paid story-driven DLC: Blood and Wine and Hearts of Stone

In contrast, multiplayer titles have the luxury of embracing the ever-controversial microtransactions. With an intense focus on online play and social interaction, there’s a built-in system pressuring players into making continuous purchases. While access to new maps, weapons, skins, vehicles, etc., isn’t strictly necessary, the fact that every player has access to the same purchases automatically introduces competition. If buying a new gun, for example, is going to make you more likely to get kills in an FPS, then there is a very strong incentive for players to obtain it.

Facilitating that has been the wide adoption of the dreaded loot box. This is a game mechanic that has frequently come under fire for its similarity to gambling and ability to prey on player addiction. Despite the controversy though, these microtransactions have the potential to pull in so much money that it’s little wonder that many online game developers have leapt at the chance to implement them as a secondary source of income.

 

Similarly, some MMOs may use subscription payment systems in the style of World of Warcraft, ensuring a continuous influx of cash over the course of a game’s lifetime. Developers can supplement that even further with paid expansions, granting the added bonus of keeping people playing for longer. In contrast, set single-player story experiences typically have a strictly limited amount of play time, often with little replayability.

Time Investment

Given the financial incentives, then, it’s no real surprise that so many large games studios have focused on multiplayer titles. But what about smaller studios, which typically don’t have the server infrastructure needed to support vast online games? As it turns out, if you’re looking for a story, then these are generally who you should watch out for.

The thing is that indie developers are, of course, working to a much more tightly restricted budget than larger studios. They have to be very careful with their time or they’ll run out of money before the game gets released; it’s a very fine balance and a lot of developers never quite manage it. Even those that do will likely not have the resources to create a title featuring an expansive story, in-depth characters, and engaging gameplay all in one, because it’s simply too much to cram in there. Instead, developers have to select the parts most important to their vision and focus on that.

Despite a small development team, Journey was lauded as one of the greatest video games of all time

Despite a small development team, Journey was lauded as one of the greatest video games of all time

Over the last few years, one of the most common – and popular – solutions to this dilemma has been to follow the lead of 2012’s Journey: work on building solid mechanics in a well-realised world with a vague but intriguing story and a silent, nameless protagonist. By doing so, Thatgamecompany cut out the time and cost of developing, writing, and voice acting any characters at all. Instead they were free to pour their energy into perfecting the mechanics and style of the game. The result was a huge critical and commercial success, so it’s no surprise that other developers are trying out similar approaches. Sable and Solar Ash, which both featured in this year’s Summer Game Fest, spring to mind as just two examples.

This isn’t to diminish these games at all. I, as many people do, love this genre of gaming, but limits placed upon indie development are undeniable. By concentrating on making the ‘feel’ of the game outstanding – music, graphics, and mechanics are usually all stand out features of these games – the time needed to establish characters and a firm, involved story gets lost. In other corners, titles like Night in the Woods and Undertale do make the effort to focus on story and characters, at the expense of in-depth mechanics and, although well stylised, graphics.

It’s very clear that these developers have a story they want to tell. While I’m still thrilled with the games we got from them, indie teams simply don’t have the financial support to match the scale of games being put out by AAA teams.

Conclusion

So where does this leave us? Despite the genre’s flaws and challenges, the future of character-driven stories in gaming is not utterly bleak. Well-developed and produced character-driven stories consistently do well on a global stage, and there are certainly games out there that can scratch that itch. Still, it is sad to see the genre falling behind more financially-driven business roadmaps.

For the moment, the ball largely lies in the court of indie developers. The tools required to develop games are becoming ever more accessible and affordable. More people are starting to get into the field, and the talent pool on offer is stronger than ever. It’s clear that a lot of smaller studios want to do bigger and more complex things with their ideas. In time, I’m hopeful that some of the barriers holding back these teams will, if not disappear entirely, then at least lessen.

And when they eventually do, there’s already an audience waiting for it. Night in the Woods was, after all, ultimately funded by an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign

In the meantime, however, it looks like we’re going to be left with the handful of character-driven stories that do manage to make it out of AAA studios every few years. I’ve got my fingers crossed that last year’s successes like The Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima will help to spur on similar titles in the future. But from what I’ve seen of this year’s E3 so far, I’m going to be waiting a little bit longer.

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Super Nonsense

Just factually not true. I’ve been gaming since the Atari 2600 was hot tech and I’ve never seen more games with true single player stories than today both in volume and quality. I’ve read this article before in the 90’s when online services were poking their heads out and multiplayer started becoming a thing, I read this article in the 00’s when MMORPG’s first struck big (parroting a lot of the same points brought up here), and I’ve heard about the death of PC gaming at least 6 times a year for 30 years and it’s done nothing but grow.… Read more »

Smangaliso Simelane

I agree, although it is quite sad. Single player games have brought us some amazing and unforgettable characters.

Super Nonsense

Single player games aren’t going anywhere. There are more of them and better ones now than ever and I go back to the 80’s in gaming.

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