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The Single-player Experience

Despite the growing popularity of multiplayer gaming, especially massively multiplayer online gaming, the single-player game will never run out of ’continues.’  That’s because multiplayer gaming is loosely organized at best, and totally chaotic at worst.  Humans are unpredictable creatures that are also prone to cheating.  Many a multiplayer session has been ruined because people will always find ways to exploit the inherent weaknesses in the game.

From a developer standpoint, the single-player game gives them the utmost control.  With careful programming, a game can guide a player through elegantly scripted sequences that meet or exceed movie-making standards.  For instance, the Medal of Honor series re-enacts major WWII battles like the invasion of Normandy.  Despite the high mortality rate of that particular battle, you can survive through the design of the level and see first-hand the carnage around you.  Another example of immersive single-player gaming is the groundbreaking Half-life series.  Players actually feel like they’re there as scripted events unfold around them.  As you pass through the levels you can watch as other characters interact with each other and the environment as they would in real life.  In a multiplayer setting, this is just not possible.

Anyone who’s spent an appreciable amount of time slugging through a massive single-player campaign can tell you that the experience was something unto itself.  If done right, a game can just suck you in and increase your attachment to the main characters like any literary endeavor.

Of course there are limitations to single-player games.  Bad scripting, poor AI performance, and bad quality control has sunk many a promising game.  AI is inherently imperfect, meaning that you’ll quickly figure out the constraints of the computer-controlled characters in the game.  However, with each successive generation of programming, artificial intelligence has improved dramatically.  Newer FPS games, for instance, feature squad-mates or sidekicks that will follow you around and respond to your situation to lend a helping hand.  Half-life 2, due out in November, boasts the best AI to date.  Anyone who’s seen some of the gameplay footage online can vouch for the fact that it appears as though every non-player character is responding dynamically to the environment. 

Until scripting can be removed entirely in favor of foolproof AI, however, there will always be some element of developer control and constraint in a single-player game.  The fact is, you just can’t do exactly what you want to do.  You will always be limited by the power of the game engine and level design.  Games like Half-life 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas promise to provide an open-ended gaming concept that will surpass their respective prequels.  Single-player gaming isn’t perfect, yet, though it’s headed in the right direction.