Narrative Multiplayer: The Future of Online Gaming

Titanfall is almost upon us, and like many I spent a good deal of time with the beta when it was running. Though we were only able to catch glimpses of it in the beta, Titanfall represents an interesting new trend of injecting some form of narrative into competitive multiplayer. It’s certainly not the first to do this, but it’s definitely one of the biggest multiplayer games blending story and competition. With many upcoming games also exhibiting this kind of narrative multiplayer experience, the days of multiplayer existing outside a game’s story may be numbered.

For the longest time, competitive multiplayer existed as its own separate entity from a game’s story component. If you look at something like Halo, there wasn’t even an attempt made to reconcile the game’s competitive multiplayer with the fiction until Halo 4. In the fiction, Master Chief was the last spartan, but in multiplayer there were millions of spartans. Not only was there a ridiculous number of spartans in existence, but they were fighting among each other for some reason. Obviously, the multiplayer was meant to exist outside of the game’s story, as was usually the case with multiplayer games for a long time.

The multiplayer of Quake II had nothing to do with the Strogg, Marcus Fenix and company die over and over during multiplayer matches across the Gears of War series, and even games whose multiplayer could exist within the fiction (mostly military shooters) rarely ever have any crossover.

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We’ve seen this trend begin to change recently, but upcoming games, like Titanfall, are taking it to new levels. A game that has already injected some story into the multiplayer experience is The Last of Us. While not on the level of what Titanfall purports to be, The Last of Us is a great example of a multiplayer game that not only successfully implements the core gameplay concepts of the single player into multiplayer, but gives just enough narrative context to make it that much more interesting. Throughout the course of the single player game, Joel and Ellie have run-ins with both the fireflies and less organized groups of scavengers referred to as hunters. Though we never see these groups in direct conflict with one another, some very basic deduction would lead one to believe they are probably not too fond of one another.

It’s in the multiplayer that we see these two groups face off, with each team being represented by one of these groups. Where things are taken a bit further is that you have a personal story you craft as you play matches in multiplayer. You are the leader of a group of survivors associated with whatever faction you choose to play as.

You are given 12 weeks to protect and grow your group of survivors as large as possible. Each match you play represents one day, and your performance will dictate whether your group adds new members, whether some of your members begin to get hungry or sick, or even if some will die. The larger your group gets, the better you must do in each game to grow or even just maintain your population. At periodic intervals there will be random events whith new challenges for you to complete during matches. Some of these events grant rewards if you complete the objectives, while others have severe penalties if you fail them (with some as steep as the loss of your entire population).

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Now, the story here isn’t anything like the story of the main game. There aren’t any cutscenes or dialogue exchanges, but the implied story is one that fits quite well within the game’s world. It’s easy to image groups of survivors struggling every day for supplies to support their groups, and this minor inclusion of a player driven story in the multiplayer adds a lot of depth the world of The Last of Us.

Some other games have attempted to justify the multiplayer within the game world, usually going the “combat simulator” route as with Halo 4 and Perfect Dark, but few games have multiplayer whose existence enhances a game’s fiction the way The Last of Us does, and it’s only scratching the surface of what’s to come in other games down the road. Grand Theft Auto Online took things a step further, though that game’s many other problems (and the frequency with which you replay the same story missions over and over) kept it from reaching it’s true story potential.

Destiny is a game that aims to have a seamless integration of single player, cooperative, and competitive multiplayer. The game’s fiction supports the existence of a large number of guardians (the player characters), and players will take their same created character (complete with their gear and abilities) into every game mode. The game has numerous factions that are in competition with each other that the player can join, giving context to the battles between guardians. Another upcoming game that looks to be doing some very interesting things in blending story and competitive multiplayer is The Division.

While we don’t know much about the game yet, the E3 demo painted an intriguing picture of impromptu competitive play in the world interrupting a cooperative story moment. It remains to be seen to what extent the competitive play is blended with the story, but what we’ve seen so far certainly leaves me wanting to see more.

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These two games, along with Titanfall, are only a few examples of how this trend of implementing story into competitive multiplayer continues to expand. There are of course others, like Dark Souls II and Watch Dogs among those we know will have this sort of feature, and likely many more to be announced as new consoles begin to come into their own. Narrative in competitive multiplayer is the future, and the days of stand alone multiplayer that doesn’t at least exist within the same fiction as the story are coming to an end. As a supporter of story in games, I’m really excited to see interesting new implementations of narrative; especially in games or modes that would have never had any story in the past.