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Meaningful Multiplayer - How Competitive Multiplayer and Storytelling can Coexist

Updated on January 30, 2014

You look over a map of your once-peaceful world, grimacing at the dire situation. You focus your attention on the dotted front-lines, and decide on a particular battle that seems to be shifting in your faction's favor. You fly in, and when your boots hit the ground, a notification appears on your HUD: "TAKE MINING FACILITY". The commanding officer fills you in on recent events, and you have a better grasp of the situation; it seems like your faction is turning the tide of the battle, and once you secure the facility, you will have a foothold on the region. Your actions here will impact the future of the war, and your team's decisions here will ripple throughout the world.

Does this sound like a game you would like to be a part of? It gets the adrenaline pumping just reading that! Shooting down your buddies online is always great fun, but what if there was actual meaning behind it? Storytelling has been evolving in the gaming medium as long as characters were just squares on the screen. However, while gems like The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto show us that storytelling can be brought to the forefront of gamers' mind, there has been one space that few developers have dared to put their plot-driven mitts on: competitive multiplayer.

Video games are an unique medium; they can tell stories that involve the viewer directly. Unlike other forms of media, video games allow people to influence the story in real-time, instead of just being a passive observer. That is why I believe this key element - interaction - is the perfect breeding grounds for new and inventive stories that you simply can't find anywhere else. This is my case on why developers need to tap into this creative goldmine, and why this is a natural evolution in storytelling.

Competing for Plotlines

Now, let's look at the current state of competitive multiplayer. Most games are composed of two warring factions, and random arenas of play. Each match is self contained, and besides having the factions also in their single-player story, absolutely no weight is put into these matches. For the majority of people, this is fine; it's there to blow some steam, and forget about other matters at hand. For others though, multiplayer is more than just relaxing, it's a way to prove your virtual worth. You'd be amaze how many people check their stats to show off how good they are against the world. So why not let those players have meaningful effects on the world they play on?

One idea is to have a persistent world, always evolving and changing based on players' impact on the world. SOE's Planetside 2 is an excellent example of this, with three factions fighting for control of different continents on a world. This is a great stepping stone on how narrative storytelling can evolve more than the typical, "Shoot these guys, you win." formula. Taken further, you could have commanding officers recap events of what is happening in your current battle. You could have news reports on invasions and stalemates. Press conferences of your leaders rallying troops after a strategic loss. The possibilities are endless!

Planetside 2 has all the makings for a great story-driven experience, with territory always changing and up for grabs.
Planetside 2 has all the makings for a great story-driven experience, with territory always changing and up for grabs. | Source

However, like any starting idea, there are a few problems. Namely, the amount of man-hours it would take to accomplish such an endeavor. The dedication required would be massive, but considering how important multiplayer is to some, the pay-off could be massive. Players could be completely immersed in a world that they control. The plot for the setting would change and swerve depending on what was happening, adding realism and depth. They are their own main character.

Another problem is that developers might make the story too intrusive, thus taking immersion away from the player. We have all played games with long cutscenes, walls of text, or other barriers of entry. While all these do advance the plot in different ways, they do a disservice to the medium. Video games are by-design interactive experiences, and when developers give us extended cutscenes or written text, they break the number one rule of video games: Don't take control away from the player. This requires careful attention from the developer, as some people just don't care about stories, and adding unnecessary filler would alienate those gamers. Execution would be key here, but top-notch developers could pull it off.

The Future is Unwritten

In the end, it all comes down to how dedicated a developer is to their worlds. If developers put thought and effort, they could create an amazing world that players could shape and form on their accord, with the developers narrating the events and gently nudging the players to their next goal. This whole article is only one way of how multiplayer and storytelling can coexist. Assassin's Creed is yet another series that is intertwining story and multiplayer as we speak. Its multiplayer puts players as literal players of a game made by Abstergo, the fictional corporation in its universe. As you progress through the levels, you start to unravel a conspiracy between the Assassins and Templars, and it's up to the player to figure out. They are carving the way for the future of storytelling, and I applaud them for it.

Another high-profile game coming out is Titanfall, which boasts that they will merge campaign and multiplayer together, although exactly how they plan to do this is not really known. With cloud-saving and persistent online becoming more important on the Xbox One and Playstation 4, attempts like this will hopefully become more common, and new branches of storytelling that opens new possibilities that we could never imagine. I love going into a match and having fun with my friends, but in the near future, perhaps I'll have a greater reason to kill the closest people in my life.


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