It happens all the time in society, perhaps now more than ever: A ridicule of those who choose to walk alone and blaze a new trail, to choose their own world over shared space, and the complications and liabilities therein.
In music, there is the dominance of gentrified, brand driven hip hop and pop, where cynical anti-intellectualism meets an unprecedented level of aggressive advertising, all to sell you a false narrative of all-time greatness. Never mind the mediocre performances, barely executed even with the help of millions in production – it’s about personas! Constant audience engagement (formerly known as pandering)! Branding – you know, like sheep!
The narrative that “nobody listens to rock/metal/gangsta/punk” has persisted for years, yet even the mid-range acts from these genres seem to have a longer shelf life than their supposed successors, outlasting and eventually outselling multiple generations of fad-based cash grabs. Instead of a smash and grab business model, they build lasting connections with genuine fans, who are statistically more likely to put their money where their mouth is over a lifetime of support. They buy the shirts at the show, and listen to the whole album, not just the hits.
Television has been overtaken by low effort, lower intellect reality programming, to the point where what were once the laughing stocks of a supposedly less enlightened culture are now role models, even social templates. The amount of people sharing extremely personal detail and drama VERY LOUDLY on a daily basis has exploded in the last decade, as narcissism has been normalized by those for whom the cellphone is the lens through which they view the world, and it them. Worse yet, it has also become a megaphone through which they broadcast the mundane, and the stupidly profane.
Yet, at the end of the day, what really moves people are the more genuine narratives found in story driven TV series and professional sports. Talent show winners come and go, sociopathic reality stars are a dime a dozen (hell, a nickel a dozen these days), but great acting and athletic performances are timeless, inspiring levels of reverence and devotion that even the most desperate of divas and douches crave.
In film, the superhero blockbuster has reached levels of all-consuming, inescapable dominance to the point where a lot of us really never want to see another comic book adaptation again. It’s no longer a geeky niche being validated with heartwarming, seat-gripping performances, but an assault on the senses, dumbing down and numbing out with pathetically convoluted action sequences and hammy dialogue, over what essentially looks like a bad video game. Or at least what out-of-touch people in boardrooms THINK a game is.
What once was the niche of geeks and highly imaginative dreamers is now the domain of the meathead masses, those with such low attention spans that 30 jump cuts in a minute are necessary to retain them. Always another shoehorned love interest, always another stupid quip, and always as many sequels and spinoffs as are economically viable.
Where once the film industry led gaming, with both the license of intellectual property and the focus on natrative development, now it is trying to catch up, always adding MORE ‘SPLOSIONS to a recipe diluted so far out of taste that all the flavour is gone. What they fail to realize is that sensory assault is not what truly drives gaming, or at least the kind gaming that drives the industry itself forward.
In the last decade, a false narrative has been perpetuated that single player gaming is dying, both in terms of consumer demand and developer interest. Industry revenue has been largely driven by the success of games-as-service, microtransaction heavy properties based around social gaming. Indeed, to the outsider, the basic stereotype of gamers has likely changed from that of quiet loner to brash loudmouth, one who’s always engaging with others in some form or fashion. I myself am a strictly solo gamer, and that fact alone genuinely shocks many gamers I talk to.
Several larger franchises, including the titanic Grand Theft Auto, have migrated their business model from several releases per decade to a mode of iteration based on fewer releases, but with more post-release support and engagement. New updates, expansions and modes abound for years to come, selling grinds and builds as the ends instead of the means, often at the expense of real narratives and fleshed out characters.
But for all the popularity of online multiplayer, at the end of the day, it always has and always will be single player that really pushes the boundaries of gaming. There is the deep connection between consumer and character, unrivaled in it’s intensity throughout other entertainment mediums. The empowerment of personally shaping a narrative, especially in RPGs and story driven action adventures. A sense of exploration and discovery, rendered even more cruicial by those experiencing the very real limitations of life in a pandemic era.
The biggest releases in a gaming calendar, both critically and commercially, are still the big story driven IPs, and even those with multiplayer versions almost always lead with the solo campaign as feature (except Call Of Duty, which is gaming’s lowest common denominator). Even the likes of Red Dead Online and GTA Online took years to establish consistent success and true credibility, unlike the single player efforts they were based off.
The reality is there have been more great single player games in the last decade than in any other, and the diversity therein is quite astounding. Everything from hyperviolent, speed driven FPS titles to slow paced, choice driven story games are thriving, many of them quite eccentric. Indie developers are putting out better product than a lot of AAA studios were a decade ago, and the big companies are now taking risks they could never have afforded to back in the day.
For all the criticism and controversy they generated, solo titles like The Last Of Us Part II and Cyberpunk 2077 did more to advance the gaming conversation than the big battle royale or hero shooter games. Conversation not just about artistic merit, but about the level of corporate interference in digital arts, about crunch culture and labour practices in major studios, and about the behaviour of gamers and their relationships to gender, sexuality and even race.
Multiplayer is mostly aimed at gaming’s youth – generally more socially codependent than their adult counterparts, and driven by addictive loot grinds, visual customization and gaming as an aesthetic in and of itself, rather than actual aesthetics of gaming. The appeal is in immediacy and accessibility, much like the popular film and music of the day, and as with those formats, many will shun and shame those who favour a more independent, cerebral approach. Toxic herd mentality is as strong in gaming as it is anywhere, and it’s a shame, because the medium was always meant to be about escapism and individual expression.
But while kids and teens may dominate microtransaction revenue, their adult peers will be buying the full priced titles, and their remastered versions too. The true purveyors and patrons of artistic industries are the core fans, not the casuals, whose interest and financial participation will wax and wane with the trends of the time. Like fans of arthouse cinema or truly alternative music, they seek a deeper and more total relationship with both art and artist. They will be lifers, because they seek that which is neither phase to be grown out of nor trend to be followed, but that which is both forward thinking and timeless.
People will always point to sales and other metrics, and while multiplayer isn’t going anywhere, neither is single player – if anything it seems to be growing, as many abandon the hyperbole and toxicity of online gaming culture. Loot, perks and events will keep people coming back for a while, but not forever, and it is the technological innovation and narrative participation of single player that will keep fans invested in a franchise for decades, instead of just months or years.
Multiplayer gaming, I’m sad to say, has long appealed to the most base and banal of interests, skewed with the immaturity that has infected other entertainment mediums, and society in general. The greed of both gamer and developer has compromised their reputations and relationships, and alienated the less desperate of us who once found joy in such engagement. In these times, it’s a relief to still have the refuge of pure escapism in the many great single player properties of what is really a golden age in solo gaming, in terms of both variety and consistency.
It’s deeply refreshing to see gaming, an industry once on the verge of total collapse, thriving to the extent that it is. Where once gamers were maligned as social rejects and immature hobbyists, now we are validated as other entertainment mediums lag miles behind both artistically and commercially. But like pop music and mumble rap taking all the credit and none of the blame, let’s not give multiplayer gaming more than it’s due.
At the end of the day, when you grow out of Fortnite and get bored of Destiny, the expanses of Horizon or the vibrant, violent arenas of Doom will be waiting, there for when you want to sink your teeth into hearty, healthy meals instead of fast food. Artistic mediums and industries in general are advanced by leaders, not followers. Iconic, individualistic characters both actual and digital are what move a format forward.