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The Paradox of a Single Player Game

I come from a background almost exlusively made up of single player games. All of my preffered titles– Zelda, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Prince of Persia, Out of this World/Another World or whatever you’re supposed to call it, etc.– are single player games exclusively. My favorite series–(hint: it ain’t GTA)– might’ve just recently added a multi-player mode to its last two installments, and while I’m always on the move looking for hotspots to access it through my PSP, I still remain slavishly devoted to it for each game’s singular single player experience. A few games I’m fond of, like Katamari and a handful of classic N64 titles might have very impressive death-match modes, but mostly games like GoldenEye, StarFox and even Mario Kart held my attention mostly as solitary affairs. Heck, I’ve barely ever even played the Super Mario Bros. games with two players– I wouldn’t want to risk having to play as Luigi. Basically, in all my life I’ve been perfectly happy to play, critique, understand and hopefully someday design one type of game and one type only– single player games.

The problem? I’m not entirely sure that single player games technically exist.

Throughout this class, one of the mantras I’ve been battling in my head is that at their heart, games are about competition. I’m not certain I agree with that notion, but let’s allow it, for the moment. Before, I’ve said that single player games are still inherently games, because even without another human player to compete with, the player is still competing against the computer player, and therefore engaged in the same kind of activity. Looking back, still very sure that assessment works in most of the situations you’d need to think about in, I’m curious as to whether I still believe in it, completely.

After all, if one buys into the fiction of a game totally, on whatever level, then the conflict that exists between the player and the computer isn’t necessarily a mere competition. True– games that deposit their action within the confines of a fictional contest of some sort certainly do boil down to that sort of feeling, but the rest of those games don’t. If you’re really immersed in playing games like Metal Gear or Ico, you’re not inhabiting the experience of trying to win– you’re inhabiting the experience of striving to survive, and save lives. If you’re immersed in Shadow of the Colossus, you’re inhabiting the experience of hunt and ritual sacrifice.

Games like these aren’t about winning or losing games– they’re about winning or losing things much more important than that. It might be cliche to boil them down to struggles of good and evil, but those kind of epic clashes, when the player is successfully drawn into them, are about much more than mere competition. At that point, I’m not really sure they qualify as games, because at the end of a game we know that life goes on. Really well designed games can make us forget it to the point of experiencing genuine fear, pain and heartache in the face of loss, if only for the few moments we have left before our disbelief comes out of its suspended animation, and therefore might not actually be best served under the term games, to an extent.

Instead, they become tests.

I’m not just talking about school tests, but they work, as well– Modern day educational tests might be done in large groups, but it’s still all about one’s individual progress through the questions. Students might show off their high grades and scoff at those with lower ones, but the only level of competition that exists there is a metatextual one, similar to those who show off their high scores in single player games.

However, tests mean more than that. Tests are solitary affairs. Tests are less about competing with the outside world than they are about competing with one’s own inner forces. Tests of strength, intelligence, endurance and so forth, in all their forms, are all about one’s relationship to one’s self. At the end, tests are about driving us to want to do better the next time around, not just to prove it to the world, but to prove it to ourselves. Tests occur when we restrain ourselves from indulging in destructive behavior, such as addictions or vices in the face of temptation. Tests occur when we push ourselves to do something we wouldn’t ordinarily do, facing our fears with courage. Tests are private moments or heroism or cowardice, battles we fight within ourselves.

In that sense, a test is a game one plays with one’s self. We test ourselves in order to see how well we can play with others. Perhaps in that sense, all single player games are preludes to multi-player ones, not merely literally but also in spirit. Life itself is multiplayer, and only in our dreams, whether driven by the daytime imagination or REM, can we allow ourselves to prepare for it.

…Okay, I’m sure absolutely none of that made sense, this time. Nothing but pretentious bullshit, and yet I’m posting it anyway. I wonder if that qualifies as testing myself or playing around with everybody else…


  1. Charles wrote:

    I find this idea very interesting, Bob. Strangely enough it turns out to be the inverse of something I used to believe, which was that all game were, in essence, single-player affairs. My logic for this was that since we can never really know the thoughts and motivations of our opponents, we can actually only trust the rationality and logic of the system. In this way a human opponent is nothing more than a random number generator with a personality, a more interesting form of dice rolling. Of course, at the time I was also a big fan of Decartes, so that might explain that.

    Nonetheless, this is obviously something I no longer believe. I couldn’t support it for the same reasons that I think your supposition, while extremely interesting, is also flawed. These reasons are Golf, and speedruns.

    Golf is a very popular sport that is often played in competition. However, even in Golf tournaments there is no direct competition like there is in Basketball or Go. When you push, there is no one to push back. Each game is really a solitary entity, it is only the results of each game that are compared and used in a tournament setting. Golf is a single-player game, and in any individual game of Golf you are really playing against yourself, which is something that you would characterize as a test.

    It’s probably very obvious the ways in which this is similar to the speedrun culture. Here you have people taking things that are specifically designed to be single-player experiences, and are making something akin to a sport out of it. Even if the only arena is the internet and the only prize is reputation, this is enough to drive people to perfect their performance in these systems to an amazing degree. Watching someone use the shaking of one of the colossi to fling themselves up its body reminds me of watching an Olympic swimmer (another game without direct competition). Watching a someone speed run Super Metroid reminds me of ballet.

    So, while I think that this is an interesting way to think about games, in that it could inform your choices as a designer, I don’t think that it’s supportable as an ontological argument. Then again, that might not be important. One of the things that I constantly have to remind myself about in class is that however interesting the possibility of getting to some ‘truth’ about game design is, it might actually be more constructive to play with certain perspectives without ever landing on one. For instance, I would be interested to play a game built by a guy who only played single-player games, but to actually didn’t consider them games, but considered them tests. I think that the byproduct of that assumption would be more interesting than a thousand hours of discussion.

    PS. In honor of single player games becoming sports:

    Wednesday, March 28, 2007 at 6:25 am | Permalink
  2. Oren wrote:

    Charles, you brought up an interesting point, but I think you miss a major aspect of both Golf and Speedruns.

    Golf may not seem like a multiplayer sport, but in its most basic form it really is. You are playing against the designer of the golf course, who said “The average golf player should be able to finish this course with a score of 0, no bogies or birdies, just Par.” The designer is challenging the player to beat the course, which is the other player. Everyone playing the tournament is trying to beat the course better than the other players. The score is how the everyone can judge who did better.

    The speedrun is basically the same idea, the designer has unintentionally challenged the player to beat the game in the least amount of time. The speedrunner is adding a new opponent to his “single-player” game, the clock.

    It is a huge mistake to not consider the game itself as a major component of the game, and in essence, the actual opponent. When I play a game of chess, I may be playing someone, but we are both playing against the resistance of the game itself. The game is the one that is actually challenging me, with the other player challenging me through this game. While Solitare is a game you play by yourself, you are still playing against the game itself, which many consider to be the deck of cards, but is actually the ruleset itself. The deck of cards allow for different versions of the game.

    And on Charles great video, a short story. My friend once IMed me to let me know he just beat Super Mario 3 in an hour, to which I replied…

    Wednesday, March 28, 2007 at 11:11 pm | Permalink
  3. Bob wrote:

    Like I said, I’m not entirely sure I agree with the point I was making above, but both of your comments are pretty dead on, even pretty much confirming the main parts of my theory. Oren– I agree that when playing a game you’re not just playing against the person across from you but also the game itself, and by extension the designer, team or culture responsible for it, and to a large extent that experience is magnified when playing a single player game. However, in my opinion that just goes to show even more that a game can be less a game itself and more of a test, since neither happens in a vacuum and therefore neither can be judged as such. Tests and other ritual acts always have authors and originators, even in the case of multiple choice SAT style exams. Through the game, a designer tests either a group or an individual on the grounds of whatever challenges they’ve chosen, and in the end judges the players on the basis of those merits, either rewarding them for performing either according or beyond their best hopes and intentions or penalizing them for ignoring or disobeying them meaninglessly.

    And Charles, you’re correct that this idea stems more from the perspective of a designer, which is where I believe it would be most useful. Games are meant to be enjoyed, sure, but just as you’ve said in class, they also bear a much larger responsibility than most other media in presenting experiences for their audience to become active agents in, thereby becoming at least partially complicit in whatever moral structure they’ve been provided with. If designers looked at themselves less as the creators of entertainment to be consumed by players and more as the creators of tests meant to consume the players themselves, we might have more interesting titles out there. Talented game designers already do this– Kojima, Ueda, and yes, even Will Wright– because they at least attempt to impart a philosophy in their design, something that they set firmly into the mechanics as intentional, not just an afterthought. No matter how morally questionable those philosophies might be, a really good game needs some kind of idea behind it that the player has to learn through the demonstrations of practicality that the game’s rules presents.

    Metal Gear shows the player the values of non-confrontation and non-conformity by putting them in situations where they must avoid enemies and stop blindly obeying orders. Ico shows the value of the proverbial kindness of strangers by asking the player to protect one for the duration of a game and then putting them in a situation where the player now must depend upon that stranger’s own kindness in order to survive. Even Wright’s Sim series might be filled with questionable conclusions about the superiority of public transportation versus mass-transit and the various social satisfaction ideas that he espouses, but at least he’s espousing something. Just because the person administering your test might not be the most dependable person in the world, at least you know there is a lesson meant to be learned. I hope that designers start thinking about this a bit more, because games have a potential to be far subtler in the matter of imparting morals to their audiences in a much more sophisticated manner than the standard Aesopian epilogue. Unlike other media, games can impart their lessons almost entirely subconsciously, as the player will best accept new ideas not by being told about them or even shown them, but by doing them for themselves. Remember the old addage about teaching a man to fish, after all. In the end, the best game designers are all teaching their players something, and there’s always plenty of fish in the sea.

    One more thought, though: Where exactly do co-op games fit into this perspective? My initial idea is that they further strengthen the argument for games as arenas for being tested by the game designer, as now two or more players are going up against the game together, without the illusion of competition standing in their way. Does that sound right?

    Thursday, March 29, 2007 at 3:04 am | Permalink
  4. Bob wrote:

    By the way, speaking of golf being a game played against the course itself…

    Thursday, March 29, 2007 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  5. Charles wrote:

    I understand your point Oren, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I do feel though, that its obfuscating a subject that is actually pretty clear. While you are completely correct that a game, whether multi-player or single-player, is always in some form a conversation with the designer, I would not take this to mean that every game is multi-player. The designer is not a player. Though they obviously have enormous power over a player’s experience, this should not be read to mean that you are always ‘playing’ with the designer. Designers create the structure that players explore, it is their job to anticipate the player’s actions so that there is always some reaction. They must always anticipate because when the structure is created, they no longer have any direct influence over the event of play. Once a game is created, a designers role is pretty passive.

    Friday, March 30, 2007 at 5:01 am | Permalink
  6. frank wrote:

    Wow. Great conversation!

    Couple of points I wanted to comment on:

    “If you’re really immersed in playing games like Metal Gear or Ico, you’re not inhabiting the experience of trying to win– you’re inhabiting the experience of striving to survive, and save lives. If you’re immersed in Shadow of the Colossus, you’re inhabiting the experience of hunt and ritual sacrifice.”

    I’m not sure I fully understand the connection between this idea and your original question about single and multi-player games. But even just by itself it’s problematic enough to pull out and examine more closely.

    Bob, I think this type of immersion your describing is largely a fiction. I mean, MGS? For real? You just feel totally, transparently, like you are Snake and you’re just trying to survive? On what planet? Yes, MGS is great at creating suspense and excitement and immersing you in the space and events of the game. But one of the key features of MGS, as you yourself have pointed out, is Kojima’s mastery of sly self-reference. And the whole series is defined by an almost Brechtian acknowledgement of itself as media, and specifically as a game. But even if you strip all of that away, I think the core player experience, even at its most immersive, is defined by conscious problem solving – an awareness that you are negotiating obstacles and challenges in order to make progress through a narrative structure. I don’t think you can call an experience where you die and restart over and over again a genuine “struggle to survive”.

    And as much as I loved Ico, I was always conscious of the puzzle-solving, and this consciousness was a key part of the experience of the gameworld and its narrative – not opposed to it.

    As for the larger question of the relationship between single-player and multi-player games, it’s a great question. Sometimes I think there is a deep and obvious and natural connection between a videogame like MGS and “classic” games such as Tennis or Chess – a connection which is not acknowledged enough in most critical and analytical thinking about videogames. From this perspective, the game can be seen as a *series* of competitions – asymmetrical competitions between the player and a bunch of computer-simultated opponents. The *overall* game doesn’t feel like a single Tennis or Chess match, because the progress is linear and the outcome certain. But each individual level of the game *does* feel like a match – the player doesn’t know whether they will succeed or fail and have to try again.

    But most of the time it actually feels more like a puzzle.

    Anyway, great topic, and nicely put.

    Wow, that Super Mario race video is strangely entertaining! What happens at the end there? It looks like the guy on the right wins by a hair, but how did he do it?

    Saturday, April 7, 2007 at 5:05 am | Permalink

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