Will Playstation 4 Kill the Single Player Experience? - shootist2600 Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Will Playstation 4 Kill the Single Player Experience?

"The report of my death was an exaggeration," Mark Twain once famously quipped. If single-player games could speak, one would expect a similar remark. The long-prophesied demise of this once dominant gaming mode most often has been attributed to the growth in popularity of multiplayer gaming. However, Sony's Playstation 4 announcement yesterday could put the nails in the proverbial coffin.

The console manufacturer emphasized the social features of its newest gaming device. The most compelling development from this perspective is the inclusion of a share button on the new DualShock 4 controller. This broadcasts one's gaming session to your online friends, so they can spectate from their own console in much the same way that multiplayer gamers can observe such competitions.

But there are important differences. In the first place, spectators can watch you play a game's single-player campaign. Of course this is a passive exercise, unless your audience decides to comment while they watch. As suggested, they can encourage you, warn you, trash talk, etc. while you're in-game. I believe some devices like Xbox 360 allow online gamers to chat regardless of games being played, but this enables real time comments specific to your current play session.

Frankly, I think this is terrific news. If there's a game I'm curious about, I can watch a friend play it, or I can share or spectate just to spend time with my online buddies. But this also has the impact of suspending a gamer's immersion. Imagine playing a survival horror game like Silent Hill or Condemned only to have a friend interrupt by saying, "Dude, I hope I never have to rely on your survival skills in the coming zombie apocalypse."

Yes, of course gamers don't have to enable the share function on their controller and can go merrily upon their solitary way. But the fact it's an option sets a precedent and the compulsion to use it will be strong. While this function in and of itself is fairly benign in its consequence, the more dramatic feature is the reported ability of spectators to go from passive observation to active participation.

This news, besides the 8GB GDDR5 system memory, is the most interesting and, indeed, exciting revelation. The example provided trumpeted the opportunity to allow a friend to assume control of your character to help you overcome a difficult segment of the game. Game manuals or online FAQs or walkthroughs could become a thing of the past if you're like me and invariably get stuck between a puzzle rock and a boss hard place.

That said, its application is more wide ranging as you can allow friends to sample the gameplay, for instance. Taken a step further, gamers can pass the controller for a kind of cooperative approach to single player campaigns, effectively making every such title a co-op one. Even I am excited by this prospect. However, what is the impact of such participation on a game that is otherwise designed for a single-player experience whether it's narrative or gameplay?

A compelling single-player narrative has a personal impact on the gamer playing it, and it effects everyone differently in the same way that art is in the eye of the beholder. Survival horror is an extreme example but titles in other genres likewise will affect gamers differently if played with friends watching or even participating. How would BioShock, Mass Effect or Skyrim influence you when it's a shared experience?

This leads back to the option for not sharing your gaming sessions. Yes, it's a choice. But the fact that gamers now have an alternative to solitary single player progression, and that sharing it with friends will be a tempting proposition, changes what has long been a standard mode for video games. Nevermind that such an option could have an impact on how designers develop the narratives and gameplay of titles moving forward. Might the share function be incorporated in some other clever fashion?

I forgot the suggested option for spectators to further involve themselves in one's game by placing items in the virtual environment such as med kits or weapons for your character to use. Again, observers become participants, but this time changing the game instead of merely experiencing it. For me, this is in fact fascinating and a development I'm eager to see implemented. But on the other hand, as a longtime dedicated single-player gamer, it is a mixed blessing.

I do wonder about what controls will be implemented to keep out anyone who isn't on your friends list, not only from spectating and potentially trolling but from actively taking control of your progress. However, such concerns take a back seat to contemplating how the move to more social elements in gaming consoles in general will impact the single player experience. Even integrating the PS4 with social media like Facebook changes the game, pun intended.

My smartphone, for instance, automatically includes Facebook friends into my phonebook. For the most part, I keep my various online personaes separate, whether gaming, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. But technology today seems to be about integrating information by default regardless of consumer intent. So now I have to contend with text messengers seeing a gaming avatar of yours truly in balaclava before the American flag. I can only imagine what nongamers think.

This might seem somewhat afield of my subject, however, it's all part of the movement toward more social networks and, to an extent, more social gaming. Think, too, of Gaikai's cloud gaming architecture vis a vis the PS4. Not only can you sample virtually any game prior to making a purchase decision (an option that, if I'm not mistaken, is similar to some subscription based services like Netflix or especially GameFly), but you can also play games streaming off the cloud.

I assume this is in service of a subscription option and is another example of the move toward persistent online gaming. How might this impact single-player campaigns? In the same way that the share function takes advantage of an online connection, a more persistent online presence can only present more opportunities for integrating social aspects into every gaming experience regardless of whether playing solo, in co-op or multiplayer.

In many ways this is a logical progression to a digital medium and more integrated online functionality. And of course there are still compelling single player narratives such as The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite, Mass Effect 3, Assassin's Creed III, etc. Indeed, the death knell of single player games has been sounded many times before. But despite the allure of Playstation 4's reputed share feature, for me it can't help but further dilute that experience.

I had long gamed exclusively offline in single player campaigns, and loved titles such as Silent Hill, Resident Evil 2, Cold Winter, Killzone, Shadow of the Colossus, The Getaway, BioShock, The Darkness, Enslaved, Mass Effect, Uncharted 2, etc. I'm confident developers will still create great narratives. But what will it mean when we can share those experiences in real time? I wonder to what extent it will influence our perspective, and change our impressions? One thing's for sure. We'll soon find out.

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