PCs are dead. RPGs are dead. MMOs are dead. Everything is dead. In the gaming world, nothing ever dies, it just gets transformed.
God of War (and Isey) put this into perspective for me. There was arguable a large drought of single player games for a long time. The big-bandwagon for nearly 10 years was MMO or competitive shooters. The former genre seems to have peaked, while the latter is moving into the Battle Royale flavor-of-day.
Side-note: I would guess that the large amount of player toxicity in multi-player games is pushing people away. The big companies are trying to address it, but we’re still plenty of years away from that getting better.
That’s not to say we didn’t have quality single player games – we most certainly did. But they fell into one of two main categories: shooters or RPGs. The Mass Effect series (I only count 1 & 2) moved between these 2 models. Uncharted went from puzzle focus, to action movie mayhem. Divinity: Original Sin, Pillars of Eternity, Planescape, Tyranny are all quality examples of pure RPGs. XCOM and Civ are outliers that nearly dominate their own genres.
Not too many puzzlers, though Firewatch and The Witness certainly shine. Or add a massive indy library of puzzlers.
The obvious one here is that technology has progressed so far that imagination can be transcribed to a game. Complex numbers can be crunched in fractions of a second. Amazing AI can provide a level of realism that was not possible only a few years ago. Graphic fidelity is almost absurd today. I mean, compare something like Avatar to God of War, Monster Hunter, or Horizon. The line between game and experience is being blurred further.
The snowball effect of quality storytelling is taking shape. Mass Effect, BioShock, Uncharted – all are great examples of risk taking in the story. Some of them play more like interactive movies but others feel like a choose your own adventure. Hundreds of hours of options and dialogue are created for a game, and only a small portion will ever see the light of gameplay. Developers are willing to put in hard branches on the story. Killing off everyone in town means that you lose all the quests in that town for the rest of the game. Real, actual, permanence. Something that nearly all multi-player games are incapable (EvE and perhaps UO excluded).
The kitchen sink approach to gaming was all the rage for a while. A whole bunch of systems, things to do, but none of it linked together. Games like Fable tried to bridge that gap, with only marginal success. Most JRPGs are a single story, joined by multiple smaller settings. One long corridor where the background changes every few hours.
The forward progress here is in the experience provided to the player, through the characters. The worlds are fleshed out. The story line has logic and the areas are thematically linked. Take the Tomb Raider reboot. If you took the mechanics/visuals and applied it to previous games, it still wouldn’t work. What does work, is how the island setting (or mountain in the 2nd game) feel like they exist in a real world. The set pieces flow with the story, and Laura experiences something memorable in each. I will remember that zipline down from the tower for a long time.
Given the player choice, or agency in the game, brings the player into the experience. There is a very large difference between a sandbox (e.g. any Ubisoft game) with a bunch of tasks, versus an open world with a toolset to deploy as you see fit. I’ll pick on Horizon here. Sure, there are tasks and they are thematically similar – hunt, discover, hide. It could even be the same task; kill a bear-cat robot for example. It’s the setting and your set of tools that determines how you approach that task. Are there other monsters around? Do you have stun ammo? Fire Arrows? Is there cover? Do you have a mount?
God of War provides a similar amount of choice in the various battles. You can go full offense, play defensively, use Atreus, dive into deep damage from skills, or head the stun route. Each option is viable, in a given situation. That level of complexity, variety, and choice means that the game doesn’t feel stale. The variety of events that you’d get from a human player can now be simulated to great effect in a single player game.
Don’t Call It a Comeback
Single player games never really left. The cheap availability of networking allowed for multiplayer games to move from the living room sofa to the Internets instead. That growth shadowed the single player realm, and it kept puttering along. Now that the multiplayer market has neared (if not passed) it’s peak, it’s a great time to pay attention to excellently crafted single player experiences once again.