Editorial / Creativity in online multiplayer

I have a confession to make: I hate online multiplayer. I just do. When I get off of work, I come home, kiss my wife, and play a videogame to wind down from the day. I play to escape, to help wash away the minor (and sometimes, major) annoyances and worries of the day. The last thing that I want to do is deal with a bunch of 15-year-olds yelling about how I’m getting “pwned”, a term which I’m still unclear as to the meaning of. I realize that it’s a great way to connect with your friends, but, personally, I prefer sitting in the same room, having a few beers, and playing some Contra. That being said, I still see online multiplayer as an innovation that could drastically improve videogames; we just need a little more creativity.

Right now, almost every popular online multiplayer I see is the same: you fight in an arena. (Of course, the major exception is the MMORPG, but that’s a different beast altogether. I’m talking about games that aren’t designed to be played only online.) There are variations on the basic concept, from “Capture the Flag” to “Horde” mode, but all in all, they’re fairly similar. Basically, it’s a bloodbath: you shoot at some people, while some people shoot at you. I know I’m simplifying it drastically, but from my perspective, there’s really not that much subtlety in modern online gaming. But there are some games that show the potential of online multiplayer; games that create new ways of thinking about the future of online gaming.

The greatest example of this is Demon’s Souls, a sleeper hit from Namco Bandai. The reason this videogame has become a modern legend is, obviously, the unforgiving difficulty, which hearkens back to the early days of videogaming. However, another reason it should be remembered is for the extremely creative use of online multiplayer. If you play the game with an active internet connection, you’ll notice small red lettering scattered about the various worlds. Read them, and you’ll find any kind of message, from helpful to misleading. Alongside these, you’ll find bloodstains. Upon touching these grim icons, you’ll be shown a phantom image of another player, seconds before their death. I cannot tell you how often these bloodstains saved my character’s life.

These two bits alone are unique enough to warrant praise, but there’s actually a fair bit more. You can invade other players’ worlds, and they can do the same to you. The “tendency” of each world is affected by all the deaths on the server, making it lean towards white, which makes the game easier, or black, which makes enemies tougher. The greatest example of Demon’s Souls creativity, however, comes in the final stage of the Tower of Latria. You must fight the Old Monk; however, this is not a typical boss fight. When you begin the stage, you see a cutscene, immediately followed by a message that your game has been invaded by a black phantom. Upon reaching the top of the tower, you discover that the boss fight is actually a PvP fight. This is hugely unexpected; there had been no hints whatsoever. As a whole, Demon’s Souls showed some of the best usage of online multiplayer to come around the bend, and it was a joy to play.

A more recent example can be found on the PSN. The downloadable game Journey is interesting in many ways: it eschews the traditional map; it gives no tutorial; you just head towards the mountain in the distance. The online multiplayer is no exception. While playing through the game, you can come across another player. You can’t speak, you can’t message, and you have no clue who this player is. thatgamecompany’s creative directer, Jenova Chen, puts it best: “It’s about two strangers who meet online. They don’t know who they are or how old they are. All they know is that is another human being.” This approach allows people who just don’t want to risk dealing with the undesired elements to play with another person online. The fact that there is no communication with the person holding the controller makes for a completely novel experience. And it fits absolutely perfectly with the atmosphere of Journey.

These are just two examples of innovation in online multiplayer, but I truly believe that they are the best. Demon’s Souls and Journey have made me contemplate what could come of online gaming, and I feel that the future is quite bright. I look forward to the day when these two games are not the exception to the rule; when I can pick up a number of games that show the creativity possible in online gaming; when it’s something that people put the same amount of thought into as a single player game. Hopefully, that day is not too far away. I’d like to play videogames with strangers, too.

If there are any games with innovative online multiplayer that I didn’t mention, don’t hesitate to tell me about them. I’m sure I’ve missed a few.