Years ago, someone told me that even the worst game is made great with mutiplayer. Now, I'm pretty sure that's not entirely true, but it raises a salient point- games are more fun when we play them with others. Now, that doesn't have to mean constant competitive multiplayer modes. Games like Dark Souls do an impressive job of building both asynchronous and standard co-operative multiplayer in a way that's very reminiscent of the way I remember getting help in Pokemon from friends on the playground. But, there's a also a certain loneliness to that. Online multiplayer, while insanely popular these days, has a tinge of coldness to it. There's someone on the other line, sure, but you can't see them. You can't turn to them and punch them in the shoulder for doing something dumb. You're sharing a game experience, but you aren't necessarily sharing the experience of being together. There are plenty of things that are great about online multiplayer, don't get me wrong, but this month, we're celebrating playing games with people in physical space, because we think it can make even the worst games just that much more fun.
You're in a basement, you're holding dinky little plastic instruments, your friend is singing Float On. He's off key. You're goddamn rock stars.
Rock Band is unique in the way it presents the multiplayer experience. In fact, it was on the cutting edge in a lot of ways. In case you don't remember the halcyon days of plastic instrument parties, Rock Band is a fairly simple rhythym game made interesting by the fact that you play it with plastic versions of guitars, drums and keyboards. The conceit was that you and your friends were the titular Rock Band, and your basement was a stage. The game itself is pretty irrlevant at that point. Sure, if you're better at timing your button presses you'll get a better score and the song will sound better, but you're not really noticing any of that once you reach a certain threshhold of quality, you forget all that. You're on stage, you're playing the song. You are, for a brief shining second, role-playing as a rock band.
That roleplay element is something that most video games can't really get us to participate in. Sure, we do it in the safe confines of the virtual world, but we don't do it amongst friends when we share a screen. That's too intimate, too real. By simply putting fake instruments in our hands and buttrock in our ears, Harmonix managed to trick us all into LARPing- the nerdiest activity known to man.
When I was thining about this primer, I started considering the way we think of screens in terms of multiplayer. The first thing that came to mind was Johann Sebastian Joust, but we've written about it before. So I started to think less about the lack of screens, and more about a whole bunch of 'em, and what that does to multiplayer, which made me remember the best smartphone game ever made: Spaceteam.
You and up to three other players get a panel of spaceship controls on your screen, and a set of commands flashing above your panel. Everyone gets different commands that have very little to do with flying a spaceship. They also don't always correspond to the buttons on your particular panel, meaning they belong to someone else. You have to shout the commands at friends, figuring out what they have over the course of the game, and by working together (as a Spaceteam) you'll get to the end of the level, and be given new controls. Sometimes there are glitches, like ooze leaking over the controls, or certain buttons becoming unhinged from the panel, but you have to keep pressing the ridiculously named buttons as your friends scream bloody murder at you about frog blasting vent cores.
Spaceteam games always feel like less of a video game experience and more like a board game. Sure, the board is across four screens and changes every few minutes, but the experience of yelling at friends, grabbing them to check their screens, and trying to find clever ways to get around the incessant bickering that often overtakes matches is the kind of experience I usually get from a particularly unpleasant game of Monopoly. Spaceteam is one of the only (if not the only) games I can think of that really uses that multi-screen concept to create an experience just an intimate as you would get from sharing a screen.
Street Fighter is the only game on this list that you can play alone. Well, that's not necessarily true, Rock Band HAS a single player mode, but have you played it? Why would you?
Okay I played it once, but that's the most you're getting out of me.
Street Fighter's single player experience however, is primarily meant to train you up, to get you ready for the multiplayer modes. I'm willing to bet the most popular non-competitive mode in Street Fighter is the training room. There's no goal, no opponent, just you and a brainless dummy waiting to get pummeled as your practice combo after combo after combo.
The purpose of the training mode is to give you a place to hone your execution in between "real" matches. Street Fighter was, from the beginning, intended as a one-on-one competitive affair. That is, if we count Street Fighter II as the beginning (which we do). Street Fighter II didn't invent one-on-one fighters, but it may as well have considering how every game afterwards had to be a direct response to it. It invented combos, the very reason there are training modes at all, which added a level of high-skill execution that mostly eliminated thoughtless button mashing from the equation. Street Fighter is the ur-fighting game, and any one you might pick up to play right now would be almost meaningless if there wasn't another person to play against. It's an interesting case of how the multiplayer mode's success created the need for a single player mode, while the single player mode helps you develop the skills you need for multiplayer. Street Fighter is a game where you spend hours upon hours playing alone, all for 99 seconds of multiplayer at a time. But it's that competition that truly matters.
Hidden in Plain Sight:
The Spy Party-inspired HiPS is one of the most interesting multiplayer experiments I've messed around with. Like Spy Party, it relies on a sort of reverse Turing Test, where at least one player in every match has to do their best to pretend to be an NPC. HiPS has a bunch of different modes, but my favourite is Ninja Party. Each player is one ninja in a sea of ninja CPUs, tasked with either touching the five statues on the map, or killing all of the other human-controlled ninjas. At first, you aren't even sure which ninja you're controlling. Your first act is to move around enough to know who you are, but not so erratically that you're instantly marked for death by the other players.
There are other modes too, Assassin tasks a team of snipers with taking down a team of assassins who slowly kill off their CPU cover, and Death Race puts you in a race to the finish with three other players, each with one bullet to kill another racer with. I come back to Ninja party a lot though. There's something really fascinating to me about trying to fool other humans into thinking you're a CPU, while trying to work out which of your friends is the least robotic. The two different victory methods force players to stay on the move, which makes games into really quick, party affairs. It's similar to Spy Party in that reverse-Turing test concept, but sharing one screen with three other players is an entirely different experience than two networked computers with two separate monitors. The designer likens Spy Party to chess, while HiPS is more like Hungry Hungry Hippos. It can get tense, but overall, it's a party game, meant to be wild and entertaining in brief spurts, rather than a nail-biting, hyper-competitive affair. HiPS is out of the ordinary, sure, but it really shows how sharing a screen really changes the way we approach multiplayer.