The 2018 game of the year was a single-player story-driven game with a largely linear base as opposed to sandbox. God of War (though continuing the frustrating trend of bearing the exact same name as its predecessor) contained elements that triple A publishers were trying to convince the gaming community at large (and investors) that no one wanted anymore. That’s why Ubisoft made Assassin’s Creed Unity with multiplayer, which the game constantly reminded you amid the campaign, utterly shattering any immersion the player had. (That’s the tip of the iceberg with Unity‘s issues, but that’s for another day.)
Because of that sudden crusade against single-player linear story games, we saw countless sandbox games as well as the growing invasion of microtrasactions. It’s psychological manipulation, really. These companies really do look to be making any attempt to make you want to spend money for as long as possible. You have to pay to play online, you have to grind for currency for hours if not days while they taunt you with how easy it is to buy that currency (if not a “premium” one with more worth) to buy cosmetic items; those elements that allow you to make your character unique to you, playing to our desire for individuality, showing off who we are to other players. Now that’s nothing new, I have memories of being in middle school and playing Pirates of the Caribbean Online, being told by the game that I couldn’t continue the story and even think of fighting skeletal Steve Blum “Jolly Roger” and save the world and all my favorite characters (back before the man behind Jack Sparrow was outted as an abusive creep…) But that was a free to play game, owned by Disney, in the mid 2000s.
The failures of Evolve, Radical Heights, and Sea of Thieves show that multiplayer-focused (if not only-online) games suffer when they’re just chasing a trend with no heart. Overwatch succeeds for its beautiful art design, what little narrative Blizzard produces, and generally individual, unique characters. Players invested in the fantastic color and iconic characters, which then translated to interest in new skins to show off unique alternate looks; the eSports scene grows in Overwatch with occasional rebalancing of existing characters and new mechanics introduced with new character options. As frustrating as the loot box situation is, spawning countless attempts to pillage the same gold mine fuelled by addictive personalities and players just looking for more skins (sometimes breaking/rigging the whole game in cases like Shadow of War and Star Wars Battlefront… Looking at you, EA…) you’d be a fool not to recognize that Blizzard nailed a lot of elements to pull together a really successful multiplayer game.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a single-player story-driven game that claimed multiple awards and solid success despite such little marketing. Audiences were starved for something like this, a polished, well-designed game with careful, hard effort that told the story it wanted. It really feels like something the creators made to satisfy themselves just as much as the audience, like they wanted to tell a story and make it intensely detailed to boot.
In a way, this reminds me of how I felt with Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse– not just something made to make money, but a story someone decided to invest money and resources into so hard work could produce something incredible.
That’s what a lot of big publishers forget. They are companies and their goal is always to make money, but they fail to realize that funding stories with passion, even linear and story-based, will get them more money and credibility in the long run than launching yet another online sandbox casino.