With E3 come and gone, it’s now time to peel back the glossy advertising and review what we’ve seen with clearer eyes. The game I am paying the most attention to (though not one that I’m excited about) is Bioware’s Anthem, a four player coop experience promising the deep, quality storytelling we used to expect from the studio. With the failure of Mass Effect: Andromeda, it’s hard not to see Anthem as the fulcrum upon which Bioware’s gold developer status rests. What concerns and intrigues me most about Anthem is a) we’ve seen very little of it given how close we are to launch and, most importantly, b) it seems to think it can combine storytelling and multiplayer. It is the latter to which we now turn.
Storytelling and multiplayer often clash with one another due to the competing nature of their foci. Storytelling is often a personal experience with the player focusing (or not focusing) on the elements they find most compelling. Whether its cutscenes, logs, scenery, or dialog, players gravitate towards the parts of the story they enjoy the most. To make stories more compelling, games give players choices, try to create personal bonds with the player, and otherwise make the whole experience about the player holding the controller. The whole goal is to make one person lost in a magical world.
Multiplayer goes a different route. Rather than focus the game on the player, it focuses the players on the game. By giving players a common objective, multiplayer games create a sense of teamwork and comradery as players seek to achieve a common goal. That goal also provides a metric for progress with players succeeding or failing at the same speed. In this context, player chatter, coordination, and team exploration all further the player towards the ultimate objective. These are the exact things that kill a good video game story.
Combining the two styles works at cross purposes. A game can’t simultaneously make a player feel like the most important character in the story while making the game about the teamwork with three other players. “You’re special!” doesn’t work as a message when there’s clearly a crowd. Nor do the basic mechanics work either. Players in multiplayer games need to communicate, trade stories, and otherwise talk about elements of the game that destroy a sense of immersion. Even if a team somehow gets on the same wavelength in terms of immersion, there’s the problem of keeping everyone synced. Players excited about a story will still approach it at different speeds and times. The resulting clash just doesn’t work.
Imagine a team of players just completed a mission and headed back to town. Player A completes the quest and settles in for a drama fueled cutscene between characters they love. Just as the scene reaches its crescendo, Player B gets excited about a piece of loot they found. Finally, quieting Player B, Player A starts getting back into the groove when Player C starts laughing at a hilarious cutscene they’re enjoying. Once the laughter subsides, Player A starts crawling to the finish when Player D complains that they want to get back out and do quests. Goodbye story. Hello hating friends.
Bioware plans to address some of these issues by keeping story areas single player. Players will interact in instances all their own. While that sounds like a step in the right direction, it doesn’t solve the chatter issue or just general coordination with teammates. The multiplayer part will interfere with the story mode and weaken it.
…unless you aren’t playing with friends. The irony of this particular cooperative model is that it might well play best with strangers whom the player can dump once a mission concludes. Without the need to coordinate beyond the current battle, there’s no need to worry about politely sharing a chat channel or keeping up with the team. A player can putz around a story area for hours without angering a friend who just wants to get some exp. It’s weird, but maybe that’s how Anthem works. We’ll have to wait and see.