Let’s explore what makes multiplayer feel so separate from the lore and narrative significance of some games and so integral to others. It is so often something that has to be designed around. Why are there so many main characters in one place? Why to they keep coming back? Why does it all reset after 20 minutes when the match is over? Answers to such questions often take the form of either hacked together excuses (league of legends) or they are left unanswered (call of duty). There is nothing wrong with these approaches and I am not sure if there is a better way to approach session based multiplayer. however there is so much richness in what multiplayer can provide for games that it is sad to see it so standardized.
Two games that break this mold are Dark Souls (and its sequels) as well as Journey. Though I won’t be addressing either directly as there are plenty of resources and writings on each.
Instead let’s take a more generalistic look at anonymous multiplayer. By anonymous multiplayer I mean interaction with another player without knowing who they are and with no way of finding out or sharing who you are with them. It is predicated on the abstraction of communication to avoid allowing direct or comprehensive connection between players. The subset of expressions that players have at their disposal will be the tools with which they influence one another’s narrative. By removing specifically voice and open text communication it is very difficult for one player to disrupt the immersion of another. In fact it’s difficult for them not to contribute. In a similar way to Scott McCloud’s abstraction of the human face allowing the projection of a wider range of information, so too does the abstraction of player action and forms of communication allow for the projection of intent.
For example envision someone randomly joining your game, and they just stand there and watch you struggle. In all likelihood they just left the game on while they made a sandwich, however if there is no possibility of text or voice and therefor no expectation of it their action can take on a multitude of interpretations. Perhaps they are a callous observer, or a teacher or judge evaluating you, perhaps they see you as unworthy, or they are sympathetic but understand that this is something that you must do on your own.
Whichever role you give that person can easily comply with your narrative situation in the game. As soon as you give that person a microphone and they start trash-talking your mother all of that disappears.
Now let’s evaluate a more proactive situation. You randomly pop into someone else’s game and see they are being attacked by another player who had also joined. You now have a choice regarding who you will help, or if you will help. That decision is far more ‘real’ than a game decision between two battling NPCs (non-player characters). If you chose to save whoever seems to be losing, you will actually be coming to the rescue of another human being. You might even pretend to be on the side of the winner only to stab them in the back at the last second. Or maybe you just attack both, or try to get them to stop fighting. In all these cases, you are navigating a physical conversation with two other people in a way that is in many ways ‘real’.
Compare this to a single player experience where you meet two computer characters fighting. You might be forced to help one of them for narrative reasons, or whoever’s side you chose gives you a different in game item. Or maybe it’s meant to represent a moral decision to help you define your character. All of these cases require you to be immersed in order for them to have meaning whereas anonymous multiplayer can actively generate that immersion.
Below you’ll find a list of abstracted forms of interaction in Dark Souls. If you are familiar with the game feel free to skip this section.
Immersive multiplayer: allowing other players to influence one another through channels that prompt immersion through abstraction.
Levels of abstraction in dark souls:
Ghosts: momentary visions of other players. Preview Gear and alternate builds, know you might be seen in someone else’s world without being aware.
Bloodstains: Markers for where other players have died. warnings and dread. When you walk into a room soaked in the blood of other players it has a very different feeling than if the designers just put blood on the floor.
Petrified statues: other players that have died of curses (a fate worse than death in the game). Your body is turned into a statue that can be seen (and smashed) in other players’ games. Similar effect to bloodstains but one that takes longer to realize and is far scarier when you do.
Messages: Create location based messages using a very limited set of phrases and words in a madlib sort of construction format. You can also rate the messages of others. This can be used to help, or trick other players, though more commonly it is used for humor or sharing a sense of achievement.
Summoning: You can leave a sign to be summoned to other player’s games to help them.
Covenants: There are a lot of these, There are some that automatically send you to other people’s worlds to kill them, there are some that will send you to defend members of a separate covenant if they are being invaded. There are some that just let you invade whenever you want and the list goes on. This is where the anonymity can be contrasted to other games with direct forms of multiplayer (in which player avatars meet one another and can communicate openly).
In all these cases, interaction has been limited to maintain the anonymous quality that grants so much richness to the system. If communication became more direct so much would be lost.