Local multiplayer is slipping from the gaming mainstream. Games that were once defined by their incorporation of split-screen and cooperative campaign have been cutting the features in recent years. In part one of this article I traced the decline of local multiplayer through the Halo franchise and discussed some of the attitudes that inform this evidently industry-wide trend. It is vital to understand that local multiplayer is not merely an inferior predecessor to online multiplayer, but a form of gaming that provides a unique connection between players. Although we must move into the future of the industry that does not mean that we have to forget and give up our past.
Rays of Hope
Despite industry trends there are some series and companies that continue to support local multiplayer. Nintendo, for example, does support the spirit of chaotic local multiplayer, a sensation they arguably started with the Nintendo 64. Many of the strongest games for the Wii U console incorporate or demand local multiplayer to be experienced to their fullest extent such as Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. Even franchises like Mario that were built on single player ideals have experimented with multiple players. Yet even Nintendo has made some compromises, as can be most seen in their latest successful new intellectual property Splatoon. This family-friendly take on the shooter genre seems a perfect fit for the split screen multiplayer popularized in the N64 game 007: Goldeneye but they have restricted it to a single 1V1 skirmish mode. Although Nintendo supports local multiplayer in games that have proven themselves or feature the mode as inseparable from their identity, they seem less concerned with expanding it.
Outside of Nintendo there are still some examples of games that support local co-op and split screen. In fact, a recent announcement revealed that Gears of War 4 would feature local cooperative campaign. While this announcement may seem promising, upon reflection it is actually slightly disturbing that a series built on the foundation and promise of local co-op would need to announce this as news. Shouldn’t there be a tacit understanding that this is an integral part of the franchise?
At this point you might be asking yourself, “So what?” Why does it matter if video games are moving towards a more significant online community? Why does local multiplayer matter? My first response would be to ask if you’ve ever played Smash Bros. with three friends. Local multiplayer provides something that no other gaming experience can offer: true human presence.
Technology as a whole has been under a bit of scrutiny lately. Many people are starting to wonder just how well we’re truly connected through our “social” media and the World Wide Web. Games face a similar dilemma: are we interacting with technology or with people? Local multiplayer answers this question squarely in favor of the latter.
The question of where you find human connection is an important one regardless of whether you play video games or not. Let’s be honest, there are not many features in video games that encourage the active forging of friendships. There are social elements in online games and there are plenty of stories of people who have met online and developed significant relationships. This is not an aspect I mean to discredit, but there’s something different and more personal about being in the same room as another human being. It’s easy to see someone’s gamer tag online and disassociate the person from what you see in game. This isn’t possible when that person is in the room. You see their body language, have a better ear for their tone of voice, and, in my experience, interact in a far more candid manner.
What we experience as human beings, not just as gamers, is always far more impactful when we share it with other people. Not just our ideas or perceptions, but the physical and emotional connection that can only arise from being present with each other. That’s the essence of friendship, the foundation of human empathy.
A Personal Affair
As a child and young adolescent I had difficulty meeting people. I was very shy and never really knew how to make conversation, yet I made friends because I met people with similar interests, people who played video games. We consolidated our friendships by competing in Super Smash Bros. and created valuable memories playing through the Halo campaigns. Some of the people who are most dear to me are the ones whose relationships were deepened when we got together, face to face, to play video games. It brought a warmth and cheer to my life that, to this day, I hold very precious. The hours I’ve spent playing games online were also eminently enjoyable, but I find that they lack that warmth.
There is a reason I call this the “loss” of local multiplayer and not, as I was tempted to when I started writing, its “death.” This is what I want us to consider as we move forward: what are we losing when we do not support this kind of community building, this kind of connection? Not everyone has the same kind of experiences. There are many gamers I’m sure who do not have the fond memories I do of getting twelve friends together to play Halo for hours, or taking a break from homework to play Smash Bros. with my brother. I do not mean to discredit other types of experiences. Rather, I want to illuminate this side of gaming that has given me so much over the years. It is a facet of gaming that provides something unique, something that is fundamentally different from the experience offered by any other game mode or form. For this reason I don’t think it is something we should casually leave by the wayside because there is a newer or “better” option. At the very least we should ask ourselves as gamers, as a community, as an industry, whether local multiplayer is something we should leave in the past.
Video games often get a bad reputation for encouraging violence and isolation. Local multiplayer, the encouragement to forge connections and memories, is a direct contradiction to this erroneous assumption. Video games are not a barrier to human connection. They can, in fact, foster it.