Sometimes the best relationships we have in games don’t involve other characters. Sometimes the road traveled alone is the best path, the most fulfilling path, the most sensible path. For every game that offers plenty of opportunities for teamwork and romance, there are dozens of others where these choices don’t exist. Your character — the John Marstons, Nathan Drakes, Batmans, and Altaïrs – are alone in the world with nothing at their disposals except their wits and the person at the other end of the controller. Sure, you (the character) will interact with other characters during the game to various ends, but you (the player) don’t have a stake in those relationships. No matter what saintly or nefarious paths you follow, John Marston will always save his wife and son; Nathan Drake will always choose Elena; Batman will always save the city from the Joker; Altaïr will always make his kills. In all these cases your mind is set on whatever needs to be done for the game – the missions to complete, the puzzles to solve, the items to find. You don’t have to worry about finding favor with others because they are all programmed to like or dislike you from the start.
Of course, in any just about any game that offers relationships of one sort or another, they are usually optional. In Mass Effect, Fable, and Dragon Age you can choose to ignore potential teammates and/or you don’t have to fall in love at all. You can choose to play the game completely unhindered by personal choices. I opted out of all the personal/romantic choices in one ME playthrough and it was an….unusual experience. I had to make all the same choices but they didn’t carry any weight because I didn’t care one way or the other about anyone else. It made me feel both selfish and powerful…and maybe a little dangerous. It was very much like playing an old-school game where your goal was to simply get from point A to point B in whatever manner you could, just with more talking.
There are also occasions in game where relationships can be started and abandoned, or are made part of the story leaving you to decide your characters’ fate. In the latter camp, Beyond: Two Souls comes to mind. [Skip ahead to the next paragraph now if you want to avoid SPOILERS!] In BTS, the main character, Jodie, developed a number of relationships throughout the game. At the end of it all, you were asked to choose if Jodie should live her life with one of those other people or live it alone. I chose the lone path. The details as to why I made that choice are a bit involved, but suffice to say here that I didn’t like how the relationships were integrated (using that term lightly) in the story; therefore, I didn’t care for any of the choices. It made sense to me at that point for Jodie to be by herself. If I could have chosen a solitary path for Jodie in the game, I probably would have. [END SPOILERS.]
Although the game industry has made wonderful strides towards creating and improving relationship mechanics in games, there’s still something special in taking on enormous challenges by oneself. Older first-person shooters like DOOM and platformers like Super Metroid and Castlevania demonstrate this really well. It’s just you (and some heavy weaponry) against the monsters. There’s no one cheering you one, no one at your side with healing powers, no one to mourn your death. You are responsible for your own actions; if you die, it’s your fault. Defeating (difficult) bosses brings about a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Finding secrets make you feel like the best sleuth in the world. If there’s one that that sets video games apart from other forms of interactive entertainment it’s that victory is oftentimes hard-earned and very gratifying. In real life, those virtual victories translate into general positivity – you can conquer the world because you just did (in a game)!
Choice is something that’s come to define our society, so it only makes sense that the notion should spill over into gaming. From taking the untrodden path in a game to find secrets to making the world’s best team to finding the perfect partner, games afford us plenty of opportunities to create unique experiences. Those who choose to play Mass Effect as lone soldiers will have a completely different gaming encounter than those who choose to meet and greet everyone who walks into their paths. Unlike games of the past where one could only travel in a straight line from beginning to end, with many of today’s complex games, there’s no “wrong” way to play. Sometimes that way involves other characters and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s up to you to decide.
What are some of your favorite single-player-only games? Have you ever chosen to cast aside relationships in games to play as a lone soul against the world?