Golf videogames simplify one of the world's most complex and rewarding toys.
I attended a talk by Jason Rohrer at this year's GDC titled "Beyond Single Player" [Click on the first link at this page to watch it]. It was very good and the ideas posed in the talk were sound and also very exciting. There was a tone to it though. The kind of tone that must accompany progressive ideas in order to move forward and shed the past. In this case, single-player games.
He makes the point that multiplayer is unique to our medium, so why not celebrate that? Investigate it in relation to meaningful games or "art games" as some call them. I think it's an interesting idea, so I've been mulling it over, and I guess what I've come up with is not so much a counterpoint, but more of an abstraction as to the "why." And that starts with the best case for a meaningful single player game I've ever come across: golf.
I've talked about this very subject before on here, but I think I've come up with something a bit more applicable to games. You see, I started playing golf a long time ago at a very young age and there is nothing multiplayer about golf. It is the most single player "real life" game I've ever played. Instructors, mentors, pros or anyone who's played long enough will tell you it's a battle between you and the course. Of course it's more than that. It's an internal battle as well. To withstand the unforgiving and impossible physics of it all you've got to keep your eye on the horizon, unfazed by the weather, wind and that last shank into the woods. Things will go wrong, and if you've ever seen a tournament on television you'll notice most of the pros drive it into the trees more often than you'd think. But somehow they keep their composure, line up their shot, and make it out of their with a chance for par.
I consider golf to be the hardest game [I don't like to consider it a sport] on the planet. Not the most athletic, the most strenuous, [that's for sure] or even the most competitive, but certainly the most challenging. The difficulty is baked into the laws of physics. "Get this tiny ball into that tiny hole 450 yards away in 4 strokes with this piece of metal." Of course you won't get it in there in 4 strokes without years of practice, and even then making par is a victory over the course. By scoring par on any hole, you've met the challenge and can hold your head high, because the odds were entirely stacked against you. It's this insurmountable challenge with hundreds of variables, many of them mental, that makes golf such an intriguing game. All of these things pose an illusive, yet massive challenge to the player so that he might go out to the same golf course hundreds of times and find new challenges every time.
Sounds a lot like traditional multiplayer games actually. Instead of the system being incomprehensibly complex, it is relatively simple. Games like Chess, Go, Counter Strike and Starcraft are all played within a relatively restrictive simulated environment. There are no fluid dynamics, weather models, elaborate sets of muscle memory, friction issues and so on. The real world provides something incredibly desirable when it comes to designing a game in it. It's so complex that instead of experts "gaming it" down to a series of procedural maneuvers and tutorials, it must be felt. The player uses their intuition. [Cha-ching tagline! ;) ] If I'm facing someone in Starcraft there are a million things running through my mind and none of them could be read off of a ready-made laundry list. The human being is actually the incredibly complex portion of multiplayer games. You've traded the real life laws of physics for a real life human being.
When these real life human beings get together in a head-to-head game using real life physics we usually call them sports. No big news flash there. But sports have historically had a big leg up on traditional games [table-top] until the internet came around. The games that have gripped me over there years have been consistently those that must be felt [due to their multiplayer modes]. The real-time gameplay of Halo, Starcraft, Counter Strike, and Street Fighter is so intangible and unpredictable that it allows for an unparalleled depth of experience. These aren't my all-time favorite video games, because others might have secondary elements that provided a sense of nostalgia that the others couldn't match. Though, I think that cuts to the core of what a single player experience can be. Because it's played alone, there are certain experiences and feelings that could not be felt if there were other people playing with you. The intimacy of the single player experience has a tendency to reflect certain truths about oneself, just like it did with me during all those years on the golf course.