The future of the AAA single-player game may never have been more closely scrutinised than it is right now.
Loot boxes are an increasingly common fixture in blockbusters of all kinds, as is the focus on the multiplayer and online features that will yield the greatest financial returns. Finding big-budget, story-driven games outside of a platform holder's first-party line-up is increasingly difficult, and big publishers seem to be turning away from any project that can't be operated and monetised as a service.
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The closure of Visceral and the rebooting of a Star Wars game many expected to resemble Naughty Dog's Uncharted is one recent example. But consider also that story-driven RPG specialist Bioware is now focusing on Anthem, an online multiplayer action game with more than a shade of Destiny.
Last week, in a Critical Consensus appraisal of Tango Gameworks The Evil Within 2, we noted that Bethesda is one of the few big publishers that still regards narrative-rich single-player titles as its stock in trade. In three-and-a-half years it has released nine games that fit the mold, starting with Wolfenstein: The New Order in May 2014 and culminating with Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus this week.
"The only way we can create these super immersive narrative experiences is if we can solely focus on the single-player"
Outside of the console companies, it may be that no publisher has invested so much in a style of game that many critics worry is no longer economically viable. However, when we spoke to Machine Games' narrative designer Tommy Tordsson Björk at Gamescom this year, he insisted that it is only through this focus on single-player that more interesting, immersive and (crucially) progressive stories can be told.
"The only way we can create these super immersive narrative experiences is if we can solely focus on the single-player," he said. "Having a multiplayer component in this work process would just dilute it all. That's the danger if you try to do two things at once.
"We just keep our heads together, and focus on making a really good single-player game... Doing our thing is what makes the game great."
None of the Wolfenstein releases since Bethesda rebooted the series - The Old Blood, a prequel, was published in 2015 - have featured a multiplayer mode, and this is very much reflects how MachineGames sees its work. When online modes are added to single-player games - Uncharted, for example, or Mass Effect - they tend to draw attention to combat and violence at the expense of other, arguably more essential strengths. According to Tordsson Björk, though, MachineGames doesn't even regard itself as a developer of first-person shooters.
"We call them action adventures rather than shooters," he said. "Because we feel there's so much more to them than just shooting."
That much was clear from The New Colossus' headlining role in Bethesda's E3 press conference; a stylishly assembled montage that offered no shortage of violence, certainly, but also humour, pathos, and an obvious willingness to lean into the political and cultural fabric of its Sixties setting. The counter-culture, civil rights, feminism, and even the spearad of psychedelic drugs were all in there somewhere, suggesting an even richer and more complex tapestry than The New Order. For his part, Tordsson Björk seemed confident that the finished game will deliver on that promise.
"That's all part of it," he said. "It's a fictional setting, of course, and it's a crazy story, but we tried to stay honest and tell it as honestly as we can. That's our goal.
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"There are so many things you aren't seeing. We're definitely pushing the limits, but at the same time continuing what makes Wolfenstein really special: the drama, the human relationships, with dark humour and violence. It's pushing them all, on all fronts."
The New Colossus emerged from E3 as one of the most talked about games of the show; as close to a validation that "we have something really, really good on our hands" as any developer gets months before release. The studio was confident, Tordsson Björk said, "but even though I had expectations that people would react [positively] to the game, I didn't expect that people would be so hyped."
"It's horrible seeing Nazis in America, but we started writing this story back in 2014"
Hype can be tremendously valuable when it comes to selling a product - and it's not unreasonable to suggest that the performance of a title like Wolfenstein in the current climate will be closely monitored, even outside of Bethesda - but hype also has the effect of raising expectations, sometimes to a degree that can be difficult to meet. In the case of The New Colossus, though, expectations around the game have been tainted by circumstances far beyond MachineGames control; specifically, the rise of far-right and extremist political groups in the US, an uncomfortable parallel mentioned in a number of hands on articles coming out of E3.
For Tordsson Björk and his team, the decision to embrace real-world events and culture to a greater degree than The New Order seemed like a creative decision loaded with potential when they first started. In the political atmosphere of 2017, however, it can read like a deliberate attempt at political commentary - a notion that Tordsson Björk was quick to dispel.
"For me, those are the stories that I really like, where you have a flow of different tones, a shift in atmosphere. You can feel the emotion better if you have something to contrast it; the light and the dark, humour and seriousness. Those contrasts are what I like about storytelling.
"It's horrible seeing Nazis in America, but we started writing this story back in 2014," he said. "We couldn't possibly know what was going to happen by 2017. What we want to do when we write the story is to make something more timeless, and not a specific commentary on our time."
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While Bethesda's marketing for The New Colossus has been more direct in its reference to the political climate in the US right now, Tordsson Björk is obviously sincere. Wolfenstein has always been about Nazis, after all, and the fact that MachineGames' work resonates so strongly is more down to the skill of those involved, and a willingness to push games beyond the safe, familiar subjects and themes on which so many of them are based.
Not having multiplayer? That just increases the chances that MachineGames will get the balance right.
"To me, that's the most interesting thing about working in games," Tordsson Björk said. "Pushing the boundaries. Trying out things that we haven't seen before. When you write for games, there are so many avenues that haven't been explored."