The Leaderboard: In Defense of Tacked-On Multiplayer

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I have a shameful confession: I actually like “tacked-on” multiplayer modes. I delight in their mediocrity. I spend more time playing them than they deserve. Over the last five years or so, as developer after developer announced their superfluous multiplayer modes, I’ve heard your collective groans and even echoed them myself to save face with you.

BioShock 2, Dead Space 2, Spec Ops and now Tomb Raider! When will it end?” I cried.

But secretly, I wanted them to keep on coming and, now, I’m worried that they’re falling out of fashion. 2K boldly sold BioShock: Infinite without a multiplayer mode. Other developers are trying to incorporate their multiplayer modes into the narratives of their games. Each of Halo 4’s Spartan Ops, for example, is presented as an episodic addition to the single-player campaign. And Ubisoft bends over backwards to provide narrative justification for the Assassin’s Creed multiplayer.

I’ll grudgingly admit that it would probably be good for the tacked-on multiplayer modes to go the way of the dodo. I know that they are often hollow attempts to stave off used game sales. I’m familiar with the common wisdom that less resources spent on a half-hearted multiplayer could result in a better all-around product. But I’ll miss them if they ever go away. Why? To explain myself, I have to take you (and your justifiable skepticism) on a journey back to my innocent California youth.

In the early ‘90s, my cousin Andrew and I would escape the oppressive heat of Long Beach summers by playing with our superhero action figures indoors. Throughout all of our play sessions, we never once reenacted a scene from a comic book or a movie. No traditional narrative structure could be found in our play. We didn’t solve any crimes or confront any supervillains; we just improvised. Batman, perched on a bunk bed balcony, would soulfully confess his loneliness while Spider-Man obnoxiously head-banged to heavy metal at his side.

For Andrew and me, there was a peculiar joy in wresting these characters from their contexts, in extracting them from their narrative trappings and deploying them for our own twisted purposes. We cast Batman as a hopeless romantic precisely because he was such a stoic in the comics and we transformed Spider-Man into a metalhead precisely because he’s such a winningly boyish character.

In narratology, the term diegesis describes the whole fabric of a piece of fiction: the characters, the world they inhabit, and the events that unfold within that world. But storytelling practices often make use of extradiegetic elements. Most films have soundtracks that aren’t actually playing out of speakers in the world of the film. And some books rely on headings to inform you of changes in time or location: “Washington D.C. 2014.” What Andrew and I felt as children was the curious pleasure of pulling an iconic character out of the diegesis and into a strange, improvisatory world.

Tacked-on multiplayer modes in mainstream games give me this same extradiegetic pleasure. I’m in love with the impossible strangeness of playing as Lara Croft with two other Lara Crofts beside me. And I’m delighted every time I see an ostensibly slow, plodding Big Daddy frantically running around in circles instead. I get to forget about the single-player diegesis and tinker with new configurations of characters, settings and events.

But of all these extradiegetic pleasures, the sweetest of all is the “taunt” button in the Uncharted franchise’s multiplayer. At any time during a match, you can press a button to make your character perform a comic gesture. They’re intended for moments of triumph (hence the “taunt” descriptor) but they’re so delightful that most Uncharted players can’t resist pressing the button at inconvenient moments. The joy I feel when Nathan Drake flexes his muscles like a cartoon gorilla or when I see Sully enthusiastically blow a kiss over the corpse of a vanquished foe—that joy never loses its luster.

I don’t just like these taunts, though. I need them. In Uncharted, they act as a necessary safety valve that I use to release the silliness lurking behind the bombast of the single-player’s action movie narrative. Most mainstream video game narratives are stiflingly self-serious and tacked-on multiplayer modes so often offer a much-needed opportunity for goofy fun or a chance to make otherwise boring characters play against type.

A game like Red Faction: Armageddon, for instance, would have been unbearable without an extradiegetic safety valve. Its generic save-the-world story left such a bland taste in my mouth that could only be washed away with a wave-based cooperative survival mode. After the campaign credits rolled, I instinctively opened the multiplayer to see if I could salvage any value whatsoever from the game. What followed was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in a game.

There were just two of us in the lobby. Neither of us had headsets but as the match got underway, we developed a makeshift system of communication. After we cleared the first few waves of enemies, my silent companion led me to his wondrous hiding place, a small building at the base of a hill with only one tiny entrance.

Once we occupied the building, we only needed two tools to survive: the Rail Driver (a sniper rifle that shoots through walls) and the Nano Forge (a tool for reconstructing damaged buildings). While one of us used the Rail Driver to snipe enemies through the walls of our hideout, the other player quickly repaired those walls with the Nano Forge.

Nothing we were doing was out of the ordinary, diegetically speaking. While the Rail Driver and the Nano Forge have extravagant futuristic effects, they’re also believable within the futuristic fiction of the game.

But then my silent companion showed me another wonderful secret. I turned around to find him holding a miniature unicorn with a rainbow horn. He squeezed it and a destructive rainbow laser beam shot out from the unicorn’s hindquarters.

“What in the world?” I whispered to myself. My companion, hundreds of miles away, was probably laughing gleefully at my shock.

The unicorn was Mr. Toots, the most powerful weapon in Red Faction: Armageddon and a radical extradiegetic departure from the fiction of Red Faction. In subsequent matches, I figured out how to equip the unicorn as well. With our twin unicorns stowed away, we huddled together in the safety of our building—sniping, repairing, sniping, repairing—and, when only a handful of enemies remained, we’d whip out our mythical beasts, charge out of our hiding place and unleash a devastating array of rainbow laser beams, vaporizing everything in our path. When all was calm, I doubled over with laughter. And then I cried at how beautiful it all was.

Samantha Allen is a PhD student at Emory University who also writes online about gender, sexuality and video games. Her work has appeared on The Border House, Kotaku, Salon and Thought Catalog. She tweets @CousinDangereux.