The Elusive Target: Shared Social Events in Singleplayer Gaming

This is an archived post from the decrepit Image Music Text. Art forger Sergei Larin must have rubbed someone the wrong way after copying some expensive jewelry. The price is his life, and Agent 47 will be collecting. The player is given one chance to assassinate the target; a single mistake and the AI character is gone forever. The pressure is fierce: only 53% of attempting players succeeded in Larin’s death. Choosing the tools is half the battle; careful navigation through the Parisian level is the other. Succeed or fail, the player behind Agent 47 will have a story to tell (and to show in the case of YouTubers and Twitch streamers). Listeners and viewers will tune in and share these limited experiences with each other: how they accidentally took out the wrong character, how everything fell into chaos, or how their preferred YouTuber/Twitcher expertly finished (or bunked) the challenge. Reddit discussions will be made about each player’s own methodology and Tweets will curse in disappointment after Larin got away. How does such a solitary single-player game become abuzz with discussion over an inserted AI character?

The significance of shared social events has been developing over the past decade with increasingly common online-tethered multiplayer and single-player games. At times the two genres have offered the hybridization of a solitary player affecting and being effected by external AI or human forces. Dark Souls’ “Invasion” combat intervention system or Sim City’s inter-player resource trading have provided recent examples that wildly varied in their results. Compared to the city builder’s online components, “Invasion” challenges were strongly potent in their emotional context: with the introduction of an enemy player within the Dark Souls universe, an “X” factor was introduced. The foreign player does not adhere to the rules and systems that each standard enemy employs to attack the player character, and can even discover unique exploitations that could give an edge to their Invasion. Therefore, the victim of the Invasion produces a one-of-a-kind narrative of failure or success in relation to the inserted human enemy. On the other hand, Sim City’s connection with other players are asynchronous and passive. With no conflict between cities and simply a trading of resources, a brief “thanks” could sum up the narrative structure of inter-player interactions. For limited gameplay emergence such as Sim City the complexity of one’s personal “narrative” is up to the game’s creator, as it has been for decades of standalone gaming.

For better or worse, one could imagine Destiny’s persistent game areas as a mix between Dark Souls and Sim City online features. Particular areas throughout the single-player world have the player run into others of similar skill levels attempting to accomplish their own singleplayer objectives or at least exterminating the local flora and fauna. Player interactions are basic: players cannot inflict damage on each other, barely able to communicate beyond basic gestures (of which Bungie has kindly produced to purchase with real-world money). Though Destiny’s persistent areas contain visual artifacts similar to Dark Souls (gestures, acknowledgement by UI, common combat with AI enemies), none of the complex interactions are possible (think of the Dark Souls’ phenomenon of players morphing into statues to ambush unsuspecting players). Instead, the Sim City “asynchronous gameplay” mechanics can better define the interactions: the persistent worlds of Destiny is no more than an applied Graphical User Interface, a three-dimensional menu in which the player can find other players and attempt to invite into a party for the hope of more involved interaction. Just like resource trading, Destiny’s invite system requires little more than a list of names and a few clicks, but Bungie aimed to abstract in-game menus into gameplay for middling results. Online players flit through the world in a forgettable fashion and the player is all the more lonely in their recognition of the game’s underutilized persistent online mechanics.

We find at least three systems of online-tethered single player gaming: Dark Souls’ complex combat and collaboration systems facilitate personal narrative through challenge; Sim City’s resource trading reduces this narrative through asynchronous interactions; Destiny’s persistent worlds, similar to other MMOs, compromises player narrative in its attempt to beautify asynchronous interactions with limited player interactions. Finally, Hitman proposes a familiar but fresh online-tethered system that borrows elements from the previous three games’ own features, but seem to fix the issues outlined for Destiny:

  1. Introduce a relatively open-world level (Paris, Sapienza) with complex player agency with AI characters and combat mechanics (Dark Souls).
  2. Insert a limited resource (a new character that exists for a period of time) into this open-world level, but limited to the point that it is still dependent on the timeframe of the individual player’s engagement (Sim City and Destiny).

Along with Hitman’s backstory for the character Sergei Larin, the infamous art forger that may deserve to die, the developers have found a way to encourage a meta-narrative for his death. Along with stealth and diversion mechanics, the open-world level design allows the player to find dozens of ways to complete the Larin challenge. Even more so, due to Larin’s temporary nature, the player is only given one chance and thus must decide on a single method of execution. One method of assassination is highlighted by the nearly unlimited permutations of the step-by-step process leading up to Larin. The meta-narrative itself becomes a unique resource, transforming the experience into a personal story worth sharing.

For YouTubers, Twitch streamers, Tweeters and the eager commenters of Reddit, these unique stories have the potential to be similarly experienced and shared with their audience. The storyteller is able to insert their own perspective, personality and lore into the Hitman universe which the audience can internalize, define and enjoy accordingly. The Hitman universe is a canvas for the insertion of limited resources including developer-created AI characters but also player-created imaginations. Sergei Larin’s distinct hyper-scarcity enables the player/storyteller to insert their own limited resources, their own brand of internal consistency. Is Agent 47 a mass murderer who will stop at nothing to find Sergei? Is Agent 47 actually a vampire, and must wear the corresponding outfit before the kill? If so, the player will construct the persona and IO Interactive’s AI character will react accordingly. The audience will receive Hitman not as it was originally developed but upon the consumer/content makers’ personal construction of the universe.

A brief question: how is an internet-based insertion of a new character conceptually different from a procedurally generated AI character that can be found in games such as Fallout 4? The difference can be found in two observations:

  1. The “curated” character rather than the randomly generated character. Just as an individual may enjoy the custom-made playlist of a friend over a Pandora radio station, the semantic value of the “handmade” character is derived from supposed care and attention, as well as the implied internal consistency between the created character’s backstory and the enveloping Hitman universe.
  2. The character shared by all. Sergei Larin existed within every game that downloaded the update over a single weekend. For all intents and purposes, Larin is the Hitman’s version of a 15-minute celebrity for those involved and engaged with the universe. Conversely, auto-generated “Lando Tookbar” of Fallout 4 will most likely be found in a single game, too unimportant to be rendered again on another console or play through.

Hitman provides a unique method to a familiar concept of the “community event”. Within a fully single-player game, IO Interactive has found a way to involve their customers with each other by inserting a temporary but universal character into a one-of-a-kind experience. Larin was found all over the world, but only 53% were able to successfully execute him. Even less may have attempted with the knife or the fire hydrant or an accidental shooting from the bodyguard or a grenade or a poison in the wine. The many permutations of Larin’s life and death make for a good story to share in video, audio, or text form. The game becomes an extension of one’s creativity, personality, and individuality.