The End of Visceral and the Future of Perpetual
Yesterday, the news that EA was shutting down Visceral Games and passing off their developing Star Wars title in order to shape it into something else dominated a great deal of community discussion. As more details emerged, one thing became clear: for EA, at least, with their “games as service” mantra, the single-player adventure’s twists, turns, and charm are a thing of the past and the future lies in the perpetual, the game with updates and events, the game you can always turn to. I followed discussions on social media and lamented to a few friends about what a dismal future that might be for all of us… and then I came home and played a few games of Fortnite Battle Royale while chatting with my partner about Halloween loot boxes in Overwatch. Meanwhile, that last bit of Dishonored: Death of the Outsider remains unfinished because I haven’t had the time to sit down and dig into it.
Reader, a dark guilt swept over me in that moment, because I am helping create a landscape I thought I didn’t want. But is that true?
I’ve railed against the time commitment of MMOs and high-skilled shooters, microtransactions, and multiplayer-focused games that require access to high-speed internet connections, and yet here I am, spending the gaming time I have during the week on games that are building that very culture. I don’t have much time, I tell myself, but outside of the recent charity marathon, the only single-player game I’ve spent any time at all on is a little Stardew Valley to relax. And the games I enjoy, really enjoy, the Dishonoreds, the Firewatches? Most of them (hundreds of hours in State of Decay notwithstanding) I play three times at most, and usually only if there’s something else to be done, some new way to experience the narrative, some other choices to make. I’ve never replayed all the episodes of Life Is Strange. Never started over in Skyrim. I struggled to think of the games I’ve treated the way I treat Fortnite, Overwatch, and Hearthstone, and besides State of Decay, I can only really think of Don’t Starve and The Flame in the Flood.
Yet I still rail against the games-as-service notion, the multiplayer experience, the game that requires such dedication it becomes the only game. I had my MMO period and even now, I’ve reconciled myself to never getting much better than 12-13 in Hearthstone because I just don’t want to spend the time grinding up every month. I don’t play competitive Overwatch because it’s not worth it. I’m satisfied finishing second or third in Fortnite Battle Royale. And the Life Is Strange prequel and What Remains of Edith Finch sit unplayed on my Xbox.
But I don’t think the problem is these games; the problem is time. I bought them. I will play them. And since I include games in my classroom teaching, I spread the gospel of story-driven titles wherever I go. So I wonder: do we want only these multiplayer, popcorn-entertainment/play-when-you-can experiences, or do we still hunger for story? I do. In terms of the time issue, maybe this is what drives episodic releases (along with money, of course), but even then, who wants to stop in the middle of an episode? I don’t, usually, so the games sit unplayed until I can find a weekend night without anything else to interfere, The struggle is real.
I don’t want to given in to a games-as-service future. So where’s the middle ground, and what does that look like?