I was leveling through Stranglethorn Vale in World of Warcraft in early 2005, working on a series of quests that involved killing a bunch of animals based loosely on characters from The Jungle Book, and I was near the end of it, fighting an elite tiger.
I almost had him down before an orc ran up and stabbed me in the back, killed me, and teabagged my corpse. He then finished off the tiger, even though he probably wasn’t on the quest. I had to run back to the quest area from the graveyard, wait for the tiger to spawn and restart the fight.
This is a familiar experience for many players of MMO games like World of Warcraft: you've nearly completed a mission to escort an NPC through waves of enemies, or you've nearly killed a difficult monster. Your health is depleted and your most powerful abilities are on cooldown. And then another player kills you, and you fail your quest.
The orc, ironically enough, was a troll
Many players hate this, so they play on servers where the rules forbid attacking other players without their consent. Those of us who choose to play on servers with PVP rules open ourselves up to being victims of such attacks either because we believe that these servers attract a "better" class of player, or because we are willing to submit to being attacked so we can have an opportunity to attack other players.
Now, let me tell you what happened to me last week: I was playing Shadow of Mordor, which is an entirely single-player game. I was trying to take down a pack of caragors. I don’t remember any caragors in Lord of the Rings, but they are common monsters in Shadow. They appear to be either carnivorous rhinos or lions with alopecia, but I digress.
I almost had the last one down, when this orc showed up and stabbed me in the back. He didn’t teabag me, but he had a bunch of taunts about how I either run away from fights or die all the time, and he was singing for some reason. The orc, ironically enough, was a troll.
Shadow of Mordor's much-praised nemesis system works like this: when you die, the Orc who deals the killing blow gets a name, like Lugtag the Poet or Grogsnout the Obnoxious. Grogsnout revels in your death by doing a sort of orcish end-zone dance, and he gets a bunch of epic loot as well.
Maybe he gets a breastplate that looks like it’s made out of somebody’s ribcage, or maybe he gets a Bane mask, because Shadow of Mordor is aboutat least as much as it is about hobbits. Other orcs who survived a fight with you, or orcs who had feasts or hunts or duels going on, also get to level up when you die. I’ve never seen a game that relishes the player’s failure as much as Shadow of Mordor.
Anyway, if you run into Grogsnout again and fail to kill him, he will level up some more, and then he'll start hunting you, which means he'll spawn in the midst of your other battles and missions and attack you while you're busy dealing with other enemies. And every time his intervention causes you to die, he gets even more difficult to deal with.
In the early part of the game, when you don't have your most powerful abilities, adding an extra captain to the mix can make many fights unwinnable, especially if he’s got a ranged attack that can poison you. Your NPC nemesis is basically the same as a high-level World ofplayer showing up to murder you at the most inconvenient times while you are questing.
This is part of a trend
Shadow of Mordor isn't the only recent game to impose this sort of mechanic on console gamers. Dark Souls and Watch Dogs both have multiplayer features that allow hostile players to "invade" your play-session and disrupt your single-player activities. The console version of Diablo has a mechanic that powers up monsters that kill you and then sends them to attack other players on your friends lists. Adding a sort of procedurally generated hit squad to games is a popular angle right now.
And Alien Isolation is a giant spaceship version of WoW's Stranglethorn Vale. The xenomorph is basically a level 90 player who ganks you repeatedly for 20 hours.
So why are developers introducing mechanics to single-player games that seem to recreate a widely unpopular experience from multiplayer titles?
It can be easy to dislike online-only and shared-world games. The presence of other heroes means that the player only gets to be one hero among many; a generic warrior instead of Batman or Master Chief. The need for an economy among many players restricts the rate at which the game can splash around rewards, so collecting a powerful set of gear can take weeks of real-time play.
Players are getting bored, and developers seem to be looking for ways to shake things up
But the kinds of interactions that are possible in a shared-world or MMO game introduce elements of unpredictability into game play that could otherwise feel routine and repetitive. Developers of games like Shadow of Mordor seem to be trying to provide that kind of dynamic experience to the mainstream console audience, and that audience is responding enthusiastically.
The prevailing trend in game design for the past few years has been assuring that everyone who buys a game can finish it. Players who get hopelessly stuck on a difficult event and give up in the middle of a campaign probably won’t buy a sequel, after all.
But plentiful quicksaves, checkpoints and gentle difficulty curves rob games of tension and stakes. Players are getting bored, and developers seem to be looking for ways to shake things up.
A player invading your game to hack you in Watch Dogs sets you on a frantic scramble to hunt them down, breaking up the monotonous process of collecting the game’s side objectives and collectibles. Suddenly the stakes seem real. We don’t want the other person to win.
In Shadow of Mordor the fact that the orc captains come after you at inconvenient times makes you feel much more invested in the process of hunting them down and dominating or executing them. The campaign in Shadow is pretty short, and the story isn’t terribly engaging.
If the named orcs didn’t have personality — if they didn’t give you a reason to hate them — the process of wiping them out would seem like padding between missions rather than a gratifying activity. Instead it’s become of the most praised aspects of the game.
Getting killed or sidetracked in these games and being unable to do anything about it may feel unfair or frustrating, but at least it isn’t boring, and that might be a step in the right direction. Game designers have taken a frustrating aspect of online play and turned it into a single-player mechanic that feels fresh.