Single-player games have felt mired in a swamp of carefully crafted sameness for a long while now, especially at the big end of town. There’s been a persistent (and completely understandable) tendency towards trend-chasing. I’ve written before about how that sapped my enthusiasm for single-player games, but I mention it again now because 2023 feels like a year of correction. Certain successes, certain failures, and the distinct tenor of this year’s not-E3 season have me more hopeful for the future of single-player games than I have been in quite some time.
It’s not that they disappeared or became universally bland, but the rough patch can be traced back to 2007. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare burst onto the scene and reshaped the landscape overnight. The age of multiplayer was thrust upon us, and the result was that everything had to be playable with others. The mandate saw some of the uniqueness shaved off everything from Dead Space to Assassin’s Creed to God of War to make the core gameplay transferable to the expectations of a multiplayer audience.
From there, we ran headlong into the open-world era, where the single-player experience became an everything soup of mismatched mechanics and madcap map markers. Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Mafia III, and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst are just a few names that spring to mind to characterize the phase. And most recently, there’s been the arms race to maximum content with the addition of an endless trickle of live-service elements. Let me be clear — more than a few great games have stood out from the morass, but it’s never felt like the promise of distinct, exciting single-player games quite reached the critical mass that it has now.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes 2023 feel so different. It’s not like recent years haven’t been frontloaded with excellence, whether that’s Resident Evil 2 and Kingdom Hearts 3 in 2019 or Dying Light 2, Horizon Forbidden West, and Elden Ring just last year. Although… maybe those examples highlight part of the reason. Almost all of those five games are sprawling beasts. Compare that to this year, when the much slimmer Hi-Fi Rush and Dead Space remake dominated mindshare. Since then, the single-player games of 2023 have gone from strength to strength: Hogwarts Legacy, Atomic Heart, Tchia, Resident Evil 4, Dead Island 2, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, and — of course — The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. And there’s plenty more still to come.
The real turning point, though, has been the showcase season of recent weeks and some of the news that’s coincided with that. One of the most intriguing nuggets is that EA is sunsetting BioWare’s involvement with Star Wars: The Old Republic to focus on single-player games. Following on from EA leaning heavily into multiplayer not all that long ago, it’s an encouraging sign, especially with Jedi: Survivor, Wild Hearts, and Immortals of Aveum among its 2023 bookings.
That news came off the back of a discomfiting PlayStation Showcase. Sure, Spider-Man 2 was a welcome headliner, and the third-party highlights of Alan Wake 2, Phantom Blade Zero, Metal Gear Solid Delta: Snake Eater, and Dragon’s Dogma 2 definitely make for enticing single-player offerings. However, it was clear that Sony was setting a different first-party agenda for the next little while, swinging for the fences with its upcoming multiplayer slate of Marathon, Fairgame$, Helldivers 2, and Concord. From arguably the most stalwart single-player publisher in the industry, it was a tad worrisome.
Thankfully, almost every other presentation stepped into the breach. With Summer Game Fest, the Future Games Show, Xbox Games Showcase, and others, there was a wealth of single-player games. What’s exciting, though, isn’t just the volume; it’s the breadth.
Starfield, Star Wars Outlaws, and Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora absolutely fit the bill of everything-soup games, but Avowed reportedly takes a more streamlined approach to RPG design. Alan Wake 2 and Daymare 1994: Sandcastle look to deliver adventure horror vibes alongside the more intense survival horror of Silent Hill 2. We already knew that Assassin’s Creed: Mirage would take the series back to its more focused roots, but Ubisoft is also taking the throwback approach with a new 2D Prince of Persia game. Lies of P is getting great buzz, The Invincible feels like something of a return to the straightforwardness of the walking sim genre since it’s gotten a little clogged with obtuse puzzles and action elements, and JRPGs are well represented with Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, Metaphor: ReFantazio, and Persona 5 Tactica. Beyond that, there’s the indie sector, which remains a veritable treasure trove.
See, there are games that you can play alone and then there are games that are designed for direct one-to-one engagement, where narrative, immersion, and clarity are the heart of the experience. The difference is in Fallout 76 vs. Fallout 4 or Borderlands vs. Bulletstorm.
I hesitate to call it old-school, although that throwback mentality absolutely plays a role. Many of the originals that have been remade in recent years are beloved not only because they’re good but because they’re distinct. Even now, there’s not much else like Silent Hill 2 or Like a Dragon: Ishin!, while Ratchet & Clank-alikes are a critically endangered species. After too long where everything felt a little bit like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed or Dark Souls or Minecraft or Borderlands, it’s great to see the AAA gaming space returning to the idea that not all single-player games need to appeal to everyone by hooking into the hot trend. Unique vibes and a strong vision make for a much better sales pitch, and there’s plenty of those going around at the moment.