Hell Is Other People: Titanfall's Story-Free, Multiplayer-Only Dystopia

Loyal readers of Deadspin might be interested to know that this site's esteemed editor, Mr. Tommy Craggs, is a preternaturally gifted Halo player, or at least used to be. This would have been almost 10 years ago, in San Francisco, in the House of Debauchery, where most of us lived. We were a small but loyal band of players, brothers in arms and beer; the HOD, a turn-of-the-century Victorian with red velvet wallpaper and a creaking back parlor, was our sandlot.

As this was before the days of ubiquitous wi-fi, our crowning achievement was using borrowed TVs and a half a mile of ethernet cable to daisy-chain three first-gen Xboxes together, loaded with three separate copies of Halo, in three different rooms of the house, with two dudes to a box, so that six of us could battle it out on the same field of play, which really just meant that five of us served as target practice for one: good ol' Craggs. He had catlike reflexes, deadeye aim. If you caught site of him, it was best to just lay low, because alerting him to your presence by actually trying to kill him was a death sentence.

If you've ever played a multiplayer shooter—Goldeneye, Call of Duty, Battlefield, etc.— then you've played against someone like Craggs. Pickup sports the world over are littered with his type, competitors who don't just beat, but embarrass you. One hopes, by way of consolation, that for every Craggs you encounter, another competitor regards you as their Craggs. From curling to playground hoops to "Team Slayer," this is the promise of competitive play: With practice comes mastery, and with mastery comes the opportunity to teabag a fallen enemy's corpse.

This promise has never been kept for me. My tendency, in games both actual and virtual, is to plateau: I pick things up quickly, then level out. My learning curve looks more like a step function. I've never figured out the secret to smoothing it out, let alone ascending more than the first few steps. This is the main reason I loathe multiplayer shooters: I am doomed to suck at them [1]. The reason I suck at them is because I don't practice enough, and the reason I don't practice enough is because I see no point; the frustrations imposed on me by the Craggses of the world are not worth enduring if my only reward for doing so is that I might one day be good enough to subject others to them. The reason I play video games, the thing that motivates me to invest hours and hours into them, is to escape into the story, and there's no story to a multiplayer game, or if there is, then it's a story about whether or not I'll triumph over FecalFace420, and that story always ends the same way.

So far, my distaste for multiplayer mode has yet to prevent me from enjoying life as a gamer. Long gone are the days of Halo in the House of Debauchery. But for years now, I've been perfectly content to play the supposedly lackluster campaigns of games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, messing with the multiplayer just enough to get a sense for it and/or have my spirits crushed anew. However, certain signs have me concerned that these idyll days of blissful solo gaming are in jeopardy. The most distressing of these is Xbox One's Titanfall.

Now, Titanfall is an amazing game, one that elegantly combines a handful of semi-novel mechanics to create a uniquely compelling experience. This is not what worries me. What worries me is developer Respawn's alarmingly pragmatic decision to not even build a single-player campaign. You see, it's a widespread industry truism that a dwindling number of gamers are playing, let alone completing, single-player campaigns. Given this, Respawn decided to simply not build one, to save the resources that would otherwise be spent on building expansive levels, scripting a story, hiring voiceover actors, etc., judging all of that to be wasted effort.

This is as logical as it is depressing. And twisting the knife is the fact that this decision resulted in such a compelling game. Titanfall is at times maddeningly straightforward, its "story" comprising what I'd call MVC, for Minimum Viable Context: two army factions fighting indefinitely somewhere in space. Hooray! (At least Cowboys vs. Indians implies a setting.) The upside, however, is that the gameplay is as dazzling as its backstory is facile.

You play as a "Pilot," on one of two teams of adversarial militias. As a Pilot, you're equipped with a jetpack that allows for double-jumping and wall-running; your selection of weapons includes the standard assault rifle/shotgun/sniper rifle, as well as the smart pistol, a gun that auto-locks on targets, which is cool in theory, but has never panned out well for me in practice [2]. Additionally, Pilots have intermittent access to the game's namesake Titans, enormous mechs that fall out of the sky when summoned (hence the name), allowing you to hop in and wreak havoc.

This interplay between the fleet, agile, jetpack-wearing Pilots and the huge, encumbered, but extremely powerful Titans is the game's signature achievement, and it is awesome. Most matches start with Pilots being airdropped into the combat zone, then sprinting across the field of play in search of their first kill. As a hide-and-snipe gamer at heart, even I've found that the most satisfying way to play Titanfall is at a full clip, never touching the ground if you can manage it. Indeed, it's possible to traverse entire maps by bounding off successive walls, leaping between crevices or buildings, whizzing across ziplines. You feel like Peter Pan with a carbine.

In contrast, your Titan is all brawn: raw destructive power. It shoots missiles, wields one of a handful of enormous guns, and has a limited ability to strafe, the calculated use of which becoming a strategic necessity in the now-you-see-me-now-you-don't sense. Fighting mono y mono against an enemy Titan is a Godzilla vs. Mothra affair, and it's likewise equally satisfying to pluck off Pilots with your chain gun or just step on them outright—that is, provided you can catch them. Because where it gets really fun is when David caroms his way onto Goliath, at which point he can "rodeo" the Titan, shooting up its circuitry until it explodes, thereby "dooming" the Titan, provided, of course, that he's not killed in the act by another Pilot and/or Titan and/or the Titan he's currently assailing's onboard defenses, all of which happens as often as not.

So yeah—f'n awesome. Modern game engines have been expressing the subtleties of physics/gravity with ever-cannier precision for over a decade now, and Titanfall is the latest case of one-upping in this regard, standing on the shoulders of games like Halo in terms of building a tactile world that makes your muscles twitch as you engage with it, which brings me back to my original point: If I can admit that this game is that engaging, how come I find it so hard to engage with it?

"That sounds like real life almost," commented my buddy Jack over beers as I explained the highs and lows of a recent Titanfall session. I was complaining about how damn stressful this game is: Its ruthlessly breakneck pace is both a triumph, and the reason I can only stand playing it for three or four rounds before I need to sign off. The shit just gets on my nerves. And mind you: I'm fine with the stresses of video-game battlefields. I've beat every Gears of War game on "hardcore." I can put up with a non-stop barrage of enemy fire, with dying time after time after time, with puzzling through a particularly challenging section of a campaign—IF it's in the service of some kind of narrative. And the funny thing is the narrative doesn't even have to be that good: I'm perfectly fine rehashing the plot of They Live ad infinitum. Absent any kind of story, however, I've found I've topped out at maybe 10 hours of play with Titanfall. It's a cool game, but I'm frankly just over it.

I am naively holding out hope that the developers over at Respawn are holed up somewhere working on an actual Titanfall campaign, one involving interesting characters, levels that have some narrative relation to one another, and a story that artfully weaves the mechanics of gameplay through its plot points, coaxing you along with a reward system that encourages practice and ultimately mastery. This is not because I have some need to someday teabag the Tommy Craggses of the world, but simply because mastery in the context of narrative is what makes life, and the games we play during it, fun. Playboy just isn't the same without the articles.


[1] There are other reasons. Perhaps this is a generational thing, but I still feel a tinge of embarrassment that video games are my preferred mode of home entertainment here in my mid-thirties. This embarrassment is probably unfounded: Video games are no less mentally stimulating than the nightly CBS prime-time lineup. Yet it's impossible not to feel like you're in a simpleton's playground when engaged in multiplayer shooters, where the names of fully half the avatars feature some kind of marijuana pun, where errant comments made into headsets beamed over the network are rife with bro's and guttural yeaaaaahhhh's and racist/homophobic taunts, as if everyone playing at any given time was a diehard Red Sox fan, and we all know how embarrassing it is to associate with fucking Red Sox fans.

[2] Mastering the weapon requires the perfect mix of stealth, agility, and on-the-fly aim, a Messi-like skillset Craggs used to slaughter us by the truckload with.

Garrett Kamps is a writer living in San Francisco. He's @gkamps on Twitter.

Up Up Down Down is an occasional column about video games. Art by Sam Woolley.

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