15 Woefully Underused Single Player Gameplay Mechanics
Single player games harness specific features and gameplay mechanics that multi-player games simply cannot. Time-stretching, cheat codes, and transferrable save files rank highly as single player attributes, but there’re super-cool, sometimes innovative, mechanics surrounding anything from reloading to deep honour systems that aren’t utilised as often as they should.
Bullet time – as a catch-all term – simply refers to an ability to slow down time for a player to gain an advantage, and there’re a raft of notable games deploying this mechanic in varying degrees to great effect: Red Dead Redemption’s Dead Eye mechanic, Fallout’s V.A.T.S., and of course, the Max Payne series spring to mind. Sure, a handful of titles have trialled the slowing of time in multiplayer, but issues of fairness come into play – how can a single player’s ability to dodge attacks, evade bullets, and shoot with cinematic aplomb be fair on everyone else? So, this mechanic is largely kept to single player experiences, and it’d be great to see bullet time, or slomo, applied more liberally to none-FPS-adjacent titles.
Forging time progression to player movement, as in Superhot
Bullet time, or slomo mechanics, are ordinarily tied to special abilities; depending on the game, it’s a limited use ability that’s super satisfying to pull off. But what if bullet time wasn’t a skill to be earned, but a mechanic an entire game is built around? Enter Superhot, an FPS title where time progression is tied to player movement. The action is rapid, even in slow motion as players assess a scenario before acting in real-time; it’s like fluidity of The Matrix’s gun toting action mixed with the stately mindset of a game of chess, and it’d be fantastic if more games took a powerup or special ability as gratifying as bullet time and built an entire experience around it.
You know those open world games where unexplored areas of the map are simply blurred or smudged out? Well, wouldn’t it be better if a complete map was visible from the off? Not that every single point of interest should have a corresponding icon straight away though; no, exploration should reward players with things to do. Games like GTAV or Horizon take to blurring huge swathes of the landscape on their maps to encourage exploration, but assuming these landscapes have already been explored by a cartographer it’d be more realistic if the maps they created were supplied to the player. A positive example are the complete maps given to Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption 2. Players are given the lay of the land but are rewarded with interesting things to do when heading off the beaten path.
Permanent player created world changes
Some games make exceptional use of permanent player induced changes – see the InFamous series, or the Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and War games, where player actions have strong tangible effects on the game world. In contrast, Grand Theft Auto, whilst an altogether immersive experience, doesn’t make enough use of permanent world changes. Sure, there’re discussions on whether linear narrative directions can seamlessly co-exist in the open world toybox, but if NPCs in Middle-Earth or InFamous can at least remember players past behaviour, surely more single player games can build this into their world building.
Global honour systems
Red Dead Redemption 2 and the InFamous series are mentioned elsewhere in this feature, so for this entry discussing global honour systems let’s look at the Mass Effect trilogy’s paragon vs renegade morality system. Unlike BioWare’s earlier RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, whereby good and evil is represented by single sliding scale, Mass Effect’s morality system tracks paragon and renegade points separately, meaning one good action does not undo a bad one, and vice versa. Whilst the system is great at encouraging players to follow their own moral compass, some events were entirely missable if not enough paragon or renegade points.
What was once commonplace, in the modern age of multiplayer and achievements, most modern nowadays now don’t feature cheat codes in any capacity. It’s a shame this appears a dying tradition. The quality of life cheat codes can extend replayability too – anything from dropping an extra wad of cash into your wallet to unlocking late-game abilities to ease players through another run, cheats should make a comeback.
The Nemesis System
The Nemesis System – in a nutshell – was Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and its 2017 follow-up Shadow of War’s process of establishing an intricate web of orc enemies, each with strengths, weaknesses, and relationships, who’ll remember their interactions with the player. Created by Middle-Earth developers Monolith Productions, the system was swiftly patented, so whilst game’s such as Watch Dogs: Legion exhibit an in-depth NPC ecosystem akin to Nemesis, no other game since 2017’s Shadow of War has harnessed it. The upcoming Wonder Woman title will reportedly reinvigorate the immersive system.
Diegetic HUDs and UI
A screen packed with health bars, strength gauges, waypoints, and icons can lead to lost immersion in the player. All those distractions – when overdone – can break a player’s relationship to a game’s environment. In contrast, diegetic HUD and UIs are designed to fit right into a game’s narrative, like it’s something the player character would interact with in their world. Dead Space’s ingenious decision to weave vital health and statis stats to the back of Isaac Clarke’s suit sits right up there as one of the most immersive ways games have displayed HUD information to a player.
Saved games carrying over
Back in the Dreamcast-era, Shenmue and it’ sequel featured a nifty mechanic to carry over stats and collectibles from the first game to the next, meaning all those hours practicing Ryu’s karate moves on the Dobuita Street parking lot weren’t wasted come the sequel. Plenty of modern games utilise this feature too. It’s a tricky one to get right as players who haven’t played one game might feel cheated if they’re having to start from scratch – just look at the fallout surrounding Destiny 2’s guardian data carrying over. But, for an upcoming sequel like God of War: Ragnarök, it doesn’t entirely make sense for Kratos to begin the game having lost all the skills acquired in the preceding game.
More level scaling, not just levelling up for content
Levelling up a character’s skills is one of the principal ways in which developers bestow a feeling of progress onto players. The theory is sound: the more skilled a player becomes; the more abilities unlock and the stronger their character becomes. There is, however, an expectation placed on a character’s level depending on how far they are in the game. Players might grind for XP or reach an encounter woefully underpowered. Games should make better use of level scaling, whereby the game’s content is tied to the current level of the character, ensuring the challenges faced by the player align with their current skill level.
The chance of a game’s weapon degrading or breaking outright adds an element of suspense to every encounter. Far Cry 2 and Dying Light masterfully incorporate a degrading weapons mechanic, because weapons which have potential to malfunction are tied into the world these games exist in, and endless scavenging players find themselves in. It’s a nod to realism sure, and last thing anybody wants is an ultra-realistic yet consistently misfiring weapon negatively affecting gameplay. Strike the right balance, and it’s an extra element of decision-making adding immersion to an experience.
Active Reload, as seen in Gears of War
Reloading is pretty much a one-button job done in every game. Gears of War pioneered a much more involved process of reloading which doesn’t seem to have caught on in enough games since. When reloading in Gears, players have option to tap the reload button again to attempt and active reload, which, depending on where on the scale the corresponding progress bar was tapped, has chance to dramatically increase reload speed. Of course, there’re strategic benefits to a fast reload, but an inopportunely timed active reload risks weapons jamming.
Another time-based mechanic that’d be extremely impractical to incorporate into a multiplayer experience, time reversing – whereby, you know, time can be rewound – is a much-used mechanic in racing games, offering ability to retry a tricky corner rather than have an entire race ruined. Time reversal is an often-overlooked feature in other video game genres though.
Okay, so to be fair procedurally generated levels in games are becoming more commonplace as the game maker’s toolkit becomes increasingly advanced. Rewind a decade, and FTL’s procedural generation turned up random encounters to spice up each run. Fast-forward to the modern-day and rogue-like games like Hades are rehashing entire levels with each turn or generating entire planets to explore as in No Man’s Sky. It’s a fascinating method of making each playthrough feel new. If not full-blown procedural generation, then certainly elements of procedural generation can be incorporated into most any genre.
Twin-stick control schemes
Once the darling control scheme of arcade shooters – of which, titles like Nex Machina harnessed incredibly well, and addictively – the twin stick control scheme largely exists in the shadows. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons co-opts the twin stick mechanic, instead transplanting it into something more cerebral. The game, for those who haven’t experienced, tasks players with controlling both brothers simultaneously in wonderful solo co-op. An innovative control scheme that’d be very welcome in more games.