I remember this one.[“Play Evolution” is a bi-weekly column by James Lantz that discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: single-player games can evolve as well!]

When we talk about the evolution of a game, we usually think about a competitive multiplayer game, like Counter-Strike or Starcraft. However, a game does not have to be multiplayer or competitive to evolve. Single-player games evolve too, although it’s harder to see it.

The most obvious example of evolution in single-player games is the speed-running community. In order for a game to evolve, it needs a goal for players to work towards; something that players can get better at. Since most games are fairly trivial to complete, this goal cannot simply be to win, as it is in most multiplayer games. The speed-running community establishes a clear goal: to win as quickly as possible.

Even this goal, which seems relatively simple, inspires incredible evolution in single-player games, although some games take to it better than others. Super Mario 64, for example, has one of the largest speed-running communities around, because speed-running Super Mario 64 is incredibly deep. To complete the game you need to collect [EDIT: 70 out of 120 possible stars] in the game, (although there is a small speed-running niche that does all 120 star completions) so the first step for any speed-runner is to map out their path.

In some games, this is relatively trivial and is just a matter of choosing the fastest route on a map. However, a Super Mario 64 speed-runner has to decide exactly which 70 stars they can get in the fastest amount of time. Not only that, but each level has seven stars in it, making it worth it to stay in the level for a few extra stars to avoid travel time, even if those stars are harder to get.

Solid Snake, resident badass, protects his nerdy friend’s sister” hspace= But there’s more than just planning and a little level memorization; Super Mario 64 requires precise timing, technical skill and intelligently exploiting map design. Often a player will discover a trick to skip half a level with a well timed jump and that level, which had seemed lengthy and daunting before, will suddenly find its way into everyone’s speed-runs. Also, most runs are single-segment (no saving or loading), so many players choose safety over slightly faster stars that could completely ruin their run.

On the other end, Metal Gear Solid 3 did not take well to speed-running. The best speed-runs are amazing on paper. But for several MGS3 speedruns I've seen, the speed-runner didn’t take any damage, ever, didn’t kill anyone, nor did he ever alert the guards or use any items. However, the speed-run is boring. It’s not the speed-runner’s fault, but the game just didn’t evolve with speed-running as the goal. It’s all about level memorization, and that’s just not that interesting.

Although speed-running is the most common goal people set in single-player games, there are many others that are just as deep. In Monster Rancher 2, there’s a huge community dedicated solely to raising the best monsters. This is not uncommon, but Monster Rancher 2’s mechanics are so well-hidden and so deep that the community is like a group of scientists, field-testing, posting experiment results and guessing at game code based on exhaustive tests. Like physicists and nature, they don’t know exactly what’s in the game code, but in order to make the best monsters they keep testing until they get as close as they can.

Complex Monster Rancher equations! Always a good time. So far, we’ve only recognized huge communities with a common goal as the catalyst for single-player game evolution. However, there is evolution in almost every single player game, even if you are playing it completely by yourself. It’s more subtle than these competitive online communities, but it’s there.

Think about Half-Life 2; the first time you face the combine, you don’t really know what to do. Should you take cover? Should you run in, guns blazing? However, if you went back and played that first battle after beating the game, you would know exactly what to do. You would know that, if you took cover, they would throw a grenade to lure you out of hiding. You would know not to hide behind breakable objects, and you would know which objects were breakable. Now, that’s an obvious example of evolution – the second time you play the game, you’re going to be better at it.

However, there’s even evolution within in a single instance of a game. Every time you fight a big daddy in Bioshock, you get a little bit better at it. No two encounters are the same, but you learn to recognize danger and safety, and you learn the animations that enemies go through before they fire, and the sound their weapons make, and the limitations of the AI. When you are playing a game, whether you know it or not, it is always evolving.

[James Lantz is a starving writer who spends a large amount of his free time charting the population growth of deer mice in sub-Saharan Africa. He also writes a blog, of course.]