The unreal bloat of the first-person shooter. Photo: Flickr/Adam Messinger
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The problem of the modern first-person shooter in video games

As the first-person shooter has evolved to be bloated in terms of costs and production requirements, its game play mechanics have atrophied over the years.

1998 was the big year for video games. Granted somebody will probably tell you that every year is a big year for video games, usually while stumbling pie-eyed around E3 pretending they’ve never seen an Assassin’s Creed game before, but 1998 really was special. There are a number of reasons for this. Big, genre-defining reasons across multiple platforms, but two of the biggest of them were the releases of the classic first-person shooters Unreal and Half Life.

Wolfenstein 3D and Doom established the genre of the first-person shooter as a type of game that could be not only fun to play and challenging but also atmospheric and immersive, particularly in the case of Doom. What Doom lacked in characters, narrative and locations it made up for with the sheer charisma of its design. It looked right, it felt good to play, it was, and remains, a game that it is fun to spend time with.

Though Half Life and Unreal share a lot of DNA with Doom, they both evolved some distance from it, and in doing so became the template that the modern first-person shooters would be built from. Half Life and Unreal are arguably not modern first-person shooters, for reasons to be discussed later, but the traits are there in recognisable forms. If you found a copy of Half Life frozen in a block of ice you could give it a season pass for DLC, some throat-stabbing and a regenerating health mechanic and it’d fit right in with the recent releases.

Unreal and Half Life possess a level of advancement in terms of how they play and look that, in simple terms, means they still hold up to this day. For instance, the controls as laid out in both games are more or less identical to their modern equivalents, at least for keyboard and mouse users. Equally the games are well presented and while their visuals do not convey the same epic quality that they might have at the turn of the century,  the map design itself is in no way primitive. Once you get past the low polygon counts and fuzzy textures the substance of the construction is often brilliant. Not many games have aged so well, for example Quake relied so heavily on a palette of brown colours you’d be forgiven for thinking the entire game takes place inside a gigantic chocolate pudding.

The areas where modern first-person shooters have evolved from these older titles are in the production values and the difficulty level, but the progress has not always been positive. Both Half Life and Unreal feature long and engaging stories of adventure and escape, but both tell their stories in very low-key ways. There are no protracted human interactions, no rambling chunks of spoken exposition, no huge cast of fully voiced characters pootling around with you making wisecracks and dying at key points in the plot. Where a modern first-person shooter might be described as cinematic there is still something very gamey, very mechanical, about how Unreal and Half Life spin their tales.

This is where the modern first-person shooter games and the venerable classics part ways. If you look at how a modern shooter tells a story, whether it is Bioshock: Infinite, Call of Duty: Ghosts or Metro: Last Light, the emphasis is clearly on the cinematic, rather than the game-like. Arrows tell you where to go and pop-ups tell you what to press at what point so you are never lost or confused by the level design for long. A cast of intricately modelled and often motion-captured characters will chatter away to you throughout. You are a passenger, often with some control over this choice or that choice in how the story plays out, but the onus is on wheeling the player through a succession of encounters in order to tell a story.

Here lies the problem for the modern first-person shooter and it is one that means that the genre has to adapt. When games like Half Life and Unreal stalked the Earth, budgets were smaller and so were the pickings, but this was survivable. Now a cinematic style first-person shooter game requires such a huge investment in development and marketing just to make it out of the door that they need to have mass appeal, they have to go for the lowest common denominator. The same quirks that make a game like Half Life timeless are the same sort of quirks that would have to be beaten flat in order to ensure that as many people as possible saw something they wanted in the game, and nothing that might put them off.

Meanwhile, as the first-person shooter has evolved to be bloated in terms of costs and production requirements, its game play mechanics have atrophied over the years. The combat, which used to be the raison d'être of such games, is relegated to filler. Corridors have replaced mazes, regenerating health has replaced resource management and quick time events have replaced puzzles and platforms. The first person shooters of today only rarely achieve parity with the skill demands of older games. It is telling that for all the critical acclaim Bioshock: Infinite received it was outsold many times over by GTA V.

You can offer people all the fantastical visuals, engaging characters and epic tales you want, but you’re only ever going to attract a limited audience when your game consists almost entirely of moving from one checkpoint to the next while putting the required amounts of shots into a succession of different sized bullet sponges along the way. By attempting to become a kind of apex genre for video games, dwarfing all others, the first-person shooter developers forgot that it will only ever appeal to people who like that style of game, and that appeal is by no means universal.

That is not to say that the first-person shooter is doomed, so much as it has been forced to further evolve in order to keep going. We’re seeing games now that have taken the tropes of the first person shooter and moved them into other fields. Borderlands, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl and the upcoming Destiny, while being radically different in tone, have all embraced open world role playing game mechanics to augment the simple shooter.

Brink and later Titanfall attempted to merge the narrative of a single player story into the bedlam of competitive multiplayer. Other games such as Shadow Warrior and Wolfenstein: The New Order have dragged the single player first-person shooter back to its orthodox roots, with some success, marketing themselves deliberately to appeal to fans of the older games. Some of these ideas work well, some of them don’t, but such is the nature of evolution, some things will succeed, others not, and even the things that do thrive will only do so for so long.

In the meantime it can be refreshing to look back on those old games and look at what made them so good in the first place and why they are still good today. Cara Ellison’s take on Half Life makes for a good read, unencumbered as she is by nostalgia having not played the game when it first came out. For those looking for a more in depth examination of a game and its design Kaitlin Tremblay and Alan Williamson’s book Escape To Na Pali covers Unreal with great reverence and attention to detail, such that I almost feel guilty that when I first played the game I charged through it shooting everything that moved like a tooled-up rhinoceros. It can be easy to forget that sometimes the things we look at through rose-tinted glasses are still good, even without them.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser