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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era