Phil Hartup on videogames

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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.

Still from video game Half Life. Photo: Flickr/Adam Messinger
The unreal bloat of the first-person shooter. Photo: Flickr/Adam Messinger

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.