It feels like the First Person Shooter (FPS, and I do include 3rd person shooters too) is starting to show its limits. It might be controversial to say that the FPS genre has run out of steam but I’m not precluding that there is a market for shooters. I just see that as the gaming market matures and the technology behind it matures as well that the plain old FPS is starts to seem a bit limited, a bit shallow. What started as a game mechanic to best utilise limited technology is now being shown as limited by technology that’s advanced far enough to leave the concept in its wake.
What prompted this from the guy who spent so much time playing Return to Castle Wolfenstein that it probably started my wrists on the road to RSI? I thought Doom was about the best thing to happen since Wolfenstein 3D and that Far Cry was one of the best games of its time. So where did this relationship sour?
To begin with, I think I got old. Entropy is a bitch. Over my years of gaming I’ve played a hell of a lot of shooters. Despite all but the most lazy manufacturers putting their own spin on the genre, the core mechanics remain broadly the same. Shoot, run, shoot, cutscene. Repeat. You are a trigger finger with legs, this is the extent of your agency in the game world. I’m a big believer in narrative in games but the FPS tends to be about as interactive as a movie. In the beginning I was just impressed enough with the graphics and the ability to have an interactive story that I didn’t really care. As I’ve got older though I’ve realised the feeling of engagement with the story is limited by a lack of ability to do anything to influence it. You’re just a passenger.
A small stable of FPS’s over the last few years have really driven this home. The first echo that something might be wrong came in Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2. The media outcry over the mission ‘No Russian’was somewhat predictable but I realised that I didn’t actually feel that disturbed by it. Not just because I’m desensitised and jaded (I am) but because with a lack of control comes a feeling of non-engagement.
*SPOILERS AHEAD – Spec Ops The Line*
Spec-Ops The Line was a more recent example, technically it was a very good shooter with a strong narrative based around Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. The developers inserted elements of choice at certain key points in the story. But these moments were far between and there was ultimately only one way forward, to shoot your way through. In the game’s journey to the centre of a derelict Dubai, the defining shock moment of ethical purgatory was let down by a lack of choice. Your character is being berated by his squad mates and torturing himself with the choice he’s made that YOU DIDN’T HAVE A CHOICE IN MAKING. I felt like this deeply undermined the emotional impact the game worked so hard to create. Given that the game design and voicing was fantastic with a visual decay of the main characters alongside the progression of the story, it seemed to be a let-down that this moment the designers had worked so hard to achieve was lessened by the mechanics of the genre.
The other game which exemplified this trend of fantastically imagined games being undermined by the basic gameplay mechanics inherent to the FPS was Metro 2033. It was a PC-destroyingly pretty engine but what eroded my fun far more was the way in which your only form of interaction in the game world is to shoot stuff. This vividly imagined game world of a post apocalyptic Moscow living in the ruined metro system under the city was populated with a wide variety of interesting factions and characters as well as weird monsters and anomalies. The basic point of comparison would be to the STALKERseries of games and there are definite similarities. But the biggest point of difference between them was also my biggest bone of contention with Metro. It felt like a great game let down by the inability of the player to do anything but shoot people. You lose the opportunity to feel like you’re creating your own path through the game and attempt to understand it when all you’re doing is shooting every single thing you come across unless you’re in a safe zone. STALKER allowed for you to negotiate and create relationships with different factions to great effect, letting you use some factions as allies but simultaneously creating enemies of others. While Bandits would always still try to kill you, the faction system and role-playing elements within STALKER made it one of the most interesting and compelling game worlds I’ve played in over my years of gaming. Metro felt like it had so much potential but that to use an FPS as the vehicle to convey this environment let the game universe and narrative down through removing any sense of agency or real participation in the game.
After thinking about all of this, I can’t help but feel somewhat concerned. I can ignore the incoming five hundredth Call of Duty game without feeling like I’m missing anything (the franchise is the gaming equivalent of Michael Bay). When I saw the trailers for RAGE I was hugely interested in the complex and vivid game world, but the knowledge that it was just another shooter held me back from playing it. All I can do is hope that games like Far Cry 3 and Metro: Last light include enough scope for choice to actually permit players to genuinely engage with the story. The upcoming Dishonoredpresents a ray of sunshine on the horizon with the touted possibility of finishing the game without making a single kill, but I’m cynical enough to hold my breath until I’ve played it.
I’m left with a sense that the FPS is a genre that will eventually have to come to terms with being a niche market in the world of gaming. As the technology to produce graphics, physics and animation has matured I’ve started to realise that the concept of a game which revolves around the concept of just slaughtering everything has had its day. Now that more sophisticated worlds can be created, so too can players be involved and drawn into more interesting ways to interact with those creations. Don’t take this for a second as me saying I don’t still want to shoot stuff in a computer game, I love shooting stuff in computer games. I just want to choose who I shoot and why I shoot them, because then that beautifully rendered bloody splatter will really mean something.