If types of games were genres of music, the first-person shooter would surely be rock. Aggressive, masculine, controversial, they may have changed over the years but they remain near the pinnacle of their respective fields of creativity and entertainment. There are more diverse sub-varieties than ever before, each combining with its neighbours or borrowing elements from its more "sophisticated" stylistic cousins to create new and exciting fusions. But another similarity between rock and the FPS is that, for some people, there's a nagging feeling that things still aren't as good now as they were back in the old days.
Before we start getting carried away with ourselves and begin comparing 'Sgt. Peppers' with Soldier of Fortune, or 'Houses of the Holy' with
Half-Life, I'll point out that I don't necessarily think that "old-school" shooters are better than "next-gen" ones (to use those sometimes misleading and very broad terms). But I would argue that there is something missing from the design of many games developed after the revolutionary watershed period of 1998-2000, and in particular from even the field's strongest sons of the last few years. What it is that's missing is difficult to pin down, but it's arguable that in fact it's a variety of interconnected aspects. Personally, though, I'd say that these absences are connected by the modern shooter's influence by a central concept, one that's mentioned more and more in press releases, previews and lofty statements of intent
We've all heard the "escapism versus realism" game design argument before, and probably read comments from designers over the years who have both played up and played down the importance of striving for realism in games. The FPS has long been considered the benchmark for advanced gaming engines, from Doom to Unreal to CryEngine
- and with each successive incarnation, the titles using it have been hailed as the pinnacle of gaming technology. Those engines are then licensed out to developers who can't afford to develop their own engines, giving rise to the concerns of some who claim that too many games look the same these days because of common technological heritage
- but what I'd argue is that the emergence of today's increasingly sophisticated engines has affected some of the core tenets of game design for the worse. More broadly though, this article will look at a few of the common hallmarks of my personal definition of the "classic FPS",
"Doom clone", or whatever you might decide to call it
- then we'll think about why these features disappeared, and whether we're likely to ever see them return.
was still fashionable..."
Ah, good old ultraviolence. For many people, gore is one of the prime markers they think of when they cast their minds back to the heady days of
Doom et al in the early- to mid-90s. Doom was one the FPS' main contributions to the ongoing videogame violence argument, along with later releases like Raven's notorious 2000 release
Soldier of Fortune. Most of the big shooters from those times were very gory, arguably culminating in Monolith's 1997 game
Blood, which was very bloody indeed.
So what happened?
Gore in FPS games has never been in every example, but it does seem to have waned. The "gibbing" of enemies into bloody chunks was still fashionable in the late 90s and early 2000s, especially in multiplayer-focused games like infamous rivals
Unreal Tournament and Quake III: Arena (both 1999), but games like
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002) and Half-Life 2 (2004) seemed to point to a lessening in gore's pre-eminence. People certainly don't seem to want to make gore a key gameplay element any more – those days appear to be gone. OTT gore just doesn't seem to be in keeping with today's often more serious, realistic shooters.
The primitive technology that old shooters used meant that creating genuinely realistic environments was virtually impossible, which was the reason that iD's first proper FPS,
Wolfenstein 3D, had the most boring level design that most people have ever witnessed. Clearly that was bad, but within a year or two the constraints had eased a little and for a period, level design in terms of realism was in a happy, compromised place. Compare it to film special effects
- in 1991, 'Terminator 2' was released, and for me, has the perfect balance between then-groundbreaking CGI effects and conventional
nuts-'n'-bolts SFX work. Realism was a similar issue in games a few years later
- technology had evolved to a level which allowed developers to play around, but it didn't allow them to create the potentially boring factories, streets and other identikit locations they were probably itching to. Instead, what we got were crude but fun attempts at real-world locations
(a la 1996's Duke Nukem 3D) and/or the frequently surreal environments that technology allowed, as in games like
Doom II, Blood, and Heretic.
So what happened?
Technology marched on and realistic environments became easier to portray. Of course this has allowed some brilliantly realised and interactive environments, but it has also given us some numb and tedious ones, a trap into which Monolith fell with their 2005 game
F.E.A.R., which replaced Quake's brown with grey and subjected us to endless offices, corridors and even the excitement of a water treatment plant! Oh, the joys. There have been some more environmentally interesting games in recent years, but better technology is one of the key things that has facilitated the droves of WWII and gloomy futuristic shooters we often find ourselves complaining about.
often sniped at each other..."
The older FPS games often relied on humour as one of their key tools, unlike today's largely stony-faced, serious types. Whereas a lot of today's FPS protagonists are of the "strong and silent" persuasion – most notoriously
Half-Life's Gordon Freeman – the average beefcake killing machine in the 90s was rather vocal. 3D Realms were particularly keen on this, making
Duke Nukem into a veritable goldmine of wisecracks ("It's time to kick ass and chew bubblegum... and I'm all outta gum"). Lo Wang from the lesser-known
Shadow Warrior (1997) drew some criticism for his perceived racism but also could list a flair for comedy alongside severing heads in his skillset. It wasn't just dialogue comedy though – whilst Caleb from
Blood could give Duke and Lo Wang a run for their money with his one-liners, Blood was also filled with satirical references to other films and books, including but not limited to
'Frankenstein', 'The Shining', 'The Fugitive' and 'Army of
Darkness'. Duke 3D was in on this too, referencing lots of films and TV series in its expansion pack, not least
'Dirty Harry', 'Die Hard', 'The Avengers' and 'Mission:
Impossible'. These games also often humourously sniped at each other – dead visages of
Commander Keen had to be destroyed to completed a secret level in
Doom II, but in retaliation 3D Realms allowed Duke to find the mangled corpse of the
Doom marine in one of Duke 3D's secret areas. Duke's wisecrack? "That's one doomed marine!" - obviously.
So what happened?
Humour hasn't completely died out in the modern FPS – Valve still seem keen on it, despite their games being some of the ones which hammered a few nails into the old FPS' coffin.
Team Fortress 2 has to be one of the most overtly silly shooters released in the last several years, and
HL2: Episode Two had some humour of its own. But the increased seriousness in theme of today's games has largely excised genuine attempts at humour, it seems. The masses of straight man war shooters and epic future war scenarios had seriously damaged the presence of wit in the FPS. It's a shame, because those older games proved that combining humour with ultraviolence could be devastatingly effective. I mean, that's how multiplayer works, isn't it? Do
Counter-Strike players run around in character, or do they deliberately try to engineer situations in which they can "accidentally" kill teammates with flashbangs? Exactly.
Just as crude technology demanded simpler (and potentially more imaginative) level design, the very concept of levels themselves was imposed on the classic shooters by technological limitations. Huge open areas, and cohesive, linked-together game worlds that we often expect today, didn't even begin to properly take form until games like
Quake II began adopting a hub system. It's easy to forget how radical
Unreal and Half-Life were in 1998 when they introduced level-less gameplay. But levels had their advantages – they could rapidly transport us between vastly different locales, they divided games up into handy bitesize pieces, too, which had numerous advantages. Levels made up episodes, which in turn made giving away games as freeware versions of games and demos easier and more convenient to distribute. Wondering why it takes so long to get hold of some demos these days? The death of the level system is, along with increased file sizes, one of the reasons.
So what happened?
The simplicity of game structure went out of the window partly because it wasn't really necessary anymore. More sophisticated engines find large areas a doddle, In addition, consistent game worlds are a major selling point today as they allow for more open-ended gameplay, for example in games like
Crysis. Levels are seen as a crude, retro feature of old and inferior games, not something to be returned to.
Doom-heads are yawning..."
It's well-known that a lot of the old games play a hell of a lot faster than today's. Although you could famously run like a motorbike in
S.T.A.L.K.E.R., everyone could do that all the time in the old days! The doom marine was like a plasma rifle-wielding Usain Bolt when sprinting, and stamina bars were yet to be invented. The fact that weapons didn't need reloading also eliminated many of the pauses we find in today's games.
So what happened?
It's possible that game designers got a bit more precious about their beloved environments. Because today's game worlds take a lot more effort and care to create than the often idendikit levels of the past, developers often express a wish to make sure players can't plough through games too quickly. Maybe that, along with a striving for increased realism, was one of the factors that led to the ever-present stamina bar and inherently slower movement speeds. Either way, it's meant that today's games are less hectic and frenetic experiences than they used to be, often thriving on being more meditative and cautious – which gave rise to the tactical shooter sub-genre. The
Doom-heads at the back are yawning.
It's clear that there are pros and cons to lots of the features that define the fathers and godfathers of the FPS we know and love. If we go back and play classics like
Duke Nukem 3D and Doom today we find that, like
'Sgt. Peppers', they are still works of genius. But like that album, does it mean that such a work could never be emulated? Did the classic shooters only work in the context in which they were developed, and do they appeal only to the retro-minded among us? These are big questions, but we know that people have tried to return to some of the old formulas, with mildly successful efforts like
Serious Sam and Painkiller. Maybe the classic FPS stylings are dead after all, or maybe Duke
Nukem Forever will stomp in and rekindle some of them (give it 20 years – Ed). But those old games are all still out there for the playing, and maybe we can hold out hope that some of today's visionary developers can learn something from them – and, at the same time, step one of gaming's flasgship archetypes up a gear once more.