Epitaph for the First Person Shooter

It’s time to stop blaming myself for not liking first person shooters.

“I’m too old,” I used to say. “I’m too slow,” I used to tell myself. “My gaming machine isn’t über enough,” I’d say. But the truth is that the genre is creatively dead.

What motivated me to write this article is that I played two first person shooters for the Xbox 360, Perfect Dark Zero and Prey.

Both of these games were well-crafted and carefully planned out.

And both of them bored me to tears. I’m particularly depressed by Perfect Dark Zero, by one of my favorite developers, Rare. I briefly considered suggesting to them that this was indicative of a curse that they are under, and that the only way to dispell the curse is to create and release Banjo Threeie for the Xbox 360, already. But why kick a man when he’s down? Especially when I’m pretty sure he reads this weblog.

In an interview on the Halo 2 making-of film, one of the Bungie designers talks about how they came up with 30 seconds of great gameplay: snipe distant enemies, sneak up and bop one on the head, throw a grenade into a group of others, clean up the stragglers. Then he says something like “the challenge in the game design is how to string together this same 30 seconds of gameplay over and over again for 10 or 15 hours and keep it interesting.” Couple that with the solid screenwriting and quality production design of Halo 2 and you have a bestseller, right?

Well, maybe you only have a bestseller if you get the sort of marketing launch that Halo 2 had.

Perfect Dark Zero was visually stunning, with an intricate UI, lots of clever sub-missions, and music by Skunk Anansie. But it lacks a certain ludological center. In Perfect Dark Zero a lot of effort was put into the overall story arc, but – in my opinion – they never really nailed that core 30 seconds of super gameplay. Consequently, I felt pulled in a hundred directions at once. Plot developments and new gameplay mechanics that were supposed to surprise and interest me just served to confuse and upset me. The game designers were trying to throw me off balance through innovation, and they succeeded. But they succeeded before I was able to actually find my balance. So it just felt disorienting. I liked Joanna Dark, and I wanted to know what happened to her. But I didn’t actually want to play the game to find out.

Prey was likewise very finely polished. The tactics felt right. The production design was of high quality. The level design was clever. The portals and gravity puzzles were very clever. They even solved the “How do you deal with the player’s death” problem in a smart way. But despite all of this, the game left me feeling hollow and empty. I expect that Valve’s upcoming Portal will be similarly clever, and that I similarly will have no interest whatsoever in playing it.

My co-writer psu and I agree on many things, but this is one area where our opinions diverge. He thinks that what made Halo 2 – though not the original game – great were the finely tuned mechanics. And I agree that that’s part of it. But I think it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of a game having a gripping emotional dynamic. What kept me playing Halo 2 was that the level design and story reinforced each other, creating an authentic feeling of panic and urgency. This is what kept me playing every good shooter since the original Doom. The apotheosis of this, for me, is the indescribably fantastic System Shock 2 – which, to my unending bitterness, won’t play on Windows XP – where every element of the game combined perfectly. System Shock instilled a constant sense of dread and panic in me so strongly that sometimes I’d have to stop playing because I was shivering too much.

You have to work to create that kind of emotional intensity. You can’t just slap together some generic alien models and put them into some generic hallways with crates. You can’t then just slap some deathmatch and capture the flag on top of that and expect the online mode to save you. This is especially true since Counterstrike already exists, and is the perfect online shooter in every way.

So this brings us to the current situation, where the best first-person shooter for the Xbox 360 is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which combines adequate game mechanics with a world that’s more interesting than that in the competing games. And it makes sense: if you build a game whose entire gameplay mechanic is “kill everything you see until you reach the next cutscene,” that doesn’t leave a lot of room for true drama or narrative surprise. Oblivion works because there are things to do in between the shooting. What was the last shooter you actually finished? When a pastoral, generally lyrical RPG makes for the best shooter experience on a console, then we have to start asking ourselves: Why are these games still being made?

The answer, of course, is habit. The game industry is by and large overly conservative. This is why they leave vast portions of their potentially market not only underserved but completely untapped. So, like a hamster in its exercise wheel, every company in the industry continues to compete for the allowances of the same group of 15 year old boys.

The first-person shooter had its heyday, once upon a time, because the technology made it possible. And now we’ve all played that game, and we don’t need to play it anymore. Trying to produce something brilliant and innovative in the FPS genre sounds, to me, like trying to cook and serve a gourmet meal while wearing bondage leathers and gimp mask. Possible, yes, but not exactly appetizing.

I realize that to some extent I am describing a problem, and not presenting a solution. For that, I am sorry. But I can’t help comparing these games to Shadow of the Colossus.

Perfect Dark Zero and Prey had brilliant graphics, clever design, and responsive gameplay mechanics, and i just couldn’t bring myself to play them. Shadow of the Colossus had hateful graphics quality, hateful controls, and hateful pacing, and I was absolutely compelled to play it every night for a month until I finished it.

What I”m trying to get at here, clumsily, is the idea that perhaps game publishers need to start thinking about technology last instead of first. There was a time in Hollywood’s history when a film pitch might have begun “We’ve got this great idea: we’re going to shoot a film, and it’s going to be in color.” But make a pitch along strictly technological lines today, and you’ll get thrown out of the Universal lot faster than you can say “Bruce Willis.”

I think we’ve reached that point in game design. Don’t focus on giving me a first person shooter, or an RPG, or an adventure game. Focus on making characters as evocative as the horse in Shadow of the Colossus. Focus on scaring me as well as System Shock 2 (or, using another example of a game with great atmosphere and lousy game mechanics, Fatal Frame 2) did.

I want you to make videogames. I even want you to make money doing it.

Just make sure you write the game before you start writing any code.