So, this morning somebody sent me a link to this in my inbox. A humorous image, showing a top-down view of Doom’s E1M6 next to a single corridor, with ‘cut scenes’ marked at evenly-spaced points along its length. Being a dutiful netizen, after laughing over my morning tea I re-tweeted, facebooked it, mailed it to a few lists and to a few friends who aren’t net-sociable enough to be on any of these things.
After this (doubtlessly familiar) process, I went into the bathroom to scrub a day’s worth of coder/gamer-scunge off myself in the shower, and began to think about it some more. Sure, the image is funny, if ever-so-slightly inaccurate, but there’s more to it than just map design.
There has been a major paradigm shift in first-person shooter development since the days when I played Doom and Quake at LAN parties next to piles of empty coke cans so large as to make you think of something out of greek myths. Buzz-words aside, they are different. Almost different enough, I think, as to more or less be an entirely separate genre.
Sure, the mechanics are roughly the same, right? You move around with the W, A, S & D keys, moving your mouse to tilt your head and clicking to blow away monsters. Well, I’m beginning to suspect that’s actually where the similarities end.
Back in the early days, from Wolf3D to Doom to Quake, story was less important than the architectural design of the levels and the challenge of the combination of monsters & puzzles. Were you a capable enough player to rocket or grenade-jump over a ledge to push a button, or did you have to go the long way around, slaughtering a dozen creatures and spending half your ammo?
The skill of circle-strafing around a shambler, hitting grunts at extreme range with a rifle or timing your way through jumping puzzles was the point of the game – not to find out who was behind the dastardly events in chapter one. Stories were told in other genres – adventure games or role-playing epics, but the FPS was for people who wanted to truly hone their gaming skills to perfection.
This was epitomised during the Quake era by the prominence of speed-runs, starting with the seminal piece of machinima, ‘Quake Done Quick‘. Try to finish different levels in the fastest time possible, using whatever means you can without actively hacking or modifying the original game in any way.
It was around this time that shooters started coming out with less of an emphasis on maps, puzzles and skill and more on a linear progression through scripted sequences – by the time Quake3 came out, single-player in the traditional, campaign sense was completely ditched.
For a while this was fine – story and immersion in an environment was driven by titles like Half-life and Call of Duty, while the hardcore shooter players stuck to pure-deathmatch titles like the Unreal Tournament series. Over time, these series’ petered out in popularity, and these days the most common online games are Counter-strike inspired games like Call of Duty multiplayer, or team-based tactics experiences like Left 4 Dead.
This isn’t really a criticism – I enjoy COD multiplayer immensely and have sunk at least as many hours into that series over the years as I have into the original Quake, and Left 4 Dead is a legitimate and unique gaming experience in its own right.
But there is still something missing – where once shooters were a sport, and the act of exploring levels or refining your monster-killing abilities was the whole point, now the majority are spectacle-shooters, and there’s a trade-off to this. When a game is all about the experience and the story, repeating aspects of it frequently become hugely frustrating for the majority of gamers.
I used to enjoy (indeed, still do enjoy) re-playing the same few levels in Doom or Quake numerous times, until I had perfected my ability to pass them on any skill level. When you are going through what amounts to a series of tunnels between cut-scenes, having to re-play something becomes frustrating. So much so that I’ve actually began to notice my chosen ‘skill setting’ slipping. Not because I cannot finish a game on hard, but because I do not want to.
To hear the same dialogue from NPCs more than once is jarring – to have to storm the same building 20 times, a chore. When Call of Duty 2 came out, I was playing on hard on my PC. By Call of Duty 4, on regular, and from my couch so I get the film-like 10-foot experience instead of the more personal 2-foot experience. Now, picking up the latest action spectacle, I play on easy. Just so I can deal with the experience, like a movie, slide it back into my subconscious and get on with my life. I don’t want to die in-game any more. After all, you don’t need to die in a call of duty game to have ‘near-death experiences’ plugged into the cut-scenes for you like chapter-stops.
They are not games so much as ‘interactive’ versions of films in a way that the much-maligned CD-based interactive movies of the mid-’90s wished they could be, and to a degree, I think this change was only natural. There are a few reasons for this.
Firstly, as technology made our games look better, we went from relying on gamers’ imaginations to make the square blocks in Wolf3D seem like buildings deep within The Third Reich to creating small sections of street and space stations.
We reached a point where game level design hit an ‘uncanny valley’ – where it looked so real that it was no longer natural to try and awkwardly kludge in the kind of mazes and puzzles we were used to in shooters. In Duke3D, we knew that games could not reasonably model whole cities in 3D space, so we were accepting of magically-blocked-off streets and buildings with only half their floors actually modelled.
The second reason is that we had spent so long with the technical limitations of our computers that tiny, twisty little passages were the norm. So the moment we started being able to show large, open landscapes – from our first voxel-based baby-steps with Delta Force to sprawling sections of countryside in Far Cry – it became the must-have feature of the game.
Once we got over that and began to close back down, nobody wanted to go back to literal tunnel-shooters (see Doom 3 for an example of what happens when true old-school was brought back to us) and so a happy mid-ground had to be found.
This mid-ground is what we’re stuck with now. The illusion of distance and scope without any actual freedom – because if you encouraged precision, puzzle-solving and mazes in a world where what blocks you are invisible walls, you just might drive the player insane. We’re at a place where most shooters are spectacle shooters, and most ‘sport’ shooters are either niche open-source projects with few players or extreme (but failed) attempts at multiplayer-only shooters, like The Club.
For people who miss more old-school designs of shooter, what is there to look forward to?
Personally, I still cling to hope. The future of shooters like your father used to play lies, I think, with indie developers. In the same way that stylised graphics have made games like Limbo, Minecraft and Spelunky possible, I think the idea of actually building brand new shooters with an old-school feel – be it with pixel-art, black-and-white or some other method, is now completely viable.