this space intentionally left blank

August 17, 2005

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Finding the First Person

When I first sent Corvus an e-mail saying that I would take place in this Round Table on "Innovation in the FPS Genre," I thought "Cool. I love shooters. This'll be great."

A few moments later, I realized that the most recent shooter I'd played was Halo, on the PC, purchased months after its sequel was released on the X-Box. Before that, I'm pretty sure my most cutting-edge experience had been with Unreal Tournament... not 2004, the first one. Right now, I've got both of those, plus Half-Life (the first one), Alien Vs. Predator (also the first one), Doom, Quake, and Blood installed on my machine. These are all, I'm ashamed to say, pretty dated games.

And the reason for that, conveniently enough, is precisely because of FPS innovation: since Unreal Tournament, it's all been graphical. I've only had a desktop machine capable of serious gaming for a year, and although I built it myself (or perhaps because I built it) I don't really want to go through the hassle of upgrading anything other than the RAM and the hard drive. More importantly, I don't really have an incentive to. So instead of playing a few tweaked gameplay modes of UT2k4 or running through the corridors of Doom 3, I play the originals and I don't feel like I'm missing anything. They were pretty much arcade games then, and they're pretty much the same now, although they're much prettier.

I'm not going to try to toss out a bunch of fresh new ideas that will revolutionize the industry, because I'm sure that there are a bunch of game designers out there who are smarter than I am, and they've probably already tried and rejected them. What I will say is this: just as the advances in FPS games have all been graphical, many of the major innovations have revolved around its viewpoint. Wolf3D and its generation moved the camera from outside the maze to inside of it. Doom gave us a better camera and one that was fallible (relying heavily on the darkness for the game's thrill). Quake implemented the mouselook for a player experience that really took advantage of the 3D environments. Half-Life used the player's point of view to create a "story" based around a mix of passive observation and active destruction.

This is not to say that everything in the genre has been camera-oriented. However, in many ways these other advances have merely involved playing catch-up. Doom's networking (and Quake's Internetworking) were simply the only viable ways to implement first-person multiplayer, something that third-person games have had for years. Duke Nukem 3D set a standard for environment interaction that was gimmicky, but still not really matched. Half-Life 2's physics are a great step forward, but they're being implemented everywhere, not just in shooters. As far as I can tell (and I could be entirely wrong, since as I said I haven't played the game) the much-vaunted gravity gun is really just a greatly-expanded Force Pull from Jedi Knight. It's nice that you can stack crates, but it's not really rocking my world. The whole design feels stale, and so I haven't bought any of the recent games, even though I love the genre.

In order to break out of those doldrums, I think I'd like to see the FPS genre lose the "S." My feelings on guns in games aside, the reason I have always played first-person games is because of their immersiveness--and a great deal of that comes from the perspective they offer. I'll always love Virtual On, MDK, and Jet Grind Radio, but they don't pull me in quite the same way. I don't lean away from the rockets roaring past, or crane my neck around their corners. There's a feeling of detachment in a third-person games that excuses limits on interaction with the world. In contrast, the feeling of immediacy and transparency from an FPS, with their lack of an "avatar," is what keeps me coming back.

Now, I know that just a few paragraphs up I made it sound like the focus on perspective has been a weakness for this genre--and I really do believe that it is, as long as developers are simply more interested in putting a more realistic shine on that crate before I throw it at a zombie. We hear a lot of lip-service paid every year to gameplay over graphics, but we're still just deathmatching in a more brightly painted concrete corridor. So maybe by abandoning the floating forearms clutching a weapon--by abandoning the "Shooter" emphasis--a developer might be able to step back from convention, bringing us just a little bit closer to the virtual experience we know the FPS might be capable of. It might require a different input style (could the much-maligned control glove finally see its day?) or a smarter mapping of the mouselook we've got, but just a few extra verbs for the player could go a long way (and already has: what is the gravity gun, really, except a clumsy hand that can only push or pull?).

In other words: I know this sounds hackneyed and trite, but where's my VR?

We have the technology. We've got the viewpoint, the scripting, and the graphics--it almost feels like you're right there. But even after years of advancement, despite all the immersion we've managed to accomplish, the only thing we can reach out and touch... is the trigger.

Who else wants to talk?

Future - Present - Past