The Book of First Person Shooters
and when you really think about the viscera of the first-person shooter, it’s not that hard to become dispirited. Because, really, that’s what it’s all about. Whether you’re an excop driven by revenge; a stocky, expressionless space marine; or a tribal-dinosaur-hunter-cum-Black-Ops-commando, the end result is largely the same: you’re tasked with trudging your way through often ravishingly beautiful and/or crushingly oppressive locales, and leaving a trail of blood and gore in your wake that would make Leatherface blush. The morality of the games is dubious, but the sense of heroic empowerment is undeniable to anyone who’s ever played one. It’s a sense that’s proved irresistible to millions of players worldwide, and has made the genre arguably the most significant of the Nineties. Tim Willits of id Software helps us identify why this is the case.
“It’s the genre that gets you the most in the game,” he says. “There’s no other genre that gets you more involved. I mean, when you, say, play a third-person game and there’s you on the screen, and there’s a bad guy chasing you, it’s not as frightening as when you’re there and you’re in the game. That’s much scarier.” Willits knows a lot about making first-person games scary. If the name eludes you, he’s the lead designer at id Software, the company that produced Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. Arguments about flashlights aside, id Software is the most important developer in the FPS genre. The shooter bore roots in the Eighties, with games like the vector-drawn Battlezone (1980, Atari, arcades) and Rescue On Fractalus! (1984, Atari, 5200) – which fractally generated an explorable landscape for players to fly over – but it was id whose games defined, and continue to define, the FPS. He explains why: “The genre itself is driven by id. John [Carmack] invented the technology that made it possible. Doom was very influential to our industry, and Quake spawned clans, it spawned 3D first-person shooters, it spawned everyone wanting to have fast connections so they could deathmatch. Back then Quake III was the first game that required hardware acceleration, so that legitimised the whole videocard industry. And then with Doom 3, John [Carmack] did bump maps, specular maps, and all that stuff you find in Unreal 3, Crysis, and Source – that’s all because of John. And let’s not forget, every time you pick up a shotgun in an FPS and pull the trigger, you need to thank id Software. This industry is a technology driven one; John has driven the technology, and thus, the industry.” There are two reasons why Willits cheerleads with such fervour – three, really, if you count his obvious status as an id employee. First, he’s largely spot-on: the first-person shooter’s legacy is mostly a technological one. With each new id instalment – and, by extension, each generation of games that appeared and innovated, inspired by id’s technology – introducing some new revolutionary feature (fast 3D graphics, internet multiplayer, rocket jumping), the FPS not only matured, but also provided essential elements of what drives the industry today. And John Carmack, the strange, extra-dimensional, sleepless, multibrained being that he surely must be, has sat quite comfortably atop the genre’s progression since he birthed it by using raycasted graphics in Wolfenstein 3D (1992). The second reason, though, is that id, like the genre as a whole, is at a crossroads. It comes down to that ‘point, shoot, proceed’ mechanic mentioned before. When gamers first slipped Doom into their drives, the hell-shattering graphics carried the journey. The frenetic, tense gameplay stemmed solely from the game’s ability to accurately simulate 3D, interactive spaces, with varying shades of light and shadow. The game was, in essence, the sum of its tech, and needless to say, the tech was astonishing. But now that the programming Carmack whipped together in 1993 is widely available and extensively retooled to suit every genre imaginable, the first-person shooter no longer has the same technological foothold. Players are beginning to want a little more pow for their pound. Willits cautiously agrees. “Is the genre in jeopardy?” he asks. “No. It’s still popular. We sold 3 million copies of Doom 3. That was great for us. That said, there’s a lot of room to grow. Players expect more from games these days. Players want to experience more. They want more from the stories and the environments. And there are a lot of great games that have just been released in the FPS genre, that have evolved. The pure, arcade, Doom-esque shooter? It will exist in some form. It’s a shrinking niche, and I think where you’ll see it with legs and life is in some of those marketplace downloads with the 360 and the PS3. For example, we released Classic Doom on Microsoft Download and it was super successful. Microsoft was thrilled, and we’re developing a Quake title for that download, so you have these smaller games in an environment that kind of limits itself to that arcadey, instantaction world. That’s what you get with downloadable games. The evolved first-person shooter is going to be turning the tables, and the older, purer FPSs will be moving towards the downloadable environment. They’re definitely going old school, but the new games are expanding.” And id isn’t going to be left behind. For the first time in 11 years, the Dallas-based company is starting a new IP: Rage. Whether the title is a nod to id’s undoubted chagrin at being regarded as creatively stagnant by some critics and gamers is unknown. The point is, Willits wants to change everything. “Rage is built upon that first-person genre,” he concedes, “but we’ve blown out the gameplay. We have driving combat, racing, and even adventure elements. It’s a story-directed, open-world feel, where we have large, outdoor areas that you can traverse on foot or in a vehicle. But you can also explore these classic, Quakeesque levels – bunkers, caves, and so on – where you have the pure FPS action available. So we really want to make Rage stand out from our previous titles, like Doom and Quake, and because it’s a new IP, we have the flexibility and luxury of blowing it out and delivering something people won’t expect.” With Doom 3 selling in excess of 3 million copies, and Quake 4 not doing too shabbily at all either, you might wonder why id is finally making the creative leap that John Carmack himself described as very risky given modern development costs. Perhaps it’s simply that id is a metaphor for the FPS genre itself: it needs to evolve to survive. “Well, we’ve been lucky enough to have very successful franchises, and we’ve found developers to work with us,” notes Willits. “We’ve got Raven working with us, and Splash Damage doing Enemy Territory, and stuff like that. And so we have these other teams who create good games for us so we now have the luxury of exploring new ideas. The other franchises now generate enough income for us to be able to explore new ideas, and if you don’t come up with new ideas you get stale. So you always need to come up with new ideas because that’s what makes this exciting. That’s what makes it fun, and that’s what got us all into it. So, the real question is not ‘Why now,’ but rather, ‘Why not all the time?’” His attitude is refreshing. id never stopped being a technological innovator, but it could be accused of following a solid-butsomewhat- unambitious design agenda up until very recently. In fact, if you examine the history of the shooter, it’s not too difficult to come up with a pattern: id releases game with industrychanging technology and further perfects the ‘pure’ shooter Willits described, and another developer (or developers) comes along and – either directly sourcing from or modelling its tech on id’s creations – takes the genre in wild, new directions. Doom’s complement is undoubtedly Duke Nukem 3D even though Duke was released in 1996, three years after Doom hit shelves. Where Doom was fast, action-focused, and often cramped, the Build Engine allowed Duke to be more interactive, cinematic, and expansive. Although Carmack despised the technology for its inelegance, Build gave life to what is still 3D Realms’ best game.
Duke wasn’t about military bases and demonic landscapes. It was set in urban areas, which players were free to explore. Interacting with the game’s strip clubs, banks, police stations, and adult film theatres, often yielded hidden content and crassly amusing results. What’s more, Duke had a genuine, coherent storyline, memorably served by some of the cheesiest, yet still endearing, one-liners ever spouted by a voice actor. In short, it took the genre popularised by Doom – unwavering in its dedication to violence and absence of filler – and turned it into a fleshed-out, gloriously tacky B-movie. Duke gave the FPS character. Quake’s 1996 revolution in graphics, multiplayer gameplay, and level design, were matched a year later with a whole new mechanic: stealth, first seen in Rare’s GoldenEye 007. Still the greatest Bond game ever made, GoldenEye sported locational damage – the crotch shot was thus born – realistic depictions of the film’s locales, and, most importantly, enemies that reacted to how much of an indiscreet klutz you were being. GoldenEye took the emphasis away from carnage and focused on instilling a sense of caution and self-preservation. You weren’t cast as a demon-slaying death-machine. You were just a man. A handsome man, granted, but one vulnerable enough that survival depended on subtlety: anathema to id Software. Still, id gave all that story malarkey a go with Quake II, released at the end of 1997. While still improving on Carmack’s excellent Quake technology, and containing some absolutely classic multiplayer opportunities – Q2DM1, aka The Edge, is reportedly the gods’ chosen deathmatch map – Quake II also saw fit to include a real narrative, and featured quite a few epic setpieces. But it was mere flirtation compared to what was available in Valve Software’s endlessly praised, Quake-based Half-Life, released in 1998. Half-Life did away with everything that made sense in storybased action games: cut-scenes, conventional characters (Gordon Freeman was a nerdy physicist), and even levels. It was pure immersion. The game unfolded with unprecedented atmosphere, stopping neither for a level change nor an out-of-body narrative sequence, and ended up becoming one of the most finely crafted interactive experiences of all time. It also spawned the Counter- Strike mod – now a commercial title – which, in its various iterations, is one of the most-played multiplayer games online. 1998 also saw the beginnings of id’s downfall as the graphics monolith. Epic MegaGames, hitherto known for its side-scroller Jazz Jackrabbit, released Unreal, the first use of the now-ubiquitous Unreal Engine – currently in its third version. As a shooter, Unreal was visually enchanting but otherwise unremarkable. As a piece of technology, it inspired legions of developers to jump ship. The rivalry continued into 1999, with id and Epic releasing the seminal multiplayer shooters Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament, respectively. Before that war began, though, Irrational Games (now 2K Boston) debuted System Shock 2, which is now considered one of the greatest PC games ever made. Shock 2 was defiantly, tragically low-tech – the death knell for any game in a genre so dependent on graphics – but that didn’t stop its massive cult appeal, which has only grown as the years have passed. It was unyieldingly tense, crippling (ammo was almost non-existent), and cleverly structured. Most significantly, though, it was highly emergent. Enemies weren’t locked in scenes. They wandered about the game’s derelict spaceship freely, pursuing the player if he’d momentarily forgotten how to sneak. Weapons, abilities, and powers were open to customisation, and most obstacles in the game could be solved in myriad creative ways. Post-Y2K, with id going multiplayer-only and then radio silent for the four years of Doom 3’s development, the FPS became lot less monochrome. Halo hit shelves in 2001, and redefined the cinematic approach to shooter design. It also included the most elegant vehicle segments seen in an FPS. Metroid Prime included enjoyable (gasp!) first-person platforming and exploration gameplay. Battlefield 1942 upended online gaming, taking it to large, open playscapes with varied character classes and infinite possible strategies. And when Valve released its long-delayed masterpiece to ravenous players in 2004, the developer was confirmed as a god of the genre. That said, it was still Quake, rather than, say, System Shock 2, that provided, and largely continues to offer, the core framework. Half-Life 2, interactive artistic landmark that it is, was unforgivingly linear. A roller-coaster ride so beautiful you more or less forgot about the cart and tracks. Doom 3 was a similar beast, although history has been less kind to its inherent shortcomings. Which brings us back to Rage, and the future of the FPS as we know it. id isn’t the only trad-shooter developer getting busy with new ideas. Valve is also updating its Half-Life franchise with Half- Life 2: Episode Two, an expansion that promises to feature more freeform gameplay than its predecessors. In fact, this year has seen notably more attention directed at shooters that forfeit the rules. S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow Of Chernobyl, released in March, is an open-world, open-ended, and endlessly terrifying game that keeps its sights on realism and survival gameplay. The level of hype surrounding the game when it hit shelves doesn’t yet need to be recalled – it’s still in the air. And BioShock, which in terms of both story and character is one of the greatest games ever made, was shipped in September to unanimous acclaim.
Willits is a fan. “It’s difficult to define the shooter genre any more,” he laughs. “Look at BioShock. I mean, what is that? Is it an adventure or an FPS? I think that’s great. I think people should evaluate and judge games by how fun they are, and what experiences they offer, rather than ‘Oh, it’s an RTS so I won’t enjoy it’ or ‘Oh, it’s an RPG, and those are too complex for me’. It’s a good time for game design when you can’t attach those labels.” Ken Levine, BioShock’s creative director, never strived for ambiguity. He maintained throughout his game’s development that BioShock was, more than anything else, an FPS. And perhaps he’s right. Maybe BioShock isn’t a genre anomaly as Willits suggests, but rather one of the first and most potent pieces of evidence to suggest that the shooter genre is finally moving away from Call Of Duty-esque cinema, and into emergence, player agency, and expertly weaved atmosphere. Basically, everything the genre promises, offering as it does the most immersive mode of play possible. BioShock ebbs and flows as you play, though it’s never so chaotic that it enters Oblivion territory. The player freedom it affords is far more focused, and, in many ways, successful. Just like in System Shock 2 – BioShock’s spiritual predecessor, if you haven’t read a games magazine in three years – every obstacle the player comes across can be dealt with in countless, unscripted ways. It’s the ultimate fusion of flawless design and beautiful technology. By lowering its graphics trajectory, id will be able to achieve similar goals. id Tech 5, Carmack’s latest vehicle, features many innovations, including his refined MegaTexture technology. It isn’t, however, aiming for the PC high-end. But don’t think for a second that id’s going to adopt Ion Storm’s sadly ill-fated ‘Design Is Law’ ethos. “We are a tech-focused company,” Willits declares confidently. “We have John Carmack. When you have the world’s greatest game programmer, you need to take advantage of that. One of the great things about Rage is that because it’s cross-platform, we’re not taking every ounce of the PC to the extreme. It’s been nice creating some of the programming around the design, simply because it’s not cutting-edge PC technology. But again, we are technology focused. We have John. If we didn’t have John, it would be easy to say ‘Oh, we just do whatever we want’, but it’s silly to have the world’s greatest game programmer and not use him. We have John. That’s why we do it.” Fair enough. It will be interesting, however, to see how id’s design changes now that more room is being made for it. It’s indicative of a conscious decision within the company to shift focus, at least a little. And it’s also more or less a confirmation that the FPS isn’t devolving into a primordial stew of anomalous sub-genres, but is instead re-examining itself and its strengths to prevent a slow descent into derivation and tedium. id Software, inventor of almost everything you know and adore about the first-person shooter genre, is changing. Finally. It’s seen the BioShock’s of today as well as yesterday, and knows it needs to get with the programme. As Willits has established, wherever Carmack goes the rest of the genre will follow. There will undoubtedly be a lot of pointing and shooting along the track, but if Willits gets his way there’ll be quite a few other things too.