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First Person Shooters Need To Grow Up. But How?

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Back in August, IGN released an article detailing how First Person Shooters were growing up, citing Borderlands 2 and Far Cry 3 as examples for this argument. The point was made that such games were crafting deeper character personalities, with isolated motives that could help the player connect to such experiences more easily than previous games within the genre.

Whilst Far Cry 3 is still yet to be released, Borderlands 2 has been out in the gaming wild for a good time now, and the above point made couldn’t be further from the actual truth. Sure, there’s a range of character classes to choose from, but the only features that separate each one are abilities and playstyle. On my first play through of the game, I chose the Solider, a character who is so devoid of personality that his name escapes me. Rather than choosing to Google it, my lack of knowledge in relation to this harks truths as to the games lack of emotional connection between the player and its protagonists.

For example, when you are killed within the game, how many shed a tear? None, because the game allows for instantaneous respawn, with players cursing their loss of in game currency more than the harsh realisation of death. Is this the sign of a genre maturing and evolving? No, however, I feel that to use Borderlands 2 as a game to form such an argument is unjustified.

Did anyone develop an emotional attachment for any of these characters?

Borderlands 2 is a game about shooting and looting, with this style of gameplay even being offered on the back of the retail case. Whilst I didn’t share the same enjoyment with it as I did for the first, Borderlands 2 still remains an excellent game, and its position within the gaming industry is most certainly justified, due to its humorous content, alternative art design, and substantial co-operative elements.

Let’s turn to a game therefore that did advertise itself as a mature title, and not for its in-game violence, but rather due to the emotional narrative that was cited as offering a poignant story of life as a Tier 1 operative, both on and off the battlefield. I’m talking of course about Medal of Honor: Warfighter, a game which has released to overly negative reception from both the public and critics, despite our favourable score of 7/10.

The reason Warfighter failed so spectacularly however, is that despite its trailers hinting at the opportunity for something alternative to other games within the genre, not only did the game fail to establish its own identity; it blatantly stole gameplay mechanics from other products similar in style. Whilst the Frostbite 2 engine allowed for greater graphical output, it only meant that gamers would draw greater comparisons to its shooter counterpart, Battlefield 3.

‘I’m glad this game looks so different from other shooters on the market!’

Meanwhile, the on-rail sections and explosive set pieces drew the franchise closer to Call of Duty than most would have liked, causing the loss of its individuality even more. It’s difficult to see exactly what Medal of Honor offers that is so different to Call of Duty and Battlefield, which are arguably the behemoths of First Person Shooters, and if the franchise is to continue, it needs to offer something completely fresh, rather than copy from its competitors.

It did try to do this through its emotionally tagged narrative, although this fell flat, due to the writers attempt at trying to weave a character driven tale being broken due to monotonous and thoughtless violence. Casting players in a role with a character that is difficult to empathise with is also counter-productive, and it causes you to wonder exactly how much communication there was between the writing team and the development one.

So what exactly do we mean when we say ‘Growing Up’? In the real world, this usually leads to an increase in testosterone and more exposure to sexual activity, which would mean that Duke Nukem: Forever would hold the title as the greatest video game of all time in that regards. Thankfully, we use the term to specify a title that can deal with real-life drama in an emotionally connecting and engaging way, whilst not disrespecting or patronising the player.

The greatest video game of all time. Or maybe not. Definitely not.

Such experiences are difficult to find from a first person perspective, although games such as The Walking Dead, Heavy Rain and Red Dead Redemption are proof that such opportunities exist. The way Telltale Games deals with the relationship between man and child in The Walking Dead is crafted with such care and detail that it draws attention to the importance of a paternal figure within family life.

The same could also be said of Heavy Rain, which tasks you with the objective of finding your son before he is killed by a serial murderer. Family also plays a pivotal role in Rockstar’s western themed adventure, but Red Dead Redemption is more about the story of the protagonist, with a connection between character and player far more easily formed than in any First Person Shooter.

It could be argued therefore, that it’s all a matter of perspective. What ties all three aforementioned games together is their cinematography, with players viewing the on screen action as a third person contributor, rather than a first person initiator. To be fair to the previously mentioned article, this point is made clear, although not given as much analysis as I want to explore here.

We feel much more for the character of Lee Everett, as we get to see his expressions.

For example, when playing The Walking Dead: The Game, even though we are the player, we always think of the protagonist as Lee Everett, not Daniel Martyniuk or whatever such name you happen to be have been graced with upon birth. As a result, whenever drama unfolds with this character, it’s far easier to share emotions for him, as we witness the consequences as an outside spectator, even though we are controlling him as a player.

In Heavy Rain, I remember a pivotal scene within the game (notice how I use the word scene, and not mission) that asks the player to cut off Ethan’s finger in order to save his son. I haven’t experienced such tension, panic, and fear within a game for a long time, and as a result, my connection to the character of Ethan Mars was unquestionable.

Whilst I want to avoid major spoilers, those that have completed Red Dead Redemption will be able to reminisce on a rather emotional conclusion near the game’s end, and I for one can say I was left close to tears, feeling broken and defeated for the due to what had occurred. All these feelings, I felt not for myself but for each game’s protagonist, in the same way that we do when we share emotions when watching a film.

Those that know how this game ends will understand the importance of the relationship between father and son.

Now I ask myself this. If any of these games, or even these individual experiences, had been presented in a first person format, would I have felt the same attachment to these characters and narratives? It’s difficult for me to believe I would.

There have been a few torture experiences in gaming, similar to the one in Heavy Rain, which players have witnessed from a first person perspective. For example, the game of Russian Roulette that takes place during Call of Duty: Black Ops. Did I feel anxiety, fear, or tension at this moment in time? No, because the game had made no attempt to set up such feelings prior to said event.

As I was experiencing the action through a first person perspective, I felt as if I, Daniel Martyniuk, was the protagonist. During the game, I took countless bullet wounds and died many a time, but did I ever feel a sense of pain for each round that struck me, or a feeling of loss when greeted with death? Such feelings didn’t even rise, as I never experienced these events in the outside world, so it was difficult to replicate such empathy for the character I was controlling within the game. Whilst the story of Black Opsintrigued me, the constant emphasis on move and shoot gameplay made the character of Alex Mason no different in style or substance to Master Chief or my Solider in Borderlands 2.

Wait, who even is this guy?

This last point is quite significant, as it could be argued that it’s far more difficult to alternate animations and gameplay style when played from a first person perspective. There’s little to separate Master Chief, Gordon Freeman and Alex Mason in terms of approach to combat, and it could be argued that due to players being quite specific with control settings when played from a first person perspective, this prevents developers from making large changes between products.

Third person games however give developers a lot more creative freedom in approach to gameplay, and as a result, the mannerisms of Sam Fisher are far different to that of Agent 47’s, and players can immediately identify this, and as a result, empathise with each character in a different manner. Therefore, the player’s lack of being able to see the protagonist when playing games from a first person perspective goes a long way in preventing gamers from developing an emotional attachment to the characters and narratives within these genres.

Is it impossible therefore for a First Person Shooter to explore a narrative that grips and compels, while crafting a protagonist that is given the same love and care as that of third person counterparts? Some may argue that the Halo franchise proves a solution to this question, but the majority of us still throw Master Chief around like a ragdoll, sending him headfirst into battle without great thought for any consequences, the most obvious of which being death.

An iconic hero. However, he still shoots everyone just the same.

As a lover of single player games, I’d love for First Person Shooters to cause me to question the actual act of firing a weapon, and the impact this has upon those affected. The only problem with this is, due to the genre’s name, players expect to see a body count in the thousands by the conclusion of the game’s narrative. As a player, how can you shoot over a thousand people, yet then want to experience a story that questions the morals of combat? The controversial Airport mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 came close to exploring this dilemma, but never really came to fruition thanks to its partnership with Michael Bay explosions and set pieces which served to overrule and cloud such debate.

As critics and the gaming public, we often blame developers for failing to innovate when we can see apparent plagiarism from other games, as is the case of Medal of Honor: Warfighter. However, with the Call of Dutyfranchise being one of the most successful within gaming, are developers really to blame, or is it the gaming publics purchasing power that should dictate where the industry chooses to spend its time? If the majority of us like to mindlessly blast one another across virtual environments, why should developers spend years working to try and offer something alternative, only to see it overlooked or ignored completely?

Brothers In Arms. The only shame about this series is that it didn’t sell more copies.

As someone who has been frustrated by recent solo offerings within the genre of First Person Shooters, it’s not difficult to see why there isn’t much of a substitute in terms of narrative and character design. As a result, whilst I would love for First Person shooters to start exploring stories with a greater emphasis on character driven emotions rather than repetitive violence combined with stereotypical antagonists, we as gamers aren’t giving developers the reason to do so.

However, just like the cinematography that dictates how we experience such games, I suppose it’s just all a matter of perspective.

Daniel Martyniuk
Editor for Only Single Player - Daniel likes Single Player experiences so much, he once locked himself in his room for a year without food or water to pay homage to the solo adventure. Now back from the dead, Daniel can often be found perusing over the latest developments within the industry, whilst celebrating after successfuly completing XCOM: Enemy Unknown on Classic Ironman. Suck on that aliens! You can also follow and harrass me on Twitter @DanMightyNuke. Let me know what you think of the solo experience!

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15 Comments

  1. Play Spec Ops: The Line, or Singularity if you want focused maturity in a shooter.

    I&#039d also like to offer a counter to the oft-repeated complaint that paints games like Warfighter in the light of "nothing innovative, nothing distinctive" – stop telling gamers they should expect/demand innovation from each new shooter. What I want, and I believe I speak for the millions that have helped Warfighter topple FIFA in sales this week (UK) is that we&#039re just as happy to get new CONTENT.

    1. If you ask me, Singularity&#039s story was far from spectacular and mostly felt like an excuse to set up the game world. It was above average, maybe, but certainly not noteworthy.

      Also, I&#039m not sure I understand your "content" remark, but I do believe that asking for some sort of soul in a game, be it from innovation, storytelling, or simply inspired design, is not only acceptable but should be demanded. It&#039s the key to standing out in this crowded market and making a lasting impression on gamers.

      1. Spoken like someone who&#039s never seen the inside of game development.

        I think a lot of shooter fans treat sequels as new episodes in a continuing story. And if we REALLY want to highlight "innovation" (which, btw, is not something you can just produce on demand, or as a bullet point in a production schedule) Warfighter did try to iterate on its core mechanic, the breach. But this article, like many others that try to discuss it, throw that under the bus with the rest of the product.

        Ah well, at least the sales charts show the truth of things.

        1. Warfighter as a "game" is great. It&#039s a really fun first person shooter that just looks beautiful. But, the connection between the characters, the family moments and all that, didn&#039t really amount to anything in my opinion. I was really hoping for some backstories to the characters, maybe have some levels where you aren&#039t shooting and are actually spending time with the family they advertised so heavily. But, most fps games just go for the cutscene instead of taking the time to build up those connections. At the scene with the execution, I didn&#039t even know which guy was shot. Yes I was paying attention to the story and all that, but I honestly was like, wait what?? Which guy was that!

          Anyways, the point being is that the gameplay mechanics don&#039t need innovation. It&#039s the way the stories are told, and adding some new things into shooters we haven&#039t experienced before.

        2. I do agree that innovation is not just something you can create. It requires time and room for experimentation, something Danger Close wasn&#039t given much of during Warfighter&#039s developemnt.

          I can honestly say that Warfighter&#039s breach elements felt underbaked and not all that different from other contemporary shooters. Even if it is the best breaching system to ever grace a shooter, is that really a head-turning feature?

          Warfighter&#039s story, at least to me, felt like the one area where the game had an advantage and could really build its identity on. It was something that had been hyped up very early on, and everyone was hoping for it to really succeed, but Danger Close failed to capitalize on it. I actually enjoyed my time with Warfighter, but I can&#039t help but feel it would have turned out better if its development was more focused. As it is, it just feels like EA marking the fall shooter checkbox.

      2. +1 for Spec Ops: The Line – There&#039s more than a few moments that will stay with you long after you&#039ve played through it a few times, and none of these are particularly pleasant as far as their subject matter goes; I&#039d have to say I was impressed by the uncompromising approach to the way some of the scenes were handled; despite the slightly surreal setting, this is a title that certainly didn&#039t pull any punches in the way the story unfolded through the singleplayer campaign.

  2. Play Spec Ops: The Line, or Singularity if you want focused maturity in a shooter.

    I'd also like to offer a counter to the oft-repeated complaint that paints games like Warfighter in the light of "nothing innovative, nothing distinctive" – stop telling gamers they should expect/demand innovation from each new shooter. What I want, and I believe I speak for the millions that have helped Warfighter topple FIFA in sales this week (UK) is that we're just as happy to get new CONTENT.

    1. If you ask me, Singularity's story was far from spectacular and mostly felt like an excuse to set up the game world. It was above average, maybe, but certainly not noteworthy.

      Also, I'm not sure I understand your "content" remark, but I do believe that asking for some sort of soul in a game, be it from innovation, storytelling, or simply inspired design, is not only acceptable but should be demanded. It's the key to standing out in this crowded market and making a lasting impression on gamers.

      1. Spoken like someone who's never seen the inside of game development.

        I think a lot of shooter fans treat sequels as new episodes in a continuing story. And if we REALLY want to highlight "innovation" (which, btw, is not something you can just produce on demand, or as a bullet point in a production schedule) Warfighter did try to iterate on its core mechanic, the breach. But this article, like many others that try to discuss it, throw that under the bus with the rest of the product.

        Ah well, at least the sales charts show the truth of things.

        1. Warfighter as a "game" is great. It's a really fun first person shooter that just looks beautiful. But, the connection between the characters, the family moments and all that, didn't really amount to anything in my opinion. I was really hoping for some backstories to the characters, maybe have some levels where you aren't shooting and are actually spending time with the family they advertised so heavily. But, most fps games just go for the cutscene instead of taking the time to build up those connections. At the scene with the execution, I didn't even know which guy was shot. Yes I was paying attention to the story and all that, but I honestly was like, wait what?? Which guy was that!

          Anyways, the point being is that the gameplay mechanics don't need innovation. It's the way the stories are told, and adding some new things into shooters we haven't experienced before.

        2. I do agree that innovation is not just something you can create. It requires time and room for experimentation, something Danger Close wasn't given much of during Warfighter's developemnt.

          I can honestly say that Warfighter's breach elements felt underbaked and not all that different from other contemporary shooters. Even if it is the best breaching system to ever grace a shooter, is that really a head-turning feature?

          Warfighter's story, at least to me, felt like the one area where the game had an advantage and could really build its identity on. It was something that had been hyped up very early on, and everyone was hoping for it to really succeed, but Danger Close failed to capitalize on it. I actually enjoyed my time with Warfighter, but I can't help but feel it would have turned out better if its development was more focused. As it is, it just feels like EA marking the fall shooter checkbox.

      2. +1 for Spec Ops: The Line – There's more than a few moments that will stay with you long after you've played through it a few times, and none of these are particularly pleasant as far as their subject matter goes; I'd have to say I was impressed by the uncompromising approach to the way some of the scenes were handled; despite the slightly surreal setting, this is a title that certainly didn't pull any punches in the way the story unfolded through the singleplayer campaign.

  3. Deus Ex Human Revolution and Crysis 1. Both relevant to this article.

  4. Deus Ex Human Revolution and Crysis 1. Both relevant to this article.

Comments are closed.

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