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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.