Sunday, November 4, 2018

The first person shooter is a dad in mid-life crisis

OK I know Heavy Rain isn't an FPS but I like this screenshot so I don't care
Every semester for our introductory Games 101 historical survey class, a different NYU Game Center faculty member presents a survey of a game genre. Matt Parker lectures on sports, Clara Fernandez-Vara talks about adventure games, Mitu Khandaker talks about simulations, and so on.

My personal lecture happens to be on the first person shooter (FPS) genre. In my lecture, I trace five main currents through the FPS genre:

TECHNOLOGY. The FPS genre has historically been tightly bound to hardware advances, and it's usually among the first games to pioneer / drive adoption of that technology. For instance, the first FPS "Maze War" (1973) was also the first networked multiplayer game; in 1993, Doom is so popular that it takes over corporate and academic networks (and gets banned from these networks). John Carmack is a major figure here, inventing the term "game engine" and holding up Doom and Quake as advanced examples of game engineering. During the ensuing idTech vs Unreal engine wars (1996-2009), the FPS often acts a glorified tech demo to show-off the latest graphics tech. (Unity 2.5 debuts in 2009 with Windows editor support; and did you know Steve Jobs had John Carmack debut Doom 3 for MacWorld 2001?)

PERSPECTIVE. The FPS gives the game camera a body inside the game world, and highlights how others react to your presence. In Half-Life (1998), Valve scripted characters to look at you and make (some semblance of) eye contact, and even maintained a specific design dogma to never leave the silent protagonist's camera perspective. Here in first person, "immersion" means the camera, versus different senses of immersion in sports (sportscast simulacrum) or RPGs (roleplaying).

VIOLENCE. Notoriously, the Columbine killers cited Doom as an inspiration for their school shooting. When there were US government hearings on violence in video games, FPS games were obvious examples to critique and analyze for violent media. Compared to any other game genre, the FPS also has the deepest ties to gun culture, evolving a major subgenre of military sim shooters that normalize guns / military hardware as aspirational personal consumer commodities with a "buy menu" (Counter-Strike, 1999) or the popularization of the "loadout" (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, 2007).

MULTIPLAYER CULTURE. Despite the anti-social tendencies of mass murderers, FPS games are also a deeply social phenomenon. Famous FPS games like Quake (1996), Goldeneye 007 (1997), Counter-Strike (1999), and Call of Duty are known primarily as multiplayer games that helped build console gamer culture as well as LAN parties and early e-sports scenes. The multiplayer FPS developed crucial scoring mechanics that are now common in other genres, such as capture the flag / capture point mechanics, kill / death ratios, kill streaks, etc.

NARRATIVE DESIGN. When Half-Life began with a "boring" 9 minute uninterruptible workday commute, it began a decades-long trend of realism in level design that is still felt in the industry today. Half-Life was also the first game to regularly lock the player inside a room full of talking people, to replace red/blue/yellow keycards with NPCs who follow and help you, and commit to choreographed scripted sequences that happen in the game world instead of an isolated cutscene. This tradition culminates in Portal (2007), a "short" 5-6 hour FPS puzzle game that boldly rethinks 3D space, world building, and characterization / narration.

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I've argued before that the history of the FPS should be understood more as the rise of modding culture, and now several years later I'm arguing for another historical narrative to consider: the FPS is basically a dad, an aging genre that must reconcile its prior youthful rebellion with its growing irrelevance, and must now cope with its numbing fear of loneliness / failure with bad jokes and barbecues.

There are three reasons why I argue the FPS is in mid-life crisis.

1. The FPS no longer leads any of the five historical currents I identified. Partly because the FPS is irrelevant, or because the discourse has changed across all of video games:
  • TECHNOLOGY in 2018: The FPS does not headline hardware announcements or tech keynotes anymore. John Carmack doesn't even make games anymore, idTech is no longer a relevant middleware brand, the most popular Unreal Engine shooter of all time is a third-person shooter, and the most widely used 3D game engine in the world didn't even care so much about big fancy graphics tech until its HDRP tools in 2018. (Plus, Halo used to singlehandedly sell consoles, and now look at it!! LOOK AT IT!!) Basically, the FPS does not function as the face of game engineering anymore.
  • PERSPECTIVE in 2018: No major first person game today maintains a "first person only" design dogma. Open world games and cover shooters both frequently snap to third person cameras so that players can get a better sense of their body / character, but more importantly, players can get a better look at all the cool clothes and hat purchases in third person. At any rate, today we imagine immersion in games as a more fluid phenomenon that isn't centered around a camera perspective.
  • VIOLENCE in 2018: In 2011 the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v EMA (lobbying group for game stores) that games are protected speech, and thus do not merit government regulation unless they have more specific threats. Today we are much more likely to link mass violence to the gun industry, politics, and/or mental health issues, rather than violent video games. Which isn't such a bad thing? Trump blaming video games is now widely understood as the lie / political distraction it is.
  • MULTIPLAYER CULTURE in 2018: Yeah, CS:GO and Destiny and Overwatch are totally these ongoing contemporary FPS trends with active player bases. But do they represent the future of multiplayer culture in video games, and are they deeply influential and setting an industry-wide agenda? Fortnite is third person, League of Legends still has more players than every multiplayer first person game combined, and none of those FPS games are on your phone. AAA used to be happy when they sold a couple million units, but why settle for that puny audience when there are literally 4 billion smartphone users out there?
  • NARRATIVE DESIGN in 2018: Walking simulator games like Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, Proteus, or What Remains of Edith Finch, are all first person games that omit shooting, which means they are no longer FPS games. The storyworld-focused AAA immersive sim tradition has also died a second death. But I'd also predict a larger death of narrative design: as fandom and streamers grow in power, "ships" and memes and community drama will overwrite the authored narrative of the game. Can this larger narrative be designed? Perhaps in the future, there will be no writers, just PR consultants and social media interns. (Is the "meaning" of Red Dead Redemption 2 ultimately about exploitative labor practices, or about being a random cowboy dad?)
2. Contemporary AAA FPS games (CS:GO, Destiny, Overwatch) survive today because they are live games, or "games as a service". That is not unique to the FPS design tradition; you don't need the first person perspective to sell DLC, gun skins, hats, dance emotes, or season passes. I'd also argue that a first person camera is actually a hindrance here, because it makes a game harder to spectate during live broadcasts.

3. I argue the golden age of the FPS was 1993-2007, from Doom to Portal (The Orange Box) / Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which is maybe the last time the FPS set-off a huge shockwave through the industry and culture. Rising indie "retro FPS" nostalgia projects like System Shock 1 Remastered, Bedlam, Prodeus, Hard Reset Redux, or Gibhard, etc. signify how the FPS audience wants to find comfort in that glorious past instead of a stagnating present.

* * *

To be clear, I love first person shooters. I grew up playing them and I still play them. I also make first person games and I'll continue to make them. But it's also important to be honest with ourselves. We need to realize that game culture has changed since the 1990s, and we need to recognize these changes in order to better understand games today.

Everyone who grew up with Doom, Quake, Unreal, Half-Life, and even Call of Duty, is aging out of the game industry's main demographic of concern. That's OK, that's part of aging. (Half-Life is 20 years old! Portal was more than 11 years ago!!)

So the FPS has two options: be a "bad dad" who impulsively buys a Ferrari and resents everyone else for what he has lost... or the FPS could be a "cool dad" who has learned to let go, who re-invents their identity and celebrates change.

This Silver Age of the FPS will only happen if we let the FPS mean something else, and truly accept dadhood.

By the way, silver daddies (NSFW) are very on-trend right now. Just so you know.