This weekend we had a good old natter about the nature of shooters in the modern day, the seeming prevalence of the FPS in current times, and whether in fact there was such a thing as "shooter fatigue" going around. (You can listen to PWNCAST: Episode 11 - Shooting Gallery here.) We came to a number of rather emphatic conclusions.
The first is simple: there aren't "too many shooters" at all. As Jon pointed out in the podcast, the only people able to say that sentence with a straight face would be those too lazy to look anywhere other than the bestseller lists, particularly if you own a PC. Aside from the swathe of bullet-ridden reviews that pile up over the November period, an FPS has barely touched the disc drive of this writer. Skyrim, The Witcher 2, FIFA 12, FEZ, Bastion, Devil May Cry, Binary Domain, Terraria, Puzzle Quest, Football Manager 12, Total War, Red Alert 2, Civ V, Mario Kart 7, Rayman Origins, I could go on and on.
If anything, Skyrim actually hammered home how much I miss first-person shooters. The perspective is the most immersive you can get in gaming. You are rooted in the game. There are no obstacles to your view, no avatar to remind you that there's an entire other character between you and the unfolding action. Whether coupled with the freedom of exploration, or when coaxed further into tense, claustrophobic environment, when empowered with the ability to assess and react, to find and do things on your own, that first-person perspective cannot help but provide the greatest feedback available to the interactive medium.
The exhilaration of the original Halo is built upon the this, as is the impact of the phenomenal world-building seen in the likes of Half-Life and Bioshock. Doom 3 and the first two F.E.A.R. titles brought atmosphere in spades. Prey took the rules set out by the genre and (literally, in some cases) flipped them upside-down. So how come it seems so wasted today? How did it come to this?
Since the early Nineties, shooters have always been, and will continue to be, a large part of the games industry. But do we really have more shooters than yesteryear? Probably not. The irony is that as we've advanced technologically in the last few years, there's an argument to be made that we've stalled, or maybe even taken one or two steps back in terms of design. As the desire to make sharper, shinier games grows, as the pressures of trying to keep up with PC hardware that advances at an increasingly accelerated rate take their toll on the wallets of everyone in the games industry, risk-taking becomes unfeasible.
To that end, the publishers behind big budget games will stick with what helped make them big budget in the first place, and right now that's all about modern warfare and space marines. It's about trying to emulate COD's multiplayer template, and sadly singleplayer concerns appear to be increasingly marginalised in this genre. Longevity is key in these uncertain, double-dipping times. If there's a way to extend a game's long tail by cribbing Activision's guide To Multiplayer Violence then so be it.
The thing is, it's not like there aren't alternatives within the genre itself. Condemned and its sequel gave us a terrifying take on a first-person shooter (something that Amnesia ran with by not letting you have any weapons at all). Metro 2033 proved that exceptional, atmospheric world-building was still alive and well, and a sequel - Metro: Last Light is well underway. Deus Ex: Human Revolution got the jump on the winter release gridlock, dropped in August, and reminded everyone that it was still possible to have an FPS with wide gameplay options, a game that embraces player choice.
That begs the question why we needed reminding in the first place, and therein lies the rub. The FPS genre has become an icon of security - a genre that can prevail in all weathers as it appeals to our simple, primal aggression, is relatively straightforward, and needs little introduction, but it's done so in the last couple of years by removing the risk and cutting costs. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 is canned, the ambitious Prey 2 drifts in a sea of uncertainty; thank god, frankly, that Dishonored is still alive and kicking.
On one level, railing against the FPS genre is proving popular as a counterpoint to the genre's own popularity. But let's narrow that down...it's not the FPS genre really, is it? It's Call of Duty, and the pretenders that it helps to encourage. There's a certain sense of jealousy there too. The feeling that there are far more games that might warrant even a part of the attention lavished on this yearly event, and it is an event now, that doesn't deliver sequels, or evolutions, as much as stacked iterations.
There's the frustration of knowing that good games don't always sell, that the most interesting titles maybe won't get the marketing push they need without a big name behind them. And here, of course, we run into a new grievance as well: the appropriation of classics from other genres, to sell an FPS. Would Syndicate have sold even half as many copies as it did (a total that was apparently still a bit under par) had it not caused a storm of controversy when it was revealed? Would a strategic reboot have sold more? We won't know in this case, but intriguingly we might when it comes to XCOM.
But you look back at the likes of TimeSplitters, No One Lives Forever, Hexen and you wonder how they'd ever pass the first pitch today.
- "So we'd like to make a game with a unique, hyper-realistic, exaggerated art style that has you jumping around famous global locations, travelling through time to stop an alien race from demolishing history. Oh, and there are monkeys...wait..."quirky" can be good..."
- "Right, so we'd like to make a 60's spy spoof FPS with a female protagonist with open-ended gameplay, plenty of stealth elements, cool gadgets like an exploding robotic poodle, a rocket launcher disguised as a briefcase, and a cigarette lighter mini-blowtorch...yes she has to be a female protagonist...why is that dealbreaker?...wait..."
- "Ok, so we'd like to present an FPS in which you choose from one of three arcane classes, with lots of variations on melee and ranged combat. We'll have hub levels for large-scale puzzles, and witches, lots of witches...oh...you'd like us to leave...um..."
Ironically, my most anticipated game for this year is actually an FPS - set in a giant,flying, steampunk city, that's home to an enormous avian menace called the Songbird, features large amounts of political infighting, revolutionary chaos, dimension tearing, psychokinetic powers. Of course, Irrational have a big name (and some nice sales figures) to fall back on now. But would Bioshock have been greenlit in 2012?
Then again, I looked around following the presentation of Brothers in Arms: Furious 4, a game that appeared to put Borderlands, Bulletstorm, and Inglourious Basterds into a blender, and people were complaining of this apparent "travesty", lamenting this new direction. I saw a fresh take on the WWII shooter and left with a massive grin on my face, but this vehemence confused me.
Maybe we deserve everything we get. Maybe we're just not allowed nice things.