Electron Dance
12Jun/1319

Léon Loves Tetris

This is the concluding part of The Shooting Gallery trilogy. In part one, developers of 2D shooters spoke about their interest in the form, and part two explored the evolution of the 2D shooter.

Cards on the table time, folks. Here’s the question for the big prize. What is the 2D shooter about?

Well done! It is indeed about the shooting of stuff but let's peel back the outer layer of this onion. I also want to discard some of the games where the primary mechanic is navigating obstacles rather than shooting, such as Scramble (Konami, 1981) and Zaxxon (Sega, 1982). When we take the genre as a whole, we notice that shooters usually require players to destroy as much as possible.

leon loves tetris

Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) lays out five ranks of aliens which march across the screen and taking the occasional decisive step towards the ground. If a single alien makes it to the bottom, the game is over. Aside from the distracting saucers, the player must blast everything.

Something more recent? In arena shooter Death Ray Manta (Rob Fearon, 2012) the player must dispatch every green bunny and pink robot to proceed to the next Manta stage. Even something like Everyday Shooter (Queasy Games, 2007), where each level only lasts as long as the background track, encourages the player to wipe out as much as possible for the purpose of acquiring extra lives and creating safe space.

I'm reminded of this short exchange from Léon: The Professional (Luc Besson, 1994):

Mathilda: Léon, what exactly do you do for a living?

Léon: Cleaner.

Mathilda: You mean you're a hit man?

What is the 2D shooter about? It’s about cleaning.   

Tetris (Alexey Pajitnov, 1984) is well-known as a game about “tidying up”. The player's job is to manoeuvre blocks falling down a well into an arrangement that is ordered; if an entire line of the Tetris well is filled then the blocks in that line will disappear. It’s a losing battle against chaos because each player has their limit. The game is implacable. More shapes rain down the screen. And then more. And more still.

The small victory of clearing a line is spiked with a peculiar mental high that keeps the player engaged. Shooters offer the same experience. Creating space and zones of safety through destruction, particularly in crowded arena shooters, feels good. Some games break the action into distinct waves and they take a moment, when a wave is completed, to congratulate us for tidying up our room. We are relieved to have made it through alive yet also dread the next wave before us. None of us surrender to that fear. We are always willing to give it our best shot, even if we suspect we are doomed. Bring it on. We love Tetris.

defender wave complete

But has it been necessary to dress these games up with a thin plot like “alien invasions” or “robot revolutions”? Gunstar Heroes (Treasure, 1993) and Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony (Final Form Games, 2011) flaunt their story whereas players may not even notice Scoregasm's (Charlie’s Games, 2011). Everyday Shooter and Waves (Squid In A Box, 2011) dispense with story altogether. Does it make any difference?

As part of a debate about proceduralism, an academic theory on how to interpret games from their dynamics, Charles J. Pratt cited a story involving Kaboom! (Activision, 1981) where it was clear that the “surface meaning” of the game missed the point entirely.

…I had the pleasure of watching my friend Jesse Fuchs actually play Kaboom on an Atari 2600 for a charity marathon at the NYU Game Center... Played at a high level Kaboom is mostly a dizzying display of reflexes. At the higher levels of difficulty the madman is dropping the bombs so quickly that the player must always be moving, and perfectly match the semi-random pattern in which the bombs are falling. This means steering the ‘bucket’ from one side of the screen to the other, making micro adjustments, small pauses and reserves in direction, to meet each bomb as it reaches the level of the bucket, never waiting in anticipation of its arrival. … In the face of Jesse’s play it could never matter what the game was about, it was a game of reflexes, concentration, and memorization. These were not the meaning categories that the ‘text’ of the game could possibly fall into, they were the psycho-kinetic realities of that game as an event.

The stories hung on most shooters are there for spectacle and theme. Sometimes they also feature as feedback – the cutscene as reward – as per Raph Koster’s controversial essay on the subject last year. No one plays a 2D shooter convinced it is a meditation on the bullet being the ideal tool for resolving conflict. At best, we engage with the shooter on the level of a cartoon. They are games of reflexes and cleaning, of having fun.

Shooters are also theatres of performance play, where a high score demonstrates skill. However, where score is important for many 2D shooters, the 3D shooter dropped the concept quickly after taking over from its 2D predecessor. It would later return in the form of achievements but 3D shooters concentrated more on the player’s impulse to clean.

As covered last week, games like Wolfenstein 3D (id, 1992) and DOOM (id, 1993) mimicked the best traditions of the 2D shooter – clarity, adrenaline and, initially, score. Although you didn't need to eliminate every enemy, there was still something unmistakeably powerful about the action of clearing out sections and making them safe. While some might describe this experience as “conquering territory” this misstates the simple joy of transforming a DOOM level from noisy, hazardous chaos to quiet, safe order.

Now 3D worlds were not exactly new. Here's a handful of examples over the two decades prior to DOOM: Maze War (Steve Colley, 1973), Star Raiders (Atari, 1979), Mercenary (Novagen, 1985) and Dungeon Master (FTL Games, 1987). But in the early 90s, hardware had matured to the point where players could explore smooth, fully-rendered environments populated with dozens of enemies. The videogame abstractions of old seem to crumble away and leave players with the experience of being somewhere else.

Soon, 2D was just another word for "old" and 3D meant modern, regardless of whether 2D experiences were still valid in their own right. The sequel to beautifully drawn action adventure Flashback (Delphine Software, 1992) was the crudely rendered 3D world of Fade to Black (Delphine Software, 1995). At times, it felt like games had devolved as the mainstream industry shifted its resources into 3D and it didn't take long before developers expected PC owners to have a 3D graphics card. Sure, there was always the cheapskate "software rendering" option but then every game just looked like a stuttering version of DOOM.

flashback-and-f2b

The 3D shooter was still just a shooting game at the end of the day and it would take Half-Life (Valve, 1998) to demonstrate that the shooter could shed its simple traditions and become a movie simulator. Cutscenes became scripted events that happened around the player and the difference was profound; instead of the tried and trusted method of separating fiction from game, developers began to blend them. Titles like Unreal (Epic MegaGames, 1998) and Shogo: Mobile Armor Division (Monolith Productions, 1998) also dabbled with story elements in the same year but it was Half-Life that raised the bar.

halflifetestchamber

Studios wanted to make players feel EMOTION and threw in plot and supporting characters and terrible things happening to nice people, to make the shooting more intense. The principle inherited from the 2D shooter, that story was there for theme and spectacle, no longer seemed to apply. The industry, to all intents and purposes, embraced Steven Spielberg's declaration that, “I think the real indicator that games have become a storytelling art form, will be when somebody confesses that they cried at level 17.” Never mind what emotional carnage Floyd and Aeris had already inflicted on players.

Serious Sam (Croteam, 2001) went back to first principles, concentrating on the player as cleaner. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, with critics dazzled by the ridiculous spectacle and fun of it all. But the rest of the industry looked for tears. For stories worth telling. For Citizen Kane. Even now, the AAA industry seems convinced that photorealism is where true emotions are to be found, obsessed with digging deep into the uncanny valley.

The 3D shooter is a world of Tetris pieces, to be organised and cleaned with your gun. Players are supposed to care about certain special pieces, the child we're meant to protect or the beefy marine watching our six, but the rest of them can go to Hell. That's what designers expect and sometimes the trick works. But the further they flee from the kind of abstractions that defined the 2D shooter, the more problematic the surface becomes.

special_tetris_piece_cropped

Now the Tetris blocks have skin grafted onto them and the arena is full of bloody bone fragments. Embracing our inner Tetris makes it harder to take story seriously. They want you to cry at level 17 but not worry about the skinjobs you blasted to bits already. If you wonder why game stories are getting so dark, maybe it's because writers are having to work overtime to justify why it's actually okay to kill a few hundred NPCs that look just like real people. Developers can't keep aiming for photorealism if the primary mechanic that makes them money is cleaning. What happens when the ludonarrative dissonance becomes too great? You find critics barely able to conceal their disgust at the incongruity of Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013), a unique, beautiful environment that is ruined by mindless shooting. The textual reading of an FPS is problematic.

People who don't play games can see the silly attractions of a 2D shooter, but they wince seeing Lara Croft getting strangled, Corvo Attano slashing someone's throat open or North Korean soldiers being treated like rag dolls for entertainment. I'm not so sure we should celebrate the well-developed doublethink skills of the modern player, able to keep the touching story of our hero and his sidekick separate from all the murder. That's the kind of thing actual killers are good at.

Perhaps it would help if the modern FPS played the Tetris theme, Korobeiniki, whenever we were expected to go cleaner and mow down NPCs without mercy, Знает только ночь глубокая, don't have to worry that actually we're playing the corrupted younger sibling of the 2D Как поладили они, when it's quiet it's time to feel EMOTIONS Распрямись ты, рожь высокая, and Léon loves Tetris Тайну свято сохрани!

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Posted by HM

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Comments (19) Trackbacks (4)
  1. Bonus points for those on Twitter who caught the original tweet. This was indeed the idea I dubbed “special snowflake tetris piece” and also “the tetris murderers” a couple of months ago.

  2. Wow, I love this idea of shooting as cleaning. The dissonance between photorealism and the history of the original shooter pulling against one another. The idea that as we clean a level, photorealism dictates that we hurl blood all over the space that we have just cleaned. The idea that we’re supposed to empathize with the cleaners and sometimes even the cleaned. Actually, a lot of what we do in games feels like cleaning. I wonder where this leaves games like Spec Ops and Max Payne 3, games that adopt a grotesque aesthetic of blood and violence as a kind of punishment for the player’s assumed ‘unhealthy obsession’ with cleaning. For me, it doesn’t work. Those kinds of games demonstrate an awareness of the tropes, sure, but harnessing them in this way feels disingenuous, maybe even more exploitative, to me for some reason. Anyway, great piece/series!

  3. Hi Alex, you haven’t been in the comments for a while either! I did have a small “exception clause” in one of the earlier drafts, making the point that some games could harness the mass-murder simulation for narrative effect – I hear games like Spec Ops have tried that – but even if those games work, that’s such a narrow crack of legitimacy for the shooting form.

    I still like your average FPS – I loved Dead Space, for example – but I do find it gets harder to separate the violence from “the game” particularly as an observer. There’s also the argument that we’ve always been into silly violence from Tom and Jerry cartoons to children’s games where everyone pretends to die a horrible death. But it all gets rather undermined when you’re supposed to take the story seriously – yet somehow not take your shooting just as seriously?

    I was reminded of conversations with others on Dishonored that, for example, listening to the Heart meant that such-and-such-a-person deserved to die and they had no problem taking them out of the picture permanently. When I played through in High Chaos and killed everything that moved, Mrs. HM found it uncomfortable to watch. Go back to If All You Have is a Knife about the wastefulness of killing when you have a choice… yet many players just see it as a cleaning operation. “Stealth was too hard, so well, I just killed everybody. It was easier.”

    Anyway, thanks for reading and getting something out of this piece. I didn’t just want to write yet another piece “bemoaning violence in shooters” but the connection to cleaning angle seemed too interesting to pass up.

  4. Hah, now look at what Spielberg and Lucas are saying this week:

    Even games with elaborate cutscenes and interstitials face the problem, he said. “You watch, and you get kind of involved with what the story is, and you hate the bad guy because he murders people in an airport and stuff like that, and then all of a sudden it’s time to take the controller,” Spielberg said. “And the second you get the controller something turns off in the heart. And it becomes a sport.”

  5. Oh man, that article. Please excuse me while I harp on the whole “it’s not going to be Shakespeare” thing for a minute.

    First of all, the idea that we’re always supposed to think of characters as human beings–and this is what defines successful characterization–is sort of contentious. Shakespeare characters as we know them today probably developed from a history of creative performance decisions. Back in Shakespeare’s day, actors didn’t even work from full scripts. They only had their own lines and cues, which they learned in isolation. Then, they had maybe one or two group rehearsals and promptly performed the play afterwards. Pre-performance plays existed as fragmented collections of parts. It was the actors’ job to ‘interact’ with one another and the audience and, through interpretation and some improvisation, to produce something that made sense as a whole. The idea of the play as this cohesive creative output didn’t even exist (for anyone except Shakespeare probably) until the performance, and then after that it probably kept changing. The actors learned about the play outside of their own parts as they performed. Shakespeare characters were guided by the playwright, of course, but they were written to be performed in an interactive setting, to be shaped and enforced by actors (who were referred to as ‘players’) in front of an audience. Interactivity is the whole point of Shakespeare!

    Sorry for the tangent. The idea that games ‘can’t be Shakespeare’ gets me going because it implies that films, just because they are more culturally sanctioned, are therefore more like Shakespeare. And what I’m saying is lots of games I’ve played already are closer to Shakespeare than any of George Lucas’ output.

    And then there’s Spielberg’s thing about getting rid of controllers or whatever. Like the ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’ is more tech that lets us wave our arms around and talk to machines. Ugh. Ok I’m done.

  6. Also: I totally took the cleaning approach in Dishonored. It was weird. And I know I’ve been m.i.a. from the comments, but I still read every week. It’s such a slow process for me to form cohesive thoughts as a response to something that I rarely comment.

  7. I utilized more of the lethal tools in Dishonored because there were more of them and my handle on the controls was awful with a 360 pad; wasting precious nonlethal tools was too common. That said, I also knew the game had varying degrees of good or bad endings, and in those cases I usually go for a bad ending first. Since I’ve found so few games where the story holds up as well on the “bad” path, my presumably final playthrough being the most narratively whole experience makes more sense to me.

    Divorced from the plot or sexy violence, Dishonored would be using various tools to either organize (nonlethal) or erase (lethal) enemy elements from the screen. In that context, the point in the game where being able to erase everything is feasible would make organization redundant. Then again, Deus Ex and Metal Gear Solid 2 (and onwards) both present the idea of nonlethal playstyles with any moral judgments frontloaded. And yet, fully nonlethal runs are fairly popular challenges for both of those. I guess “challenge” is the keyword there. Can you resist the urge to clean?

    I don’t find the dichotomy of heroism and violence in games troubling in a real life context; the ability to discern fantasy from reality is the important thing to consider there. In-game, I see your point, but the only alternative that gets to have and eat its violence cake requires reduced scale and vastly deepened encounters- the kind that require lots of variability from simulation and/or difficulty from lethality.

    Financially, those seem dicey. But we’ve seen where decisions driven by that have led- Input One.

  8. @Alex:
    I never knew that about Shakespeare. I might’ve liked it more in school if any teacher brought that up, instead of telling me how Shakespeare’s free to break all laws of grammar and storytelling because he’s apparently god.

  9. Alex: Yeah I think Spielberg got a little stuck on “look the controller is the problem” when that’s not the problem at all. Also, I guessed you were still out there, but it’s difficult to tell without a scrying glass. I haven’t had one of those for a while.

    BeamSplashX: You know, I don’t really have a massive problem with games that are about killing. I have no problem with games about characterisation. The problem is trying to sell us deep and meaningful storylines, where we’re supposed to be compelled into the action, feel part of something important — when you’ve got this huge, gaping hole in your narrative where people don’t bat an eyelid that you’ve killed shitloads of opponents. And they keep wanting to up the ante, have blood spurted across the screen and make the thing feel like virtual reality… yet somehow we’re supposed to still pretend all the killing “is just a game”.

    The market is eventually going to contract and you’re going to find it increasingly harder to find supporters for games that are obsessed with the detail of violence as we keep making the violence seem more real. Even today Richard “Kairo” Perrin said on Twitter that he finds the killing in modern games like Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite really “detracting”.

    If I were to have my time again, I might trim down the bit at the end of the article about “oh god you’re all killers in training! lolz” but my concern stands. The 3D shooter in videogames seems to be like a car going at full pelt with no one at the wheel.

  10. “Now the Tetris blocks have skin grafted onto them and the arena is full of bloody bone fragments.”

    Pippin?

  11. @HM:
    I agree that pursuing higher-fidelity violence is pointless and troubling. Call of Duty was much more bearable when the blood came in puffs instead of graphic sprays. We got ‘em- we get it. Just put some punchy bass in the enemy defeat sounds and satisfaction happens.

  12. I’m playing the Paranautical Activity beta at the moment and it’s a massive shoot-fest. There’s no story (at least in this version) and it’s so stylised and abstract – enemies explode rather disintegrate into bloody remnants. I find it delightful (albeit super-hard) and experience not even the slightest twinge about the killing. It’s fit for purpose.

  13. After reading and commenting on Entropy last night before going to bed, I couldn’t help but give this a read this morning with the picture of Léon and Matilda at the top and the idea of shooters being about cleaning (I’ve loved that term ever since Leon. It also appeared in Le Femme Nikita and more recently in Monaco). I think this is the strongest part of the trilogy for me because I like the way you contrasted the humble but focused beginnings and maturation of the 2D shooter against the shambling grandiosity and identity crisis of the modern day 3D shooter.

    In one of the many emails I exchanged with friends and fellow Tappers when Bioshock Infinite was released and most of us were playing it, I said ‘I’d like to think that Bioshock Infinite is the game that makes developers go ‘Okay, so shooting people in the face for 20 hours probably isn’t the best fit for a story driven game focused on big concepts, characters and world building. We need to come up with a better vehicle to carry this type of thing” and this article has kind of crystalised that stance for me because the more seriously we have to take a game, the more contextualising the developer has to do to justify the shooting — the killing and meat of the experience — for us to buy it, and even then we can see straight through it because, well, all roads lead to shooting. That ‘negotiating’ you’ve got to do with the bad guy? It’s going to end in shooting. That convoy you’ve got to protect, or package you’ve got to deliver? It’s going to end in shooting. That’s the name of the game and we know how this magic trick works, we can see behind the flimsy curtain. Whatever happens, it’s got to result in shooting and that sort of modus operandi within a realistic context is going to wear thin eventually and induce apathy, to quote Jeffries (fascinating article and comments btw).

    I finished watching Generation Kill this week and there’s bugger all shooting in it and that follows a US Marine Corps battalion during the invasion of Iraq. I think 3D shooters are going to have to change dramatically to weather this apathy effect, whether it’s cutting the crap and shifting in tone and appearance and almost stripping narrative away entirely (Wolfire’s Receiver for example, or Borderlands or Painkiller, or… uh, what’s the name of that blocky hectic looking bright FPS roguelike thing? Gah, can’t remember, looked terrific) or focusing more on multiplayer to avoid the perfunctory narrative framing a la Calla Doody or Battlefield. I think Brink got the balance right for me: multiplayer focus but with compelling chunks of ambiguous narrative and context lingering in the corners if you wanted to look there.

    I think games like DX:HR and Dishonored are special cases because they’re not forcibly shooters and they’re fairly reactive to your actions too so don’t suffer so much from that same ludonarrative dissonance as games like Uncharted and Bioshock Infinite that are both maddeningly static. However, I will say that I wanted to wreak havoc with my tools in both games. If I found out people were bad it certainly gave me a good reason to off them instead of knocking them out. I made a point of stacking unconscious guards in dumpsters wherever possible. How’s that for cleaning?

    “Even now, the AAA industry seems convinced that photorealism is where true emotions are to be found, obsessed with digging deep into the uncanny valley.”

    More polygons = more emotions. Next gen consoles are coming so get ready to cry bitches.

  14. I also thought this was the strongest part of the trilogy but, eh, if it hadn’t been for the RPS link this article would’ve died from low traffic death. Not entirely sure why, perhaps because it was E3 week, but there you go.

    I see also on Tap that people are more forgiving of the shooting in console-only title The Last of Us – which again kinda supports my tangent that only deeply dark writing can “justify” the shooting.

    (I had to watch Generation Kill after hearing it was the next project taken on by the The Wire team. What a great mini-series.)

    I made a point not to highlight games like DX:HR or Dishonored because they’re not strictly shooters. Dishonored was pulled up as an example of the toxic place we are with cutting-edge photorealism – graphic death simulation – but the problem is worse for shooters because your only agency in those games, and the thing the game expects you to do, is to shoot opponents dead. At least Dishonored tries to make you feel icky about it… although in my opinion it fails because mechanically-speaking people give up on the stealth and blame the game for forcing them to murder. (Honestly, I feel like there’s a wonderful article in that sentence somewhere.)

    Note that I don’t think that abstract gameplay always means the game is “neutered” when it comes to kill-play, and abstractions are pretty good are making games more disturbing because of what you think you see or what you can’t see. Hotline Miami has very simplistic graphics but fuck is it disturbing or what? Plus, I think it’s a good time to drop in Immortal Defense, hyper-abstract but Jesus Christ does that game get dark with the interstellar genocides. I should write an article about that game every god damn year. It’s a shame TD is such a polarising genre…

    Thanks for all your hard-fought textually-explicit comments here, Gregg. They are much appreciated.

  15. Heh, and there’s me on the verge of bringing up Hotline Miami and Immortal Defense but thought the better of it seeing as my comment was already getting quite long :-) I was talking to Hailey about Hotline Miami the other day — specifically about the pouring-boiling-hot-water-on-face attack (which was the first kill she saw me enact) or the repeated bludgeons to the head and blood spattering everywhere — and how the low-res graphics don’t diminish the ickiness of it all one little bit.

    Generation Kill was a great mini-series and really quite eye-opening. What a mess that invasion seemed to be. That reminds me, I need to get on to The Wire series 2…

    With regards to The Last of Us: I’ll be playing it, but I’ve no idea which side of the fence I’ll fall.

  16. Oh and by the way, I Googled ‘FPS roguelike’ to hopefully find the game I was thinking about. Guess what it was? Paranautical Activity, the game you mentioned directly above my comment. Derp.

  17. Aside for about five minutes at the Eurogamer Expo last year, I haven’t played Hotline Miami, Gregg. I hope that isn’t a spoiler there. Tsk, tsk.

  18. I suppose it’s a minor spoiler insofar as it’s one of the game’s many attacks using one of the game’s many weapons, so argh, my apologies. Meho played Hotline Miami to completion and never saw it so it depends entirely on what you find, whether you use it, and in what way exactly.

  19. Go check out a piece by Thomas Grip of Frictional on The Last of Us (some spoilers I think) which has some striking parallels with Léon Loves Tetris.


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