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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
- It's been discussed to death that shooter protagonists, if we take story seriously, are mass-murderers. Look, here's an entertaining game: Google search for “nathan drake killer”. I was interested in how we got into this mess in the first place.
- Multiplayer shooters are an entirely different kettle of fish.
- I accept that sometimes story in a shooter is meant to be reflected upon. For example, Jonas Kyratzes' Traitor is about revolution and contains more text than your average Twine game. However, I'm not convinced the text influences the action itself, and that's what I'm curious about here. The 2D shooter is usually abstract, meaning story and action can be engaged separately, but the 3D shooter wants to feel as real as possible.
- Chris Franklin did a video on the many problems of photorealism last year.
- Adrian Chmielarz points out that gameplay needs to change now that we're putting out realistic worlds (previously linked on Marginalia).
- L.B. Jeffries on how experienced players latch onto game systems but detach from scripted sequences: “I’m talking about a player who is not new to these games, a beginner who is still fixating on content would have a dramatically different experience. For the seasoned player the meaning of the content is so thoroughly degraded that it’s only inducing apathy. As soon as I realize I’m in a closed map where there is nothing to model, my brain tunes out and I start debating what I want for dinner.”
- Thomas Grip of Frictional Games writes about how storytelling has evolved to the point where we can create something as strong as The Last of Us, but we're still stuck in the shooting rut. A fascinating companion to what I've written here. (Added 05 July 2013.)