Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Innovation In the FPS Genre

The most obvious
joke that springs to mind: What innovation?

Also wish I could Photoshop a picture of John Romero with flowing locks and a blacked-out tooth with the tagline "What, Me Innovate?" in nice big font.

I like to imagine Daikatana as an extended satire on the FPS-genre. What else could explain Superfly Johnson?

I think a lot of the enmity toward Romero comes from the fact that the first really big "Rock Star" videogame developer was exactly like a rock star - egotistical, ridiculous, shortsighted, prone to excess, given to ridiculous press-statements, temperamental and, by all accounts, a spoiled diva. And he failed; We could have forgiven all else had he succeeded. We wanted Jim Morrison, not some prog-rock bass-player heroin-overdose.

Slave to the Label

First-Person Shooters hobble themselves with their own definition and endless re-re-re-iterations. The essence of the experience is boiled down and made plain, so any deviation must be given extra letters - FPS-RPG, FPS-RTS, MMO-FPS. The ol' Alphabet stew. Drastic innovation would require re-casting the term. "Keeping it real" means only smaller alterations are allowed.

We should not expect them to be more than the Action movies of the videogame world - this is a fair goal. To the point, reveling in the singular interaction between weapon and target, tightly-focused. The enemies might have personality, but they are always to be destroyed - there is no reason or point in understanding their motives (if given) beyond plot exposition.*

Action movies suffer the same genre-confines. Any attempt to break the format from its straightjacket results in the hyphenation game. Action-drama. Action-comedy. Action-docu-dramedy.

Done well, like Half-Life, FPSes are driven, linear experiences. This can be strengh and/or weakness.

Strength, because unified narrative becomes easier to maintain. Emotional cues can be more consistently programmed. The player can be directed. Paths may diverge, but placing a simulationist freedom on the game would probably break genre.

Weakness, because the pacing might not be compelling. Too much control might alienate players. You could end up with another Rise of the Triad or Chaser, stunningly banal in execution, stripped of urgency or drive. Or something much worse, like Shadow Warrior.

I speak here of narrative and pacing as effectively similar beasts. Doom has little narrative within the typical conception of story, yet each level can be seen as a text that the player traverses, which either focuses immersion and the desire to complete it (to "finish the story") or breaks it, losing the player.**


The multiplayer realm, of course, diverges. There the focus is competition. The rights to be the Action Star, top dog. The game becomes divorced from narrative and focused on setting, environment, sporadic player-transactions (you know, shooting).

Here it is even more difficult to speak of innovation. Essentially we are discussing sport, and thus people expect certain sporting conventions, chiefly the notion of fairness. There must be balance between competitors. There must be rules.

In a linear narrative, such considerations are not so important. Balance and rules can always be tossed aside in favor of moving the single player forward. Deus ex machina is allowed, though not necessarily welcome.

But in multiplayer deus ex machina can only be explained by cheating.

This does not mean that there aren't many different avenues to explore in this competitive milieu. The human capacity to invent new and varied sports is legendary, and under sufficient boredom a roomful of people can reasonably create a fuzzy-version of a sport every five minutes.

What remains to be seen, then, in multiplayer, is not how we can drastically alter the transactions (by, for example, adding a social element, degrading or destroying the shooter notion) but how we can add more weight to them, how we might imbue them with greater consequences in the game environment, how we might allow more player choice without promising the sociopathic autonomy of single-player.

Vehicles are a good example of this min-novation***. They extend the game, enhance player motion (vehicles that fly, for example, opening up the vertical dimension - which Tribes explored years ago), require new combinations of strategies and tactics.

The (relatively) Unexplored Country

Co-operative mode, that red-headed stepchild of FPSes.

It could be the best three or four-way action you'd find on your computer outside of your stash of svcds. Instead it's, for the most part, relegated to the afterthought, or not-thought-of-at-all, bin. Maybe the idea of narrative scares multiplayer designers and the multiplayer notion scares narrative designers. We need a Reese's Cup-style melding of the minds.

The best is yet to come. Because what's come before has been mostly shit.

Time to send more developers to trust-building corporate retreats until the concept of working-together begins to look viable in a game design.

*Or, in the case of Half-Life 2, desire to uncover the motives of the enemy becomes an enormous carrot dangling in front of the player.

Apologies for no doubt mangling any of a number of theories of interactive digital media.

***"Mini Innovation" -- not quite a full-fledged novel idea, not really an iteration, but more of an extension of a prior concept expanded to embrace a slightly larger concept.


Corvus said...

Welcome to the Round Table! How about we market a t-shirt with the slogan "Who's the bitch now, John?"

Good post. I'll be back for more substantive comment in the morning.

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Corvus said...

First off, congrats on your spammers. They construct much more elaborate fictions to pimp their wares than mine do. I get endless variations on, "Great Site! Very informative! Online Poker!"

Secondly, I'm amazed that you and I are the only people to invoke Carmack in this discussion. That probably puts us both at the bottom end of the barrel, eh? Another coincidence is your reference to Reese's PB Cups, which also make an appearance in an upcoming post of mine.

Okay, the nonsense is out of the way now:

To say that we shouldn't expect the FPS to be anything more than an action movie, while good advice, strikes me as akin to saying that we shouldn't have high expectations of our media.

I'd wager that 99% of our action movie fair is re-hashed, pointless dreck. It's that remaining 1% that keeps us going back to the theater, hoping for something more "next time." There have been a handful of movies that have remained true to the Action genre (sans hyphens) that still brought a bit more to the table. The first Matrix with its simple philosophical themes, Leaping Tiger with its character depth and better than average performances, Kill Bill with its sprawling, over the top, grandeur.

I have a motto: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. I find this to be particularly applicable to my evaluation of the game demos I check out. Most of the time, I have no intention of buying the associated game and I'm just hoping that there will be some small element that captures my imagination, or excites me with its possibilities. Of course, as with the F.E.A.R. demo, nothing so inspiring transpires and I move on.

It's interesting to see the split between single player and multiplayer as you present it. Your point about human capacity to invent new sport makes we wonder if it would be possible to create a multiplayer game structure that encouraged the participants to create their own rules as they played. Sort of a digital, multi person, Calvin Ball, if you will.

Josh said...

The curse of the anonymous...

I'm still waiting for my RPGMMOFPSRTSETC ... that will be awesome.

Johnny Pi said...


It truly is inventive spam. I actually entertain notions of dedicated third-world blog browsers, forced to read posts they have no interest in and then constructing related ads based upon keywords and what little english they have picked up - more than likely it's just the latest bayesian monstrosity.

Ah, I see where you are coming from in regards to my action-movie sentiment.

Here is the crux: When we take a genre mantle, say "FPS", that term comes with certain expectations and restrictions in order to stay "true-to-form" (though specific expectations vary). It is my opinion that this is where the limitation comes in - and that using the genre term can actually force a limitation.

It's the difference between looking at individual game elements, pieces of gameplay, and looking at category. I always find category far too stifling.

To illustrate: Almost every FPS review I read spends some time on the multiplayer. If the game only has a few regular game types (CTF, assault, deathmatch) then it is lambasted for being stale. If it has no multiplayer at all it is decried as a major failure. But why? Because there seems to be an expectation of multiplayer in that genre.

I know that in my fiction writing I don't think of genre. I think of story. Yes, I do at times wonder where it might fit in a bookstore, but that's more marketing than artistic desire.

Expecting them to be as good as action games still seems fair to me. But that doesn't mean setting your sights low - it just means not demanding wild innovation with every game you fire up. This tends to lead to what I call jaded-reviewer syndrome, where you've seen so much of the same type of media that you can't enjoy it on any level just because it isn't novel. Pretty much every game I've criticized (even Duke Nukem, I'm ashamed to admit) I probably played and enjoyed, warts and all - except Daikatana (god, the demo alone was hell).

I don't feel that designers should have that goal in mind. I pretty much always feel that designers should stick their necks out with every game - that and shoot for whatever their own goals are. And I wasn't denigrating action movies at all - I just feel that they have a certain predictability that has cemented the genre, meaning that any deviation from the cliches makes the category less effective.

In other words, if you start aiming at innovation, hopefully you'll get there - but you'll be leaving that original definition behind.

A lot of this is really just the way I couch my own semantics. I'm a big believer in the ability of the language we use to color our thoughts. So if you told me to make an FPS, I'd make something that looked like Doom 3. If I decided to throw in some of my own gameplay preferences, it would probably begin to alter from the FPS formula so much that I wouldn't see it as one any longer. If you called it an FPS after that point, I'd look at you funny.

What's weird is that the three films you mention don't occupy the Action slot in my head. When I think Action I think Die Hard (all three), Under Siege, Toy Soldiers, The Rock.

Matrix always fit into my head as Sci-fi. I find certain genres have more "breathing room" than others, and sci-fi seems to be almost a catchall for any kind of work based on speculation tinged with theoretical science.

Crouching Tiger and Kill Bill both seemed to stick firmly in the Kung Fu genre, which in my mind is decidedly not Action. Kill Bill isn't firm in that category, but that's Tarantino's genre-busting video-store-overload influence.

The FEAR demo. Color me unimpressed. I enjoyed the System Shock 2 scare tactics. The firefights seemed truncated,and lacked any kind of weight.

Corvus said...

Good points, all.

I think what I was trying to argue is that it is still possible to innovate some element of a genre, while still maintaining the forms of the genre. CTHD added good character acting and a romance movie aesthetic to Kung Fu movies, Kill Bill added... well, it added Tarantino (I don't know if I can sum it up any better than that).

Possible, but not, as you say, likely. Those of us inclined to innovate, while starting with a FPS framework, will likely wander far afield of the Doom/Quake/HL experience.