Where can the first-person shooter go next?

Feature Seb Patrick 10 Oct 2012 - 11:18

Arguably the most popular video game genre of them all, can the FPS stay fresh and innovate?

Over the last two decades, no other gaming genre has come close to challenging the dominance that the first-person shooter has over the industry. The 1991 release of Wolfenstein 3D, while not technically the very first FPS, was certainly a watershed moment, consolidated further by id Software’s follow-up DOOM, in establishing a gameplay style and set of rules that have, despite countless steps of evolution in technology and ever-shifting tastes in story and setting, held pretty firm to the present day.

In more recent years, however, it’s fair to say that the evolution of the FPS has slowed. This is perhaps unsurprising and, some would say, natural, everybody knows what makes a good FPS, after all, and each assorted sub-genre, from the online frag-fest to the sci-fi blockbuster to the real-world military conflict, has its dedicated fans who will lap up every instalment. Furthermore, gaming technology has reached a point where advances in graphics, in particular, are harder to come by, as demonstrated by the extended life of the PS3 and Xbox 360. And if the games work, and people like them, then why change them?

The upcoming release of Medal of Honor: Warfighter would seem to bear this out. The latest instalment in EA’s long-running MoH franchise, the game follows on from the 2010 reboot of the series. While its multiplayer gameplay is undoubtedly a major draw, the Medal of Honor games have also long been noted for providing rich, gritty and realistic narratives in which to immerse players, all the way back to the very first PS1 game in 1999, which had a story credit for Steven Spielberg. Based heavily on real events, authenticity is key, and will be one of the game’s biggest selling points. Warfighter will even ship a special “Military Edition” available only to former and serving US military and government personnel.

The question remains, however, whether first-person shooters can still achieve more than playing through authentic, realistic or wildly imaginative narrative plots. In the early days of the genre, the biggest criticism levelled at the average FPS that they had little-to-no stories. Nowadays, the games undoubtedly have stories, but they often seem to be more interested in simply conveying that plot, rather than expanding the frontiers of interactivity. The original Half-Life, back in 1999, was seen at the time as a step in a bold new direction, largely by virtue of immersing the player in half an hour of background, “going into work” material before actually starting the shooting, but the fact that one of the most heralded PC gaming releases of late is Black Mesa, a fan-produced, high-def remake of that thirteen-year-old game, is indicative of how little we’ve moved on since then.

By their very nature, games should strive to push the envelope of interactivity. An obvious key to achieving this, particularly when graphics have already reached the most realistic point that current or near-future technology is capable of, would be in allowing players to feel like they, rather than the game’s writers, are actually telling the story. After all, if a shooter feels more like the player is wandering through a pre-scripted movie-style narrative on rails, occasionally pausing to blow something up, is the vast potential of gaming being used to its fullest? Why not simply watch a movie instead?

Some of the most notable technical innovations in gaming have arrived courtesy of the first-person shooter, from revolutions in 3D graphics, to the explosion of online multiplayer gaming, but in terms of storytelling, the FPS would do better to take cues from other genres. Last year’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution could arguably qualify as an FPS, but, just like its original 2000 predecessor and Irrational Games’ System Shock 2 and Bioshock, it combines the aesthetics and engine style of that genre with elements drawn from RPGs.

The player is hence given the ability to shape the narrative by making decisions that affect how the story is told, across a strata of styles from out-and-out shoot-em-up to stealth-and-hacking based action, but despite this, the ultimate plot generally unfolds as pre-scripted. There might be diversions along the way, with entire scenes altered or skipped entirely, but in the case of Deus Ex: Human Revolution in particular, the choice of alternate endings is laughably artificial, coming down to a simple “press a button to see this one” choice on the player’s part.

The scope surely exists, however, for a first-person shooter that builds a world around the player, and then allows the player to find their own story within that world. Even within the admittedly limited gameplay scope of a first-person “run-and-gun”, wildly different stories could be made available by placing a variety of pre-scripted characters in a huge environment, and letting the player choose which ones to approach, and indeed which ones are the enemy.

Of course, in the hugely popular genre of the war-based shooter such as Medal of Honor and Call of Duty, such free-thinking is probably less encouraged, specific orders to follow, and all that, but nevertheless, if players are to truly engage with the characters they’re playing, perhaps being allowed to make certain decisions beyond “shoot that one on the left before shooting that one on the right” would make it feel like they, and not the developers, are deciding how the story goes.

That said, multiplayer gamers could happily point out that they do get to tell their own story each time, even if that story is just “teams of people shooting the heck out of each other for hours at a time”. For these players, improvements to graphical immersion, such as those offered by Warfighter, and slick, intuitive gameplay are the headline selling points.

On many occasions in the past, the FPS genre has threatened to split itself down the middle between games that prioritise multiplayer, and those that simply tack it on to a richer single-player campaign. History has shown, however, that the better games tend to be those that succeed at both, and for the genre to continue evolving, fresh ideas across all areas are a must. 2012’s Medal of Honor instalment is unrecognisable from 1999’s, and as technically advanced as Warfighter is right now, those of us who would like to see the FPS continue to innovate can only hope that the same comparison holds true in a further decade’s time.

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