In Defense of the First Person Shooter, Pt 3: Deep and Wide

This is the most badass iteration of the Power Rangers ever conceived.

Last time, I tried to side with popular opinion–to say that FPSes didn’t go the route of System Shock 2 and instead descended into the depths of mediocrity… but you know what? I honestly don’t think it has. Certainly, there are bad FPSes out there–Darkest of Days and Resistance 2 are proof of that–but there are great ones as well, and there continue to <i>be</i> great ones. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a smarter game than most people give it credit for, and, indeed, a more intelligent game than most RPGs (generally considered the smartest of games by console gamers, who have never played Real Adventure Games) I’ve played. Unfortunately, to prove that, I’d have to ask for a lot more of your time than you’d be willing to give me today, particularly on a game so readily ridiculed as Modern Warfare 2. But there are others! Halo 3: ODST is an interesting, almost literary story, for instance.

To suggest that the FPS has more bad stories per capita than any other genre is patently false–look at the RPGs released this generation, if you don’t believe me. Whether it’s a space RPG that simplifies and distills ideas from the Revelation Space novels by Alistair Reynolds with a story that’s little more than “gather crew, go on a mission,” to a fantasy RPG that barely reaches beyond the idea that “there were Orcs who attacked the humans, so humans allied with the oppressed elves and stone-dwelling dwarves fought them and won! Hooray! Also, we reused the character archetypes we’ve been using for a dozen games or so, including that space RPG that just got mentioned,” the WRPG isn’t quite the proverbial City on a Hill that gamers and developers seem to want it to be. If you want, I could regale you with the plots of games like Arcania and Divinity 2, two not-bad games that happen to be up among the best big action RPGs released since 2007–they’re quite disappointing. Shooters can, and often are, quite smart games…

So, like I asked in the original post… why is it that FPSes are treated as dumb things?

It's hard to believe it, but once upon a time, Monolith didn't make small, odd multiplayer-only games or mediocre horror shooters. No One Lives Forever 2 is arguably the funniest game ever made.

I had intended to show you how far we had fallen since System Shock 2, but I never really believed that to be the case, especially with titles like Bioshock 2 and Call of Duty 4 being released. There’s some quality writing in shooters that really does top what many other genres are doing. It sounds as if the new XCOM game will be holding a magnifying glass to the radical social changes of the early 1960s. From a purely narrative perspectives, FPSes can be quite bright when they need to be. They’re a bit like The Witcher 2’s Letho–they appear to be hulking, dumb brutes until you get to know them. Their intelligence is often understated, and they don’t cheat the way other games do, faking intelligence through character interaction and nonlinear gameplay.

But before we get into that, let’s recap: FPSes are easy to learn and difficult to master. Most people ignore those last four words, preferring to focus on the “well, it’s easy to get into” aspect. Elitists–and people who pretend that FPSes are dumb are elitists–are the sort of people who seem to think that if something appeals to a broad set of people, then that thing is inherently dumber than the niche thing they like that doesn’t appeal to many. Instead of considering that Watchmen is actually a bad comic with an idiotic moral, for instance, most comic nerds would prefer to say “you just can’t understand it!” Likewise, RPG and Adventure gamers assumed that shooters, with their low barrier entries, were somehow less intelligent than their notoriously difficult to play genres.

Need proof?

Well, if you’ve never read this infamous review, you’re in for a real treat. The core idea was that Doom wasn’t an adventure game, and as such, it wasn’t as smart, since all you did was shoot monsters. There are two obvious problems here: the first is that “this isn’t a thing I like, so it’s not as smart.” The second idea is that it’s simplistic, and therefore, it’s dumb. First off, it’s simple, not simplistic, and secondly, a simple experience is not necessarily an unintelligent one. Look at the game of Chess. It’s generally considered a pursuit for intellectuals, but it’s incredibly easy to learn. I learned it when I was, like, seven, and the only reason I didn’t learn it earlier is because I didn’t really have an interest in learning, and no one had an interest in teaching me. I tought my four year old sister, who has learning issues, to play chess!

Easy to learn, difficult to master, see? The simplicity of a thing does not define the intelligence required to deal with it. Elitists, however, see it as “the more niche it is, and the more I like it, the smarter it is.” The popularity of shooters and the public lack of intelligence of many FPS players over services like PSN has convinced the people who don’t like shooters that FPSes are dumb things. These people, in turn, are trying to make sure everyone, even FPS players, that the genre isn’t as smart as it is.

Presumably it's title Last Light because you'll have an achievement that requires you to destroy all light sources, including the sun, in the game.

First Person Shooters are smart. Deus Ex is a first person shooter, and it’s smart, isn’t it? AND DON’T YOU DARE TRY TO ARGUE THAT IT’S ACTUALLY AN RPG. It isn’t. It’s a damn FPS. It’s also an RPG. In this case, it’s an RPG insofar as you have skill points, dialog choices, and a branching narrative. This actually picks up where we left off and gets into my second major point, which is that choice (and it is choice; choosing between a limited set of options is still choice. Calling it the illusion of choice is foolish–it’s the illusion of freedom) is not intelligence, but people think it is. See, the basic idea is that you place more value on something dependant on your participation in that thing. This is why people who have played with Playstations since the 1990s think Playstations are better than Xboxes, and why I think Hondas and Fords are better than Toyotas and Chevys.  Participation leads to fanboyism, in other words.

In addition to the idea that the more you’re involved in something, the better there is, there’s the idea that people want to think that everything they like is better, and that everything that’s better is smarter. Few people want to admit that they like dumb things, which is “it’s dumb, but I totally love it for that” is such a rare remark, while “no, no, it’s really good because…” is super common. Lots of fights get started because people assume that what they like and what is good are the same things, and what they dislike and what is bad is the same thing. It’s not. But let’s not get into that now, because that’s a huge ball of wax.

The basic idea is: the more you participate, the more likely you are to like a thing, and the more you like that thing, then the more likely you are to say that it is smart.

This is why non-linear games are all the rage now, and linearity is seen as a fault. Because you can, say, choose to go to hub X or Y, rather than go to them in sequence, the game is considered smarter. Obviously, that’s meaningless–after all, the smartest traditional narrative is more likely to be a totally linear one, since the writer can convey a point and make sure the audiences sees everything they need to see, and games aren’t great for that. Choice is good, but it doesn’t mean games without choice are bad. It’s just another kind of good, the way a steak and an ice cream are two different kinds of good.

This is one of the greatest games I have ever played. I seriously recommend you obtain a copy.

Finally, we have the idea of breadth versus depth. Basically, imagine that the amount of game mechanics in a game are coordinates of a graph. Now imagine that each mechanic’s complexity is illustrated by the height on the graph. You have a breadth of mechanics, and each of those mechanics can be deep or shallow. Generally, a game with a narrow focus will have deeper mechanics than one with a wider focus.

There are a few reasons for this. One such reason is that the game’s focus is limited by the amount of input the player has through the control interface. If you’re going to play Max Payne, for instance, you can dedicate all your controls to crafting a deep shooting experience. You can focus on a wide variety of enemy types and avenues of combat (for instance, certain enemies are more conducive to sidestepping and/or dodging than others) that a game like, say, Red Dead Redemption couldn’t do. Because Red Dead offers a broad variety of situations with roughly the same number of inputs, it can’t have the layer of mechanical sophistication that Max Payne does. There’s other stuff too–Red Dead Redemptions level design is open, which is conducive to a more samey combat experience. No matter where you are, you’re generally going to use the same tactics, and you aren’t likely to use change weapons beyond the basic weapon archetypes* unless you find a more powerful gun of those specific archetypes. The AI generally just up to you and shoots, or takes cover and fires. In Max Payne, the AI and level design come together to provide a more varied shooting experience, but… that’s all it does. Max Payne provides a deep shooting experience, and Red Dead Redemption provides a broad sandbox experience.

In short, Max Payne has deeper gameplay than Red Dead Redemption, but the latter has a broader focus.**

Essentially, people look at a simple game type that they don’t have a lot of freedom playing, they watch it overtake these things they really like that they’ve spent long hours with, and all that combined makes them go “hey! That’s not smart!”

Ultimately, that’s an idiotic complaint, but an understandable one. The shooter, ultimately, requires a different type of intelligence–movement in real-time through a three dimensional space while choosing weapons and prioritizing enemies. The name for this sort of intelligence is called spatial intelligence. When you play a game like Wizardry or Final Fantasy, you are using logical-mathematical intelligence. When you play a Kinect or Wii game, you are using bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. A game with a really, really good level of character interaction (at this point, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the only game that really does this, though Alpha Protocol has it, Fable and Fable 3 try it in a different way; Bioware/Black Isle games do not have this because they are based on RPG numbers, not human reaction, which is why their character relationships are so hollow) uses interpersonal intelligence.

If you’ve taken psychology courses, you know I’m talking about the theory of multiple intelligence. Ultimately, my tests show a high level of interpersonal, linguistic, and spatial intelligence. I enjoy FPSes and Immersive sims. Friends with tests that are more logical-mathematical are more likely to enjoy games like Civilization V, X-COM, and so forth. It’s not to say that you can’t enjoy certain types of games–merely to reinforce what we all know: some people like some things, and other people like other things. This is why.


So… this is why so many people hate shooters: FPSes are the most popular games out there. This is fact. Look at the sales figures of the games released this generation: nearly all of them on both the PS3 and the 360 (I don’t have PC sales figures, sorry) are shooters. People love shooters. As they’ve grown in popularity, other games, like the 3D platformer, have nearly gone extinct. Their narrow focus, linearity/lack of choice, and apparent historical focus on gameplay over story (which has been disproved by System Shock 2, Deus Ex, No One Lives Forever 2, Halo, Marathon, and so forth) have convinced those people who grew up without FPSes (mostly console gamers who had only ever played Goldeneye before the turn of the millennium) that FPSes just aren’t that smart.

They’re wrong. I think I’ve proved that here.

These same people also like to claim that more FPSes are made than any other game type out there, and point at, say, the death of the 3D platformer, as evidence. The numbers certainly seem to back them up, and even game sites like Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun treat shooters like they’re overabundant.

That’s wrong too, as hard as it might be to believe, but stick around. I’ll prove it to you.


*General weapon archetypes: melee, pistol, rifle, shotgun, sniper, throwable explosive, heavy weapon.

**I was going to draw a graph, but I don’t know how to do that using the tools available at my disposal.

    • fpsmadpaul
    • September 18th, 2011

    Great thought provoking article, thanks for sharing it with Kotaku.

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