Archive for the ‘ FPS ’ Category

Immersion (Why Games Are Special)

(Originally posted here; has 13,123 views)

I read a forum thread somewhere recently—I want to say NeoGAF, but I can’t find it ’cause my registration’s pending so I can’t access search—that talked a bit about words and concepts we’d like to see removed from gaming. It was a pretty fascinating topic, and I was happy to see that the used-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness word “visceral” and the anti-game “cinematic” were frequently cited. It was perfect timing, then, for Kirk to post an article highlighting a video arguing against the use of the term “immersion” in video games the next day.

I disagreed rather vehemently. I still do, which is why I’ve spent several hours (as opposed to my normal twenty minutes) to prepare a response.

Before I get into this, I must warn you that I might be someone harsh on Mr. Abraham and those who agree with him. He’s gotten so much fluffy praise from people who consider themselves to be on the forefront of games criticism (a field which, from what I’ve read, is incredibly circlejerky and not nearly as knowledgeable on the subject as it thinks it is) that I think some harshness is in order.

Anyone who believes that “immersion” is a term that should not apply to gaming, or that ideas involving immersive design should be removed from video games is frighteningly wrong. Not only that, but the argument that “immersion” is a bad term, or that games should not be made with immersion in mind are as dangerous to the medium as attempts to ban it.

Guess I should back myself up, huh?

I’ll be covering two main points, because it appears that these guys either fail to understand what immersion means or genuinely want the concept of immersion to die.

Let’s start with the English language.

Okay, so, first things first, a little English language primer (thanks to squibsforsquid‘s responses to my initial response to Abraham’s video):

The English language is incredibly nuanced. Words that seem to be identical to each other can actually have subtly different meanings that aren’t covered by others. “Immerse/Immersed/Immersion” is a great example of this. A simple dictionary lookup reveals it to be something along the lines of “engrossed” or “attention-grabbing,” but if that were the case, then one would wonder why similar words and phrases would not suffice. Why does “immerse” and its various forms exist?

The answer lies in its other definition: to be submerged entirely in a body of water.

Imagine, if you will, that the English language is all the food in a grocery store. Words like “engrossed” and “immersed” are like varieties of lettuce. Sure, you might think that iceberg and romaine lettuce are both leafy green veggies, so they can be used interchangeably, but nothing could be further from the truth: indeed, romaine has a radically different texture and moisture than iceberg (I prefer the darker, bitter taste of romaine, personally, but some people like the cool crunchiness of iceberg).

An English-language example of this would be the substitution of “good” for the word “like.” What we like is something inherently personal and subjective—it’s something that matches up to our own personal standards of enjoyment. What is good is something that compares favorably to set standards—usually ones external to us, like cultural standards. Saying something is “good” does not inherently mean that we like it; likewise, saying that we “like” something does not necessarily mean that it is a good thing.

Similar terms are not identical ones.

Immersion isn’t simply “paying a lot of attention to a thing.” There’s more nuance to it than that. Merriam-Webster’s example, “We were surprised by his complete immersion in the culture of the island,” hints at a level of integration into something. When someone says “he was immersed in the water,” they’re talking not talking about being engrossed with water, they’re talking about going under.

The people who first used the term “immersion” when applied to game design didn’t choose the word lightly. There’s a reason that the immersive sim genre of video games is called the immersive sim and not “engrossing games” or something else. “Immersion’s” unique texture within English makes it a term uniquely suited to discussing an element of video games that other mediums don’t have (you can pay attention to any medium; you can only be immersed in something interactive).

Any game can be engrossing—Tetris is engrossing, for instance—but few games can be truly immersive. Few games can make their players a part of the world within them.

This is an important point, because immersion, in this sense, is something that’s entirely unique to video games. Nothing—no movie, no play, no book—can be truly immersive the way a video game can be.

Basically, to sum things up so far, “immersion” is a term that isn’t always used correctly. When referring merely to the act of being deeply involved in a game, yes, immersion is an improper term, but we should not remove it from our gaming lexicon entirely, because it’s a term that accurately describes one of the primary elements of what separates video games from other entertainment mediums.

Where am I getting this from, you ask?

Right, so, let’s jump back to 1974. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (sorry, Dave, but while you take alphabetical precedence, Gary wins for having alliteration and an x in his name, which just makes him cooler) created this game called Dungeons & Dragons.

It was a role-playing game.

I’m not talking about stat-based adventure JRPG stuff, either. I’m talking about a true role-playing game (speaking of role-play, there’s another thing that will confuse you if you try to find a dictionary definition—understanding the use of the word, specifically regarding its origins and relationship to improvisational theatre, is key to understanding what is and isn’t a role-playing game). Basically, they created an instruction set for how to role-play.

The goal was to empower players to have adventures in worlds of their own creation, a radical departure from other games (sports, Milton Bradley-style board games, etc). At the same time, it wasn’t a performance thing, like theater. It was just “hey, let’s explore a world!”

The rules behind DnD served the purpose of making sure players didn’t get overpowered or do absurd things. You don’t actually need a turn-based system, stat points, party members, and so on and so forth to have an RPG, it just makes things a bit easier for a GM to handle.

Jumping forward a bit, we hit 1981 and two games, Ultima and Wizardry. It was effectively the birth of the video game RPG; other games had preceded them (I once read that a computer game called DnD showed up in 1975), but these two games were the watershed moment. Ultima and Wizardry used incredibly limited technology at the time to try to emulate the RPG experience.

A necessary digression: when Japanese developer Yuji Horii saw Wizardry for the first time, he got really excited by the prospect, and, apparently being unaware of the purpose of Wizardry’s mechanics, cloned a lot of the ideas and created Dragon Quest, the game from which all JRPGs since have descended. Most of the time, things don’t work out quite this well and new genres aren’t created, but in the JRPGs case, things worked because Horii is a boss. The lesson here is that you shouldn’t go creating a game unless you understand why the mechanics behind it exist. This is also the reason why regenerating health is used in a lot of games it has no business being in.

While the JRPG gained popularity and became its own thing (and confused a bunch of people as to what the RPG actually is), Western devs were still quietly making their own RPGs, but with added computer power. Instead of making turn-based, top-down games with various battle systems, they were focusing on evolving the genre, making it distinct even from the pen and paper games which had birthed it, while at the same time, keeping the spirit of the RPG intact.

Now, I should point out that video game RPGs are still absurdly limited! Computers cannot improvise the way that GMs can. That said, there are some areas where they excel… and that’s where Looking Glass comes in.

If you understand one thing about the history of video games, it should be that no game studio on the planet will ever be more important than Looking Glass Studios was. These guys pioneered first-person games, sandbox games (what, you thought Shenmue or GTAIII was the first sandbox game?), flight simulation (when they died, the flight sim industry died), stealth games, and a bunch of other stuff. Their employees have gone off to help invent the Xbox (forever transforming the gaming landscape and eliminating Japan’s stranglehold on the console industry), work on Guitar Hero and Rock Band, revitalize The Elder Scrolls (heavy immersive elements in those games), create Deus Ex, work for Valve, and so on and so forth.

Oh, and one of the first games they ever made was Madden, so there’s that.

Perhaps their most important contribution to game design, however, was immersion.

The Looking Glass guys, in the early 90s, had a revelation: they could use simulation elements to add new life to their worlds! From this, the immersive sim was born.

Basically, you take that core idea behind role-play (I want to be someone in another world) and use computers to create a world players can interact with. That’s really all there is to it. You make the game in first-person, to reiterate the fact that the player is his or her character. You create levels that feel like real spaces, then populate it with complex AI that can do more than just fight. If you can, you try to throw in elements like physics, good graphics, a high degree of interactivity, and so on and so forth. You also cut down as many abstractions as possible (abstractions in a game context are basically just mechanics that provide a simpler way of approaching real-life ideas—such as turn-based gameplay when a computer can’t handle a real-time approach).

What we’ve found is that immersive games, provided they are easy enough to get into (Deus Ex, for instance, inundates players with information in its training level and summarily throws players into the deep end with Liberty Island; this is a bad way to do things), actually have a huge draw and significant lasting appeal. Some recent examples of immersive games include STALKER (more than 4 million units sold—not bad for a Ukrainian studio with next to no marketing), Fallout 3, and Skyrim. Other games, like Assassin’s Creed and Dark Souls, use immersive elements to enhance their experience.

People love these games. They love being able to enter a new world and interact with it. They love emergent gameplay—why else do you think GTA is such a popular series? Skyrim was successful because it facilitated exploration. Crysis was unique because it allowed deeper physical interaction with the world. STALKER’s advanced AI and player needs (eating, for instance) helped its players sink completely into the role of the amnesiac Marked One.

Far Cry 2, flawed as it was, got the love it got because it let players treat the world as an actual world. Yesterday, I read about someone who stacked up cars in Far Cry 2, blew them up, set fire to a field, caused the base he was attacking to catch on fire (which burned some of his enemies alive and confused others), and then walked in and took what he needed without anyone realizing he was there.

(I realize that I could probably write an entire essay on the power of emergent gameplay and why Dwarf Fortress and STALKER are the greatest games ever made, but I’ve got enough stuff to talk about as it is).

Immersion is the future of video games.

I realize that “the future of video games” is a phrase that gets used a lot, primarily to describe whatever trend is currently popular (Facebook games, iOS games, casual games, motion control, you name it), but I’m using it in a slightly different context: I’m talking about progress.

Most people don’t really think about the future advances in tech. What can Kinect really do for us? What does Goal-Oriented Action Planning AI do to enhance video games? What doesprocedural generation mean to video games? How does the RPG fit in with all this? What can we do with interactivity, that sacred ideal that elevates video games beyond all other mediums by eliminating passivity?

The people arguing that games shouldn’t be immersive are as ignorant as the people who argue that Role-Playing Games are nothing more than stat-based adventures. These people want to hold the industry back—to keep it at some larval stage where they’re most comfortable. Maybe it’s out of fear (after all, I don’t doubt that bards objected strongly to novels, nor do I doubt that novelists objected strongly to the medium of film), or maybe they just… really enjoy stat-based adventure games or strategy titles or what have you (I know I do!); I don’t really know their motives.

What I do know is that they’re trying to fight human nature.

Don’t believe me?

Let’s go back to the beginning.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of humanity’s oldest surviving works of fiction. It’s a massive adventure story. Fast-forward to ancient Greece and Homer; note the vast influence of his works (basically all of Western fiction owes its existence to Homer and Plato/Aristotle/Socrates). Jump ahead even further, and take a gander at the increasing believability of fiction (Shakespeare, particularly), as well as the increasing accessibility of entertainment. Check out how the integration of music and storytelling in the 1500s led to the birth of the opera. Pay attention to the rise of global exploration during the Renaissance, as well as the scientific leaps and bounds made by a formerly-repressed society. Study the emergence of 19th century literary criticism, as well as the explosive popularity of novels. Read up on the birth of film, radio, television, comics, and their subsequent popularity.

What do these all have in common?

Well, I was hoping to have a word for you, but I don’t. Curiosity, maybe? Discovery? Newness? Escapism? None of these really quite sum up what I’m trying to get at, so I’ll put it like this: people only enjoy the mundane so much. At some point, every single one of us is going to seek out new experiences. We crave new sensations. We savor them. Experiencing the new is one of the primary motivating factors of human existence.

Humanity, as a whole, has a fascination with the new. When we look back at fiction, we can observe humanity’s fascination with the idea of exploring other worlds. CS Lewis’s Narnia adventures cover this. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians explores it too (fun fact: his brother apparently worked at Looking Glass). Fantasy and science fiction stories sell like crazy. There’s a reason that films like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo didn’t do nearly as well as Avatar. One is mundane. The other is not.

The fact of the matter is that we, the human race, are a bunch of insatiably curious creatures who constantly desire new experiences. Discovery is humanity’s raison d’etre (oh yeah, I can be just as pretentious as the self-styled game critics; ce que je dis, je le dis dans une autre langue, donc, ce que je dis est profond?).

So what’s the future going to be like?

We are creatures driven by discovery. Why do you think Skyrim did so well? Why do you think New Vegas failed? The former facilitated discovery and exploration; the latter was too focused on being a good RPG to care about the world it had created.

The future of games is going to capitalize on this. Arguing that we should eliminate the concept of immersion in games, that the immersive sim should be dead, or anything else along similar lines, is like arguing that we shouldn’t have voice acting and ought to stick with scrolling text. It is an argument that says “games should not be more than they already are!”

Modder Robert Yang may consider immersion to be a fallacy, but he’s mistaken: the future of video games really is the holodeck. All those things I mentioned earlier—Kinect, procedural technology, better AI, and so on and so forth—are the tools that are slowly pushing us towards that end.

…I haven’t even begun to talk about the real-world benefits of creating immersive games. Someone smarter than me could surely go on at length about the possibilities of immersive simulations that allow people to live through various simulated events for… a wide variety of reasons. Someone training to be an EMT could be forced to go through a triage situation, with accurate simulations of panicking people, secondary threats, sensory barrages, and so on and so forth. Researchers could study crowd dynamics (using more advanced AI than anything presently available) in the aftermath of a disaster in order to better understand how to design environments to protect against them. The military already uses immersive sims to save training costs. There are a ton of non-entertainment applications for immersion. Saying we should kill the concept is horrifying, because it’s so limiting.

…and so we come to the conclusion.

There will still be room for the [insert any unimmersive game here] of the world. I’m not saying that they should die; there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. Instead, I’m looking at this in a long-term perspective—not the next week, or the next month, or the next year, but the next century of game development. Games are… going to become something else. Traditional video games will still exist, but this new thing, this transportation to another world… that’s the future. Saying we should kill the concept of immersion and only give credence to attention is a terrible idea.

Considering the way they seem to feel about immersion, it would appear that Ben Abraham, Robert Yang, and Richard Lemarchand don’t just misunderstand the term, but want the legitimate usage to die as well. While I don’t know a lot about Abraham’s personal philosophies, Yang’s made his pretty clear in his Dark Past series of blog posts—he thinks the immersive sim should die. Lemarchand’s philosophies are made clear by the games he creates, and
Do I sound upset?

These guys seem smart—really, they do—but by failing to understand the nuance of the word “immersion,” they seem primed to damage the medium.

Look, I may be just a poor college student (I can’t even afford a good school) who is trying to learn game design while his school falls down around his head (seriously, I’m not kidding about the good school thing). Unlike Lemarchand and Yang, I’ve never made a video game in my life. I’ve worked on some other forms of RPG before, and I’m trying to work on an indie game right now, but I obviously don’t have the body of work behind me that these guys do. I may never have the body of work behind me, at the rate things are going.

…but… I feel like they’ve got it all wrong. If they’re the guys who tell us where games should go—if we follow them—I know we’ll be worse off for it.

They scare me.

(Also, in case anyone is wondering, yes, this is one of the reasons I prefer Western to Japanese games. Japan tends to prefer to design more abstract, non-immersive games, which is a totally valid method of expression, but not one I personally enjoy)

Food for Thought

“Where is the game that questions governments, challenges society, hell, asks a bloody question? Let alone issues. Good heavens, imagine a game that dealt with issues!”

John Walker, of RPS fame, recently posed this question in his article bemoaning the lack of games that have any real substance to them. As someone who had a conversation just yesterday about all the games that I consider to have terrible stories (which is almost all of them), you can’t get much dismissive than me. So… when I recommend a game, understand that I do it because I have incredibly high standards.

…aaaaand that’s why I was surprised when John went on to say this: “I want there to continue to be Call Of Duty games. But I also want there to be gaming’s All Quiet On The Western Front. It’s our 1935, and it’s about time it happened.”

Well, um.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is that game, John.

I know, I know. Everyone wants to hate on Modern Warfare 2. They say it’s a dumb, stupid Baysplosionfest. It’s strange, really: before Modern Warfare 2 came out, Call of Duty was one of the best (the absolute best) gaming experiences in the known universe. Call of Duty 4 was one of the finest games in a year that saw Portal and Bioshock released. The nuke scene, the sniper level… so much of that was memorable and superb in every way. Like the original Half-Life before it, Call of Duty transformed the industry through the best scripted events (which are not evil in and of themselves) that had ever been seen, while maintaining a high standard level of linear, corridor-shooting interactivity.

Then came Modern Warfare 2, and all that changed. Unlike most people, who seem to think that one of the finest development studios out there would suddenly be the worst ever, I’m going to blame the rushed, eighteen month development cycle, the fact that the studio had very little love for this game (much like Call of Duty 2) and were only making it as part of a deal that would let the now-stillborn-but-possibly-at-Respawn Future Warfare project come into being, and the fact that the game, in a series birthed on the PC, became nothing more than a bad PC port. Remember the “it has mouse support” debacle? The lack of dedicated servers? For some people, those wounds are still fresh. I think that’s where a lot of the hate really comes from.

Plus, the internet is a thing. The internet is a vast hate machine. It hates what’s popular–look at all the grief Halo, a franchise from one of the best shooter developers to ever walk the Earth with games nothing less than stellar (barring Halo 2’s campaign)–received when it was popular. Look in comment threads around the internet, and you’ll still find people coming out of the closet, admitting that “it wasn’t really that bad,” or “I never really hated it.” Ignore Call of Duty’s longest-time fans and dumb the game down, and you’ll get people screaming about how stupid everything about it is. Have it beat the highest-grossing movie ever made in the span of a month or two, and you can bet there will be a backlash against the game’s popularity as well.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 did deserve some of the complaints it got, mind you. The rushed development led to bugs and imbalances, and the campaign was a bit rough. That said, the people who complained about it are drooling morons.

They love to complain that it was dumbed down and stupid, despite being like every Call of Duty before it, which was praised as intelligent and awesome.

First things first: Modern Warfare moves at a much, much faster pace than most video games. There is no time to stop and have a conversation–imagine if you never had time to stop in Mass Effect 2: you’d never get to know a single character in the game, beyond the occasional “I WILL DESTROY YOU!” or whatever from a teammate. They’d be empty shells. Because of this unrelenting pace, you never really get a feel for the characters, even if they’re actually pretty well defined. I’m not just talking about Soap and Price, either. Makarov is a particularly interesting character. Even Dunn and Foley’ve got personalities.

I believe, across the Modern Warfare series, you play from the perspectives of at least fourteen different characters: Soap, Roach, Price, Yuri, a British soldier, three marines, an astronaut, a father on vacation, two gunners in an AC-130 gunship, a dictator, a CIA spy, and others I can’t recall off the top of my head. That can get pretty confusing. The game is a lot like 24, the action show where Kiefer Sutherland punches people in the face to stop terrorism and it works. That many protagonists in a fast-paced game that never gives you the time to get to know anyone is going to confuse the shit out of people, especially those who are expecting the story to be stupid and aren’t paying attention. If you pay attention to the Modern Warfare games, nearly everything makes sense. Gamesradar’s infamous and rather absurd ‘plot holes in Modern Warfare 2’ article falls apart. The only real plot holes I can remember having any validity are “how, exactly, did Price survive and not manage to be returned to the UK, why is Task Force 141 under Shepard’s control, and how did so many Russian airplanes make it across the continental United States without being noticed before they got to Washington, DC?”

But, hey, eighteen month development time. Three mistakes. That’s really not bad.

Ultimately, however, that fast pace and rapid character shift means that all the plot bits that are there–the frequently-good writing–is often ignored.

I can’t say I got much of a feel for the characters in, say, Mass Effect 2. Grunt and Miranda were pinocchios. Jacob was… inoffensive. Legion was a robot. Garrus was just Space Batmanpunisher because The Dark Knight was a cool movie. Jack was a sensitive girl who kept everyone at bay with anger. Samara was a ronin (Samara? Samurai? get it?). You can’t really say much for those characters. They’re walking encyclopedia entries with loads of personal information. Rarely do they make observations about the world (unless that observation seems to exist to contrast them to the world around, like someone writing about a kid from the country showing up in the city and going “wow, you people are strange!”), or ask questions, or demonstrate any real personality. In the gameplay, it’s even worse.

It’s interesting to get a feel for the characters of Modern Warfare 2, however. Makarov is very much a chess player. He’s arrogant. Patriotic. A complete bastard. Zakhaev’s death scarred him tremendously. Shepard’s blind patriotism to America leads him to cross the line, murdering his own people and innocent civilians to put some pride back on America’s face. Price, however, transcends nationalism, ultimately going rogue, becoming a man without a country for the greater good of the human race.

Those three characters actually sum up one of Modern Warfare 2’s major themes (did Mass Effect 2 have a theme? Nah, it was just a bad, grimdark Dirty Dozen knockoff without the all-important team-building second act): that nationalism and misguided patriotism is a terrible thing indeed. One of the quotes used in the game was from Albert Einstein, who said, “Nationalism is an infantile disease; it is the measles of mankind.” Many of the series’ trademark “death quotes” revolve around themes of nationalism, patriotism, and the dangers thereof.

People like to say that No Russian was a publicity stunt–well, it wasn’t. It was the other half of Modern Warfare 2’s point. Modern Warfare 2 flipped the war on terror on its head, putting the US in the shoes of Afghanistan and Iraq, and asked “is this just?”

Think about it! For reasons you believe to be just, you are made to do a morally questionable act because it might help stop a bad thing. Doing so turns the world on its head. Your country is framed for the actions of a few–perhaps by the country that was already planning to invade you for other reasons. One half of the game has you playing the part of the confused soldier, not knowing what’s going on, being given random, seemingly disconnected objectives, and trying to stave off a surprise invasion. The other half has you playing as the man trying to catch the people responsible.

Modern Warfare 2 ends with you stealthy murdering American soldiers in Afghanistan to pound the point home, as if it wasn’t clear enough.

Was this right? Was this just? Was this invasion a good thing?

The game’s a bit of a “blood for oil!” conspiracy-type story, I’ll admit (Russia took out the US satellite that gave them entry into the US before No Russian took place). It dwells a bit too much on the events and not enough on the characters (but… what would you do? Cutscenes? All the character time is spent during loading sequences and in gameplay dialog; the game’s as efficient as a shark when it comes to gameplay–it’s even better than Half-Life in its relentless desire to keep you in the experience–it never locks you in a room and lets you run around like a madman for ten minutes). It’s got a great deal of failings. But… it does ask questions. It bothers to be more than just an action game. I think the only other post-2007 games I played that really did that were Bioshock 2 and Minerva’s Den, and I’ll write about them elsewhere.

You may dislike the theme, the unrealism, or even disagree with the argument it puts forth. But you can’t disagree that it tries, and it would be hard to disagree with the suggestion that few games try as hard. The only reason it failed was because no one came in expecting it to have a good story, and then, when they did play it, nobody bothered to pay attention to what was actually there. It’s as if they were like “nah, it’s not going to be good, so I don’t care,” or maybe they just fell for the fantastic set pieces. Or, hey, maybe they all just played the multiplayer.

Whatever the case was, people ignored Modern Warfare 2’s story and point, and then they went on about how bad it was. Say what you will about its shortcomings–I can point out many shortcomings in All Quiet on the Western Front–but Modern Warfare 2 made an effort to make a point about the world around us, and there are damn few games I can say the same for.

Also, is the only game I’ve played with homages to one of the best action movies ever: The Rock. Saving the White House, riding on the underwater subthingies, and fighting through the showers were all direct references to some of the best bits in the movie.

The story has its problems, don’t get me wrong, but in terms of actually bothering to ask good questions, Modern Warfare 2 does its job. If you want something greater than baby food… give Modern Warfare 2 a thoughtful go. To run with Walker’s food comparison, I’d say that Modern Warfare 2 is to game stories as a jelly sandwich is to baby food–it’s food for five year olds as opposed to food for infants. Games do need to grow up. They suck. I hate nearly every game story I’ve encountered, unless I’m in a mood for bad stories (which I am, on occasion), but Modern Warfare 2, despite all the hate it gets, is actually one of the few steps in the right direction.

Impressions: Halo: Combat Evolved: Anniversary: Colon

I walk through the ancient, alien halls, mesmerized by glowing symbols I can’t even begin to fathom.

My health is low–fortunately, my shield’s recharged, but still, I’ll need to find health soon. Emerging out of the alien hallways and onto a bridge, a chilly wind blasts my suit. I don’t know how the marines can stand it. The next thing that blasts me is a plasma charge. Shit. Hunters. I could handle them on their own, but they’ve got a dozen grunts, an elite, and three or four jackals backing them up… AND they’re on another bridge.

I die a good ten times or so, trying various tactics that don’t involve engaging the hunters directly, but they (or errant grenades and a hellstorm of needles take me down every time). I just haven’t got the health to survive this alone.

…and then I remember I’ve got a rocket launcher.

The first one goes down on the first hit. The second one, though, manages to take one hit to the face and keep firing. I mop up the grunts and jackals with a few well-placed plasma grenades, and I think I’ve taken out the Elite with one too, so I spin around, fire another rocket into the hunter, reload my rocket launcher–and something hits my shield.

Oh shit.

The Elite charges me, and I empty my remaining twenty-eight rounds into his face. A few melee hits and it’s over–I’ve got just one bar of health and no shield left. I take his plasma rifle and enter the room at the other end of the bridge. In the ensuing firefight, I manage to take out another dozen grunts and several jackals by doing a lot of strafing and weaving, but fail to find any health or ammo. Looks like I’m stuck with plasma for now.

An inviting light grabs my attention. I turn into a small hallway where I notice a shimmer and glow. It’s an invisible elite, but it must have its back turned. Slowly, I creep up on it and punch the creature in the back of the skull, killing it. A second Elite, which I hadn’t noticed (on account of it being invisible) begins firing on me, but a second or two of concentrated fire and he goes down. At the end of the hallway is another big room. I either smile or sneer–I’m not sure which; the onslaught of nostalgia, delight, and the “COME AT ME BRO!” feeling

I know this room.

It’s got Hunters in it.

The first one doesn’t even see me–probably for the best. I choose the overkill option and fire a rocket into his red spot. Thinking I spot the second one out of the corner of my right eye, I dodge to the left–and right into him. The ensuing “OHSHIT! RUUUUUUUUN!” feeling leaves me joyfully giddy. I dash back the way I came and flank the Hunter, but he spins and takes my second rocket in the face. He lumbers after me, but I flank again and go caveman style, using my rocket launcher as a club and bashing him in the weak spot for massive damage.

A few marine corpses–I pause to honor them–provide me with a new MA5B Assault Rifle, just over five hundred rounds of ammo, some grenades, and some new rockets. Then all at once I’m overwhelmed by a wave of jackals, but they’re stuck in the hallway with me blocking the entrance. I hem them in with my assault rifle and toss a grenade. They’re so busy taking cover that they don’t react until it’s too late.

The smell of burnt chicken fills the air, but I don’t have any time to take it all in. Assuming that the explosion killed me as well, a grunt rounds the corner to investigate.

He discovers a few bullets just as they enter his face.

Halo: Combat Evolved: Anniversary is a game that reminds me what fun is all about.

Because of the variation found in guns, AI, and the level design, the gameplay is almost never the same. “Play how you want!” the game seems to say, “we respect you for it!” You also get a great health system that doesn’t push you into cover right away, like most games these days, and you have these enemies with projectiles that are slow enough to dodge. Right now, I’m playing 343 Guilty Spark, and The Flood feel superb. I don’t actually know why anyone hates them. Just sidestep them like they’re projectiles, and suddenly they become super fun! I could swear the combat’s been tweaked. Some bits are harder than I remember them, while The Flood seem a tad bit easier–you can kill Flood combat forms with greater ease than even a blue Elite.

Gripes right now… well, look at that first picture! It’s so… busy. Sometimes, the graphics feel too busy, basically. Also, the people seem proportioned a bit weird, and I can’t even LOOK at Johnson, while Keyes’ lip sizes jump all over the place, and Cortana twitches around a bit.

…but you know what? Halo: Combat Evolved: Anniversary is great so far. I’m having a blast. I’m able to tell STORIES about my gameplay experience. The AI, the guns, the levels… even the controls make everything feel perfect!

This is, quite possibly, the best game purchase I’ve made all year. I haven’t had this much fun with a game in so long–possibly since Marathon! I’ve plunged through SHODAN’s corridors again this gen, I’ve re-beat Half-Life 2, I’ve played Tropico 4, Modern Warfare 3, Skyrim, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Arkham Asylum (finally!), and Gears of War 3 but I haven’t played a single game as fun as Combat Evolved in a long, long time.

It feels great.

Apologies for the poor writing. I’m ultra-sleepy.

Thought of the Day – Narrow FOVs and Mouse Acceleration

Borderlands, while heavily praised, had a PC port so bad that a friend of mine stopped PC gaming entirely.

We all know the various symptoms of bad ports, like a lack of dedicated servers, using Gamespy for networking, large menus, a lack of good graphics options, Ubisoft DRM® and Ubisoft Delays®, and so on and so forth. Some of you may be aware of some other issues, like level design, enemy AI limitations, and a lack of verticality that also tend to plague bad ports. Two of the most common complaints regarding ports, however, relate to forced mouse acceleration and a narrow FOV.

Most people know what mouse acceleration is: the rate at which the cursor moves accelerates as you move your mouse. For instance, if your mouse has a 1:1 movement ratio, when you move your mouse one centimeter, the cursor moves one centimeter. With mouse acceleration turned on, when you move your mouse, that ratio doesn’t just change (if it changed to like 1:2 or something, it would be an increase in sensitivity), it changes as you continue moving your mouse. In other words, if you move your mouse one inch, it might move one inch. As you continue moving the mouse to two inches, suddenly it’s moved for a total of two and a half. By the time you hit three inches,  your mouse has moved four, and so forth. With mouse acceleration, the cursor moves at a higher rate the longer you move your mouse. This is, of course, very bad for precise mouse control and makes gaming with a mouse rather pointless. After all, if you don’t have mouse precision, you might as well be using an analog stick, and if you’re using an analog stick, then chances are, you’re using a degree of lock-on (ranging from Halo 3’s extreme to Killzone 2’s almost nonexistence, both of which are kinda bad).

Many people complain of feeling motion sick while playing console ports (and also Valve games). The reason for this is because these games feature a very narrow FOV. If you don’t know what a FOV is, you should watch this video. In fact, even if you do know what an FOV is, you should watch the video.

Have you done it?

Good.

What you’ll find on bad ports is that they often use an FOV that is much smaller than what it should be on the PC. With a 24″ 16:10 (sixteen units wide vs ten units tall; in this case, that’s 1920 x 1200) monitor, I’ve found 95-110 degrees to be quite comfortable. Generally, a bad port uses something ranging from 55 (Metro 2033) to 80 (Rage). Another thing they do is up the weapon and gun size to fill disproportionately large sections of the screen. I’m not actually sure why they do that. It blocks even more of your view, and sitting at a television half-way across my living room, I don’t really care what size my character’s hands or guns are. I just want to know there’s a gun in the lower right and that it’s shooting at stuff while looking pretty.

Motion sickness aside, why should you care about a narrow FOV? Well, FPSes are games that require a high degree of situational awareness. You need to be able to know what’s going on around you, and having a narrow FOV is akin to wearing blinders. Unless you’re a horse, wearing blinders is just silly. Having a narrow FOV and large weapon/hand/UI size means you’re getting less screen space to see what’s going on around you, making your navigation through a three-dimensional world and anything that navigation entails a serious problem. One reason many people prefer third person shooters from an visual standpoint is, in fact, because things like narrow FOVs and large weapon sizes are making them uncomfortable without being terribly obvious about it.

So, back to the original point, which is that these things aren’t just bad trends, they’re also tied together.

See, when you’re using a stick, you can’t turn as fast as you can with a mouse. With an old game like Half-Life, I can turn a 180 in under a second. As I mentioned before, In a lot of PC games, there’s a lot of strafing, flanking, and verticality that just isn’t as pronounced on consoles. The reason for this is because analog sticks, as I’m sure you know, lack the both the precision and the speed of a mouse. I haven’t really touched on it, but sticky aim is also a side effect of the complete and uttter lack of accuracy present in analog sticks–all those Call of Duty and Uncharted and Halo and Killzone players aren’t quite the good shots they think they are. The sticky aim’s compensating for ’em. Anyways, because the FOV is often so narrow (say 60 degrees), the character has to hold the stick down longer than they would if the FOV was at 90 degrees. To compensate for this, developers implement stick acceleration. That way, if a guy is coming at you from the second floor building to your right, you can turn and point the stick up and get to him quicker than you would if there was no acceleration. If he’s coming at you from behind, same thing. It’s not perfect, and sticky aim’s required to keep you from moving too far past the guy since sticks have no precision, but, it’s how console developers have to cheat in order to make shooters not suck on consoles.

In other words, mouse acceleration exists to compensate for narrow FOVs and runs with the assumption that you’re using sticky aim, so precision isn’t important. None of these things serve any purpose on a PC, and if you find that PC gaming is giving you a headache, try changing the FOV! Just google “Gamename FOV” and you should be fine.

One thing before I go: if you’re in a third person game and you can’t see your feet, your camera is too close and your FOV is probably too small.

In Defense Of The First Person Shooter – Transmogrification

The straw that broke the camel's back.

This is actually technically an addendum (though it may become the introduction) to my series formerly known as The Greatest Game Ever Played. Also, I know I just said I was going to write about Stanley Kubrick, but Kubrick & Me will have to wait. I read an amusing comment that really made me want to write this, so here goes.

XCOM, announced in 2010, blew my mind. A transliteration of the mechanics of X-COM: UFO Defense, XCOM promised to be the immersive version of what we’d seen previously. The series had been abused to hell and back, with only two of its entries being considered great. This looked like a great way to return to the franchise–a different genre, perhaps, but X-COM in spirit. A lot of people complained. To them, X-COM was nothing more than a the equivalent of a simple isometric turn-based tactics game. They chose to ignore that the more important elements, such as base/team/character management and the escalating threat of an alien invasion, were still there. For them, it was turn-based isometric tactics or nothing. They started complaining about a glut of reboots to FPS, and for the longest time, I ignored it. I even let myself get carried away, agreeing that too many games were being converted to FPSes.

At best, they were wrong. At worst, they were liars.

It’s frustrating, really. There’s no genre more hated by a lot of old school gamers, whether they’re the old-school Sony and Nintendo fans, or, more importantly, the old-school PC gaming fans who were only in it for the pixel hunts and waiting their turns at things, than the FPS. It’s sad, because honestly, the FPS is the closest thing to what everyone seems to want video games to be, judging by the sales figures. As I’ve said before, it’s my belief that the most important thing a video game can do is put the player in a world. Why would you want to sit at your computer playing turn-based action all day when you could be transported into a digital world where you fight monsters or gunmen of the apocalypse with doves or frisbees of monsters of your own or whatever? Things like Digimon, Red Dwarf, Tron, and Star Trek’s holodeck have a large appeal partly because the idea that humans could somehow put themselves in a virtual world is an exciting prospect.

That's totally a cinematic, though. Either that or BEST WATER EVER.

Entering the game itself is, somewhere way down the line, the future of gaming. Not the future of all gaming, mind you, because killing off traditional games would be foolish and absurd, but it is something we’re going to see more of as gaming gets more sophisticated. Right now, the FPS is the closest thing we have to that future.

Think about it: all of the abstractions present in other genres–being two-dimensional, having a third person camera, being turn-based, etc–are absent in the FPS. What you see on-screen is what your character is looking at, because he or she is you. The gun is in your hands. The only things separating you from truly inhabiting your FPS character is the fact that you aren’t controlling it directly with your brain. Furthermore, the only games that truly simulate a living, breathing world (while ridding themselves of the pesky number values that RPGs use to determine character abilities) are immersive sims, an evolution of the FPS. Part of the reason that STALKER and System Shock 2 and Deus Ex are some of the most loved games ever is because they allow the player to participate in a world as much as technology will allow. The biggest praise that these games receive  I’m also excited that the genre seems to be making a comeback in the form of titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored, and Fallout 3.

Suffice it to say, I was quite surprised when people began saying that there was a massive trend of games transforming to first person shooters. I mean, I like when games become FPSes. Did everyone forget how awesome Fallout 3, Metroid Prime, and their subsequent sequels were? (This statement is actually more important than it sounds, by the way. Keep it in your head, because we’re coming back to it.) Quietly, I tallied the numbers in my head and came up with a comprehensive list (to the best of my knowledge) of all franchises in the past decade that have ever been turned into first person games.

Hold on to your hats, here is that list, in alphabetical order:

Fallout
Metroid

…and that’s it.

The typical adventure gamer after a few hours of stressful puzzle solving. This is important. Remember this.

Now, you may say “hey, what about XCOM and Syndicate!” I didn’t forget them, but they’re not out yet. We’ll talk about them later. You might also point out Shadowrun and SWAT, but SWAT made the jump back in 1999 with SWAT 3, so it’s not within the past ten years, and Shadowrun has gone through at least three genres, so it’s not like it was a long-standing series that suddenly became something else. Again, we’ll look at them a bit more in-depth later. Right now, I’d like to talk about the two franchises of the last ten years that have been through this transformation.

Releasing in 2002, Metroid Prime was (and still is) hailed as one of the greatest video games ever made. IGN took it a little too far and suggested that Metroid Prime was somehow gaming’s Citizen Kane. Such is the love for Metroid Prime. Its sequels, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, were also released to critical acclaim. Not a single Metroid Prime game has scored lower than a 90 on Metacritic. You may argue that the games are not strictly first person shooters, and admittedly, it’s debatable, but be warned: if you argue that it’s not an FPS, then we’re stuck with Fallout. Hardly a trend, now, is it?

Fallout 3 also released to critical acclaim. In fact, critically speaking, it’s the best-received Fallout game of them all, being the only game in the series that has scored over a 90 on Metacritic (PS3: 90, PC: 91, 360: 93). It won numerous GOTY awards after its release in 2008, and deserved all of it. Graphical weaknesses aside, it was, like Metroid Prime a solid, great game that nearly everyone I know enjoys. Like Metroid Prime, you might be tempted to argue that Fallout 3 was not an FPS, but, again, you’d be wrong. Mechanically, Fallout 3 is yet another variation on a theme, and that theme is a good one. People love it. New Vegas didn’t fare quite as well, partly because of atrocious world design (in terms of where things were placed, invisible walls, world flatness, and the awful NPC placement), and partly because its shooting mechanics relied more on silly RPG numbers. The shooting just didn’t feel right and felt more like a ploy to force players into VATS. As a result, the game didn’t feel right and wasn’t as fun to play, even if it did have more quests, more plots, and converted a host of mods into official gameplay mechanics. One of the top mods on the New Vegas Nexus removes that silly accuracy dice roll. Also, the FOV was a lot narrower than it was in Fallout 3, leading to an unpleasant gameplay experience. Still, it managed to receive RPGOTY awards in 2010.

You might argue that these games aren’t strictly FPSes, and you’d be right. They are, however, the only games in the past ten years that have made the jump to first person, and I’m trying to be sympathetic to the people who hate these first person transformations. Still, you know what these games all have in common? They’re all great games.

This FPS transformation actually seems to be a good thing, by this point, but if you don’t believe me, I totally understand.

I can't help but feel inspired to play Marathon now.

So let’s talk about older games that have been turned into FPSes, shall we? Off the top of my head, I can only think of, once again, two franchises. The first is Ultima. The second is SWAT.

Ultima Underworld was a great game. It transformed the most important game ever made (don’t believe me? Western game design owes its entirety to Ultima, as does the JRPG, from Dragon Quest to Final Fantasy and beyond) into a first person game. That took guts. Ultima Underworld wasn’t a smash hit–it sold 500,000 copies, which was great for the time (that immediately makes it one of the best-selling cRPGs of all time), but the sales were fairly slow, too. Critically, however, Ultima Underworld was so well excepted that it managed to make it on to numerous “best games” lists, including PC Gamer US’s “best 50 games of all time list.” The sequel, Ultima Underworld, was even better. PC Gamer said this about it: “Ultima Underworld needs to be hailed from the roof-tops for being one of the best dungeon-based adventure RPGs of all illustrious gaming history.”

Do I really need to say more? Ultima Underworld is hailed as one of the greatest gaming series of all time. Had it not made the jump to first person, it wouldn’t have been. You should go buy it right now. Admittedly, it’s not strictly an FPS, but, again, it was one of the few games I could think of that went from one genre to a first person game.

SWAT, on the other hand… originally, it was a Police Quest game, if you can believe it.  The Quest games were legendary in the field of adventure gaming. King’s Quest, in particular, has spawned numerous fan sequels, including a rather infamous game (due to Activision’s skullduggery), The Silver Lining. Admittedly, the series was spawned from the hellish womb of Roberta Williams, but whatever. Adventure gamers absolutely loved the Quest games.

Enter SWAT 3.

This is SWAT 4. But SWAT 3 is cool too.

SWAT 3 was critically claimed and super fun, but I don’t really have much to say about it, because I really want to talk about SWAT 4 instead. See, SWAT 4 is one of the greatest games ever made. It was designed by Irrational Games, those mad geniuses who later went on to develop, in conjunction with 2K Marin (AND THIS IS SUPER IMPORTANT), Bioshock. Irrational Games, at one time, was actually located inside Looking Glass’s studio. Ken Levine used to work at Looking Glass, as did legendary designers Harvey Smith (Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, Dishonored) and Warren Spector (Deus Ex).  Looking Glass and Irrational cooperatively made System Shock 2. System Shock 2 is considered by many to be the greatest video game ever made, and even those who don’t believe that admit that it’s definitely one of the scariest, one of the most influential, and one of the best-written. In addition, Looking Glass also made Thief and Thief 2, also considered to be some of the greatest games ever made. I’d be happy to argue that Looking Glass Studios was the greatest, most important game developer of all time, in fact. My point is that SWAT 4 was developed by some of the best and brightest that the video game industry has ever produced. The amount of intelligence required to play the game, that careful, methodical plotting required to execute a perfect hostage recovery, was above and beyond anything that gaming had offered before (but, hey, FPSes have offered this level of intelligent gameplay for years; people who hate on the genre like to pretend it doesn’t exist. They’re liars.).

Are you noticing a trend here? Literally every game that’s made the jump to FPS so far happens to be considered amongst the finest games ever developed. Literally the worst game on this list is Fallout: New Vegas, and you’d have to be crazy to say that’s a bad game, unless you were focusing solely on the bugs.

So far, so good, right? Let’s talk about XCOM and Syndicate.

But first, have a picture of my daughter. Her name is Eleanor and she's a superhuman. Her mom was crazy but I didn't kill her, because I am not. Also I live inside Eleanor's brain now.

2K Marin, who worked with Irrational on Bioshock, went on to develop Bioshock 2. A better game than the original in every way, Bioshock 2 suffered complaints about the unnecessity of its existence. Seriously, the biggest complaint was not that it wasn’t good enough or anything–these complaints started long before the game was released–but that it wasn’t needed. Bioshock, people wrongly claimed, was original, and now they wanted more originality, not some cash-in sequel with a forced multiplayer component. Bioshock was just System Shock 2 with less depth and a different skin, but they didn’t care about that. Bioshock 2, despite everything it did better, was fighting an uphill battle. After playing it, not once, but twice, I must say, the game’s only faults are that there isn’t a timer at the end, that its FOV is narrow, and that its levels manage not to be quite as memorable.

In terms of storytelling and gameplay, the two most important aspects of any game, Bioshock 2 is absolutely flawless.

2K Marin wasn’t content with building a better Bioshock, it seems. The game’s DLC, Minerva’s Den, managed even to one-up Bioshock, with a truly emotional story that everyone ought to try at least once. The highest praise Minerva’s Den got, in fact, was that it felt closer to System Shock 2 than any other game in the Bioshock series. What I’m trying to say is… 2K Marin helped develop three of the finest games of this generation, and managed to one-up the same company that was born from and once worked alongside Looking Glass Studios in the process. 2K Marin has worked on some of the finest games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. These are the guys developing XCOM. Could it be in better hands? I don’t think so.

I want this cyberpunk, I want it all, and I want it now.

Finally, we have Syndicate. You may not know much about the developers, Starbreeze, but they have a reputation for making great games, even if they don’t have great brand recognition. Perhaps you’ve heard of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. It’s kinda considered to be the best-looking console game of the last console generation, in addition to being the best movie tie-in game ever made. If you’re not convinced of that, it’s within three points of Final Fantasy VII on Metacritic, sitting at an 89. Its pseudosequel/remake, Assault on Dark Athena, didn’t perform quite as well, but it’s still praised quite highly. After their Riddick games, Starbreeze developed The Darkness, which received mostly 8s and 9s from developers, and was praised for its great writing and level design. Starbreeze are rock-solid developers with a good history, and, while their output might not be as good as 2K Marin, Syndicate is looking super good so far.

I’m left with one conclusion: there is no excess of FPS transformations. Six franchises in twenty years (a total of 9 games, if my count’s right) isn’t exactly a lot. If we look at the past five years, we have only three franchises (Fallout, Syndicate, XCOM) for a total of five games (FO3, FNV, Syndicate, XCOM, and MP3). That’s not a lot, not by a longshot. What we also see is that each and every one of the genres that have been released aren’t just widely praised, but are considered some of the finest games ever made. The developers responsible for the two upcoming transformations, 2K Marin and Starbreeze, have made several great games that have received a lot of praise.

So, critics of FPS transformations, your claims that this is a rampant trend of all old games getting rebooted as FPSes is factually wrong. At best count, you have six franchises. If we get picky… XCOM will be the second, following SWAT. You have no legs to stand on and no room to argue.

So shut the fuck up.

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.

"STABBY STABBY!" "GRR! NO! YOU KILLED MY FATHER!" "I KILLED YOUR MOTHER TOO!" "WHAT?!" "YOU WILL PAY FOR THIS, EVIL MISTER ALIENFACE!"

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.

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*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.