Saturday, 26 November 2011

First Person Problems (or, the alternate history of modern genres)

Measure for Measure tries hard but pales beside classic comedies like As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. 6/10”
– Official Playhouse & Bear-Pit Magazine, 1605

If you want to analyse videogames you have to struggle with the problem that half our critical discourse comes from bullet points on the back of a box. Even as academics and bloggers strive to establish a new conceptual vocabulary, their lexicon still carries the trace of promotional material, their terms of art taken from features lists. This does not make our critique somehow degenerate or ‘impure’ – but it does risk obscuring and occluding ideas the market left behind. Nowhere is this more clear than in the evolution of the first person game.

When Shakespeare’s plays were first published in 1623, seven years after his death, his literary executors – former colleagues John Hemmings and Henry Condell – faced a dilemma about what to call them. Sometime rival Ben Johnson had been viciously mocked in 1616 for releasing his collected plays as ‘Works’, a label too elevated and serious for an art form still considered two steps away from prostitution. But, by the same token, 'Plays' would position their book at the whorehouse end of the market. H & C, convinced that their late comrade deserved better, trod a middle path and published what’s now known as the First Folio under the title of ‘William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies’. 

It wasn't a big deal. Many of the plays had once been advertised as different genres entirely, or as more than one throughout their lifespan. A few didn't fit into any in particular. Yet until the twentieth 
century most critics took the Folio's classifications at face value - and some, assuming strange or hybrid plays like Measure for Measure were supposed to be straight comedies, assessed them sternly by that yardstick.

Genres begin when certain tropes and formal features appear together often enough to be identified collectively as a trend. In a market, assumptions about audience expectation and desire will see these trends noticed, imitated, improved and evolved until they ossify into categorical definitions. This is fair enough: developers need some Linnaean strategy for categorising and keeping track of the infinite variety of customer preference, and the customers concerned appreciate the tip-off about whether they’ll enjoy a given title. Likewise, Shakespeare combined and subverted genres precisely because he knew they were such powerful artistic tools. The risk, however, is that genres will condition assumptions about the tropes and mechanics they involve to the extent that they stop just describing their possibilities and start restricting them. Artists may fail to see the trees for the wood, and forget that murder can be played for laughs or infidelity for pathos.

‘Shooter’ is so frequently appended to ‘First Person’ that it’s easy to forget how often such a perspective was employed by early RPGs. The Wizardry games, Dungeon Master, and Ultima Underworld used it not to allow the player gunslinger accuracy but to induce a sense of immediacy and claustrophobia that only a perspective so simultaneously detailed and limited could provide. Maze War, one of the earliest FPS ancestors (originating from a NASA lab in 1973), is predicated as much on navigation through confusing surroundings as it is on accurate shooting; indeed, movement is tile-based and shooting your opponent is simply a matter of facing them.

At its genesis, then it was not the power of the first person perspective but its limitations that fascinated developers. Rather like classifying Measure for Measure as a straight comedy, calling Maze War a proto-FPS might be to load it with assumptions it cannot sustain by inducting it into a generic category that only evolved long afterwards. It was an FP game; possibly we should stop there.

FPS in the 90s retained this heritage. Doom, Quake and Half-Life all involve the exploration of labyrinthine environments and rely for their scares on the limitation of perspective. But since the Cryo-style adventure game finally shuddered its last breath, first person games have been dominated by the tradition Doom began: player as gun. Despite the branching paths of Thief, Morrowind, FP-RPGs, Call of Cthulhu and ’immersive sims’, the S still rules FP. Look no further than Bioshock, a game which might have been even more interesting with a little less shooting and a little more exploration. Of the various things first person can do the modern FPS prioritises accuracy and immediacy, the latter strain having gathered force since Half-Life and splattered across our monitors in an immersive Bloody Screen.

Fine with me. But the question of ‘what next’ still hangs in the air two years after genre titan Cliff Bleszinski waggishly declared that the future of the FPS was the RPG. His point seemed to be that the FPS had nowhere left to go except towards stylised stagnation or final borg-style union with some other tradition. He was wrong. One of the smartest things about Wolfenstein 1d is how it retroactively reclassifies the first person shooter as we have come to know it. Because shooting is trivially easy, it draws attention to what is absent, forgotten – and what else is possible.

We can glimpse an alternative future in Brothers in Arms, a first person shooter with the intriguing design innovation that you can’t easily shoot the broad side of a barn door. By drastically widening the firing cone of the player’s weapon and giving ‘cover’ objects almost magical properties of protection the game bypasses the Call of Duty effect (where emotive strings and solemn quotations about conflict accompany the lesson that wars are won by individual heroes who land satisfying headshots on a hundred enemy soldiers each). Earlier, I referred to the first person perspective as ‘powerful’, but what that really means is that it’s easy. The mainstream FPS makes removes most of the work required to shoot a real-world gun so that the player can concentrate on other things. Brothers in Arms understands that reintroducing these challenges changes the emphasis of the game – in this case by working in concert with cover and suppression systems to provide and necessitate methods other than Rambo’s. It's still shooting, Jim, but not as we know it.

The result is a first-person RTS, a tactical combat game in which you are forced to rely on friendly AI – or, to put it more emotively, the ordinary men who follow you into battle and live or die based on your orders. BiA and CoD share a (hackneyed) message – how ordinary people are united by the horror of war and must depend on each other – but Brothers gameplay backs up its swelling orchestral score where Duty renders itself farcical when considered from a distance. The crippled S is so important to this FP that when you pick up a sniper rifle everything becomes somehow unsatisfying, your squad quietly mothballed to a nominal role. I tend to avoid that particular weapon just so they feel needed.

So Brothers in Arms offers an alternative take on the FPS – but it also reveals light poking through the holes in the real time strategy game. When the BBC put salesmen, graphic designers and human resources officers in charge of historical armies in Time Commanders – a generalship gameshow running on the Rome: Total War engine – I as a gamer was absolutely shocked by their gross confusion and incompetence. I knew I could do much better.

But that’s because when I am sitting in front of my PC I have a great advantage over the contestants: I am alone in communion with my controls and with a camera that leaps about the battlefield like no general in history has ever been able. By contrast, the players of Time Commanders not only had to work out their decisions as a group but also to convey those decisions as orders down a chain of command to the actual technicians who were operating the game. They experienced, in part, the chaos and confusion of genuine command – something which rarely touches the player of Total War. When Napoleon says that the first thing in war is to arrive at a decision and stick to it, he’s not just being a stubborn git, but is speaking to the practical necessity of organising armies without radios, where confusion and misunderstanding mean death.

Just as first person strips shooting a rifle of all its real-world difficulty, the flying camera of an RTS subtracts delegation and limited information from the challenge of command. Would-be Wellingtons have 99 problems, but the fundamental chaos of the battlefield ain’t one: even with artificial measures such as fog of war it tends to be very easy for a strategy player to micromanage her units to twitch-perfection. Some games (Starcraft in particular, C&C Generals as I remember it) capitalise on this and make it their own, but in the supposedly strategic Empire: Total War one can still win by jerking one’s units back and forth in and out of enemy fire to mitigate the effects of surprise or tactical blunder. To neuter the power of the player’s privileged perspective, developers frequently deploy the infamous ‘cheating AI which throws up buildings and units faster than should be possible.

So let’s fire up the old quantum-powered Morris Minor and take a trip through time and space - via Hostile Waters and Brothers in Arms – to an alternate timeline where Creative Assembly have released Non-Total War. Instead of a ‘total’ perspective, Waters offered two that were only partially adequate: an abstract high-level map that pauses the game whenever you examine it, and a camera that must be bound to specific units. Consequently the player must rely on her unit AI to a greater extent, and the computerised personalities loaded into each tank and helicopter acquired a kind of ludic independence to support their narrative characters. By combining the lessons of these games with Empire’s fruitful setting we can imagine a strategy game of limited perspective whose player may more justly than the trailers proclaim: “I am Napoleon!”

Borrowing AI and design wisdom from the obscure, neglected family of turn-based wargames, the Creative Assembly of Earth-B have fashioned a game of planning and delegation, a kind of first-person Waterloo. Whether as a newly-commissioned Captain commanding a rifle company in rough terrain or as a full General levelling his spyglass at the enemy from atop his horse, the player would be extremely limited by her own mobility and line of sight. Even if, as in BiA, she could attack enemies personally, the slow speed and inaccuracy of flintlock firearms would provide a built-in limit to her powers. Otherwise, she would depend on subordinates to carry out their plans and last-minute personal gambles to stay in communication, finding high ground, riding along the line, even having to make it out of the theatre alive in the event of a rout.

At times, Mount and Blade approaches this, but the battle areas are so small and the pace so fast that there is rarely time to implement a considered strategy before the madly charging soldiers meet each other. Yet there is very little new or impossible in this twilight zone design, nothing the developers of Earth A could not accomplish – only interesting combinations of the detritus which our history has left behind, and the lessons of lesser-known evolutionary branches.

Any given mechanic, especially something so wide as camera perspective, will have all kinds of uses that are obscured and ignored if accepted genres are over-prioritised. But those uses are still present, if often dormant, and they are by no means forgotten. The idea that first person is ‘limited’ reaches such extremes in Dinner Date that the word ‘trapped’ better fits, while Robert Yang compiled a list of indie first-personers that disregard the ‘S’. Then there’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which uses first-person to make perception dangerous, and induces the terrified player to look away from what might harm them. Only a particular variety of first person game has reached any kind of impasse – if it even has – and the possibility is open now to go back, check the path not taken, and find there some shiny secret or hidden boss encounter with John Romero.


  1. I love the environmental immediacy of a first-person game, and I wish there were more of them without constant shooting! In fact, "exploratory first-person" is one of my favorite genres. I seem to be the only person on the internet who enjoyed the low-shooting, high-environment highway segments of Half-Life 2 most of all.

    Thankfully at least the indie world is poking around with this concept. I enjoyed:

    Mondo Medicals and Mondo Agency - Surreal abstract puzzling
    The Ball - Physics puzzles in a quasi-Aztec-ruins setting
    Minecraft - You may have heard of this
    Penumbra: Overture and Penumbra: Black Plague - Horror puzzle/adventure from the developers of Amnesia
    Penumbra: Requiem - A set of mostly entertaining physics puzzles
    The Void - A strange mythical boardgame with a nebulous ruleset
    Research & Development - A Half-Life 2 mod where you do Half-Life 2-ish things except without any directly offensive weaponry

    And of course the major publishers gave us the Portal games and Mirror's Edge, which were for the most part lovely. The STALKER games are also worth mentioning; they're all about shooting, but only about 10% of it involves actual shooting, while the other 90% is about exploring a bleak, atmospheric environment in the constant terror that you will suddenly find yourself back in the 10% that involves shooting.

    Still need to check out Fract and Kairo, and I'm holding off on Dear Esther until the remake comes out.

  2. Thanks for the roundup. I'll definitely have a look at those, but it may not be until I retire - The Ball, for instance, is an unfortunate casualty of my Perpetual Unplayed Steam Library Syndrome.

    Though I wonder in how many of those is the first person perspective essential to the game? Take Minecraft (what that???), which wouldn't be that different would mostly be the same game if it had a more functional third person camera by default. In fact, the main function of first person in Minecraft is to allow accurate and easy block placement. Not quite shooting, but close. One of several ways in which Minecraft is actually more orthodox in its design than it initially appears.

  3. Cool article John, just one suggestion, maybe next time get your inspiration from somewhere other than my notes on planned articles