Monday, December 8, 2008

F.E.A.R and Beer; or, Better As A Demo

Time warp! It’s September 2005. Half Life 2 hasn’t been out a year. I’m a sophomore in college. So is Andrew, which is important – it’s his computer we’re clustered around, quaffing Keystone Light, plugging undead commandos with a gun called “The Penetrator” in slow motion. We’re playing the F.E.A.R demo.

Remember F.E.A.R? No? Forget what the acronym stands for. No one knows, no one cares. You’re a faceless tough with a gun who goes around various office buildings and factories murdering zombie soldiers, occasionally remembering to press CTRL to enter “combat vision,” or “hyper-reality,” or whatever be the game’s bullshit euphemism for bullet time. Also, you’re chased by the girl from “The Ring.”

When released, F.E.A.R passed through us like The Wave at a high school football game – fun for a second, but leaving you back on your ass, where you belong. But the demo was thrilling in unspeakable ways, especially on Andrew’s new rig. Especially after a Monday fiction writing seminar. Especially after one, or five, cans of Keystone. Thanks to America’s favorite light beer and a healthy dollop of repetitive level design, F.E.A.R lives in my mind as the game that was Better As A Demo (B.A.A.D).

F.E.A.R and Beer happened whenever there was an hour or two to kill. As a sophomore, there’s a gloaming on Friday nights during which you’re neither partying nor not partying – you’re sure as shit not doing work, but it’s too early to justify drinking in earnest. F.E.A.R helped conquer our prudence, and after an hour of playing the demo again and again and again, we riding the buzz of cheap beer and dynamic lighting.

As a demo, F.E.A.R looked very promising. The game looked great, of course, but it was just garnish on the most fluid and visceral shooter experience I’d ever seen. Bullets shattered glasses and disintegrated shelves above your head. Shockwaves bent the air. Every bullet was felt, especially in bullet time, where your contrail-ing bullets found their marks with satisfying thwacks, kicking up an easy ounce of blood each. There was so much blood. We would hit the slow-down half a second prior to a explosion, just so we can hear a symphonically extended Noooooo before a grunt was shredded into constituent molecules.

The demo generously put some of the game’s most advanced guns in our hands, including the previously mentioned, unsettlingly named “Penetrator,” which fired spikes of solid steel. It let us, in a word, play, without burdening us with a hackneyed story. Or making us play the same goddamned level over, and over, and over again – which is exactly what F.E.A.R did.

You could see it straining to justify its blood-lusty combat, to buttress the gunplay with some nutritious storytelling, and it was tragic to watch its efforts – it just wasn’t interesting. Super-soldiers, the undead, whatever. We’ve seen it all before. The fact that every level seemed to take place within the same, drab warehouse didn’t help, either.

Thus, F.E.A.R and Beer turned into B.A.A.D and Sad. Andrew’s taste for First Person Shooters was forever tainted – and fiction writing, too. But that’s another story.

F.E.A.R and its vastly superior demo is a lesson in brevity for designers. Don’t take liberties with your audience – keep them going, keep them interested. In this Infinity Ward is superlative – can you think of a single second during Call of Duty 2 or 4 during which you were bored? If it’s meant to be a five-hour game, don’t make it ten. Make it memorable. I can only remember two bits of F.E.A.R – the part where Paxton Fettel hits you in the face with a 2x4, and the part where the girl from The Ring blows you backwards out of a warehouse window.

That should say something.