Friday, May 1, 2009

First-Person WhatNow?

That's a lot of guns. Despite the popularity of titles like Dead Space and Gears of War, it seems like we prefer our shooters in the first-person.  Bioshock, Halo, Call of Duty, Killzone.  These names ring a bell?

You’ve probably played at least one of them.  They represent four acclaimed yet different takes on the genre: the dystopian, art-house darling; the fan-fiction-friendly, matchmaking extragavanza; the World War simulator, and the World War In Space simulator.  Sure, they sound slightly different, but they all share something in common: the player’s objective is to shoot stuff.

And why wouldn’t that be the case?  They are called first-person shooters, after all.  The genre goes back to huge entries in game canon like Wolfenstein and Doom.  But is shooting the only thing the first-person perspective is useful for?  I think not.

Here are some games that, despite perhaps containing a gun or two, have begun chipping away at an outdated moniker.

The Big Names

In the past two years, we’ve seen two ground-breaking first-person games come from two extremely well-respected studios.  I’m assuming you’ve heard of EA and Valve?

EA (via DICE) brought us Mirror’s Edge, which promised a color-saturated future guaranteed to fill our living room floors with motion-induced vomit.  We all watched Casino Royale.  We all fell in love with parkour.  Mirror’s Edge delivered parkour.

Unfortunately for some it also delivered the aforementioned vomit.  Plus guns.  And if the enthusiast press/blogosphere’s reaction is any indication, people didn’t want guns.  They wanted more running, jumping, swinging, and vomiting.  Oh yeah, and time trials.  Well, anybody still excited about Mirror’s Edge (who presumably also made it through The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield with nary an upchucked piece of popcorn) should check out the DLC.  I hear it’s full of stopwatch goodness. 

And maybe it’s just me, but when you make an action game with environments people want to play over and over again so they can shave a tenth of a second off a building jump, you’ve succeeded.  Cut the combat.  Just make fun levels.

As for Valve, they fooled us with The Orange Box.  Most of us already had Half-Life 2.  We thought we wanted the new Episodes.  We were convinced we wanted more Team Fortress.  And we got those things.  But we also got something we didn’t know we needed until we had it: Portal.

It was funny.  It had a catchy song.  But most importantly, in a Box full of first-person shooters, it was a first-person puzzler

Games since Pitfall have adopted getting your avatar from Point A to Point B as the primary player objective.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But how Portal does it is so ingenious it regularly gave me headaches.  Point your gun (yes you have a gun, sort of) at a wall.  Fire your portal.  Point your gun at another wall.  Fire the other color portal.  Go through your portal.  It sounded simple enough, until we saw the trailer.

By giving the player a gun, Portal draws the FPS-connoisseur into his comfort zone.  Soothes him with the promise of auto-turrets and objectives.  But then the lies come.  And your gun doesn’t shoot bullets.  What can you do?  Embrace the puzzle.  Deal with your Companion Cube.  Break up with a computer. 

Portal’s subversive narrative finds its root in its subversive gameplay.  Turrets don’t need to be solved if the player has grenades.  You can’t set up such an amazing final battle without depriving the player of a clichéd FPS arsenal.  This slick, economical design resonates throughout the game; it’s no surprise the team consisted the entire DigiPen student team behind Narbacular Drop.

Ahead of the Class

Speaking of DigiPen, there’s another FP-something stirring in its hallowed halls of digital education: Tag: The Power of Paint.  In the tradition of the Portal team, the folks behind Tag recently won the IGF Student Showcase award, which means we’ll probably see a retail release in the future (though you can get the current version for free on PC).

Like Portal, Tag lacks a gun per se.  Instead, you’re armed with a paint gun, perfect for “tagging” the environment around you.  Intelligently, the environment is strictly grayscale.  This helps to clarify the primary game mechanic: your paint.  Green paint causes you to jump, red to gain speed, and blue to stick to whatever surface it’s covering. 

It can result in some Portal- or Mario Galaxy-level disorientation.  Spray some green on a ledge.  Put a line of red to it to speed up your jump.  Then tag the approaching wall with blue so you don’t fall to your doom.  Sound complicated?  Good.  You’ve no enemies but the terrain and your own ineptitude.  I can get behind that.

Honorable Mention

There are two other games that I know significantly less about, but they felt so pertinent I couldn’t ignore them.  For a blend of melee combat and light shooting, give Zeno Clash a try.  Phill Cameron over at The Reticule wrote:

“[T]he combat in Zeno Clash works. Often, it does more than merely work, and you’ll end up feeling like the star of a martial arts B-movie as you make quick work of a group of four or five other combatants.”

For something even kookier, take a look at The Unfinished Swan.  Not much is known about the game yet, other than what folks have gleaned from the tech demo (below).

You interact with a semi-featureless environment by shooting balls of paint in hopes of revealing your path onward.  It’s eerie.  Kind of beautiful.  And immensely promising. 

First Priority

If these games have anything in common other than their camera angle and the occasional presence of a gun, it’s that they each possess a distinct environment.  You cannot play Portal in the world of Mirror’s Edge.  There’s no parkour in the endless white confines of The Unfinished Swan.  And there’s simply no one to punch Zeno Clash-style on the obstacle-laden rooftops of Tag

If your game revolves around shooting, that’s what we’ll notice, level design be damned.  With a few tweaks, I’m sure you can slap a Killzone skin on a CoD map and few people will really notice.  The environments play second fiddle to graphical fidelity and arsenal size. 

Not in these games.

Give me a stripped-down, student-designed obstacle course.  Take away my weapons.  Force me to really interact with my character’s world.  I don’t need to shoot.  I just want to play.