What do FPS games need?

I shot a man in Reno, and New York, and future New York, and Los Angeles, and London, and Paris, and Berlin, and Rapture, and Hell, just to watch him die…

First Person Shooters (or FPS) are probably what Joe Public thinks of when you start talking about videogames. Once it was arcade classics, then platformers, but now FPS games are gamers’ ambassador to the ‘others’. But when was the last time you played a single-player first person shooter that you liked? Thinking back I can name very few, which is surprising for what seems to be such a prolific genre.

This century I’ve enjoyed Halo: Reach, Bioshock, Half life 2, Singularity (if you missed it seriously give it a shot), The Darkness, XIII and Perfect Dark for their single player experiences. That’s seven games in twelve years. Sure there’s been loads of excellent multiplayer shooters ( COD, Battlefield, Tribes, Team Fortress etc) but what’s wrong with the campaigns? What about this genre has gone so wrong as a storytelling device that even the most talented and well-financed developers are unable to produce a compelling single-player experience?

The answer of course is that the developers who have pushed for a compelling singleplayer experience have abandoned the genre in its purest forms. If I add to that list of games I enjoyed titles that include first person elements but break out of the genre, there’s many more classics: Mirror’s Edge, Deus Ex, Stalker, Thief, Fallout, Elder Scrolls games, Portal, Condemned, Borderlands. All of those games would feature in my top twenty, and the majority received accolades and awards from critics and the public. But this begs the question: why are developers still sticking to the FPS fundamentals when they appear to be broken.

Games like Call of Duty and Battlefield have been panned for their weak single-player sections, and many sub-par FPS games are released every year. Alien Vs Predator, Sniper Elite V2, Crysis 2. All of these games suffer from the same flaws; the biggest of which is the sheer repetition. You wander down corridors (real or implied) and gun down waves of enemies. There are tweaks to the mechanics but essentially you click or point at the bad until the bad goes away and then you move on until you finish the game. Due to their repetitive nature the games are usually fairly short, but even after a modest six-hour campaign in Call of Duty you’re weary of the same old killing.

But this doesn’t need to be the way. You could argue that games like Portal are repetitive. Even in Fallout you spend much of your time doing the same tasks over and over, but they tell a story, open up a universe. The story and world-building is what draws you in and keeps you hooked. Call of Duty developers spend millions getting guns that 95% of their audience have never even seen in real life to sound or look realistic, but it’s hard to empathise with a character when all you do is shoot people all day. Name a film that’s won an Oscar where the main character kills as many people as you do in the average FPS. Mass murder simply isn’t a compelling narrative, the spectacle may be fun for a few minutes but it’s impossible to drag that out over hours or days and keep a gamer’s interest.

The most successful (in my mind, not financially) FPS games do so much more than simple killing. Perfect Dark, XIII, and The Darkness all experimented with dramatically new gameplay elements, unique art styles, and surprisingly detailed stories. Reach, Singularity, Half Life 2 and Bioshock all won gamers over with powerful, interesting stories set in convincing worlds. I don’t remember much of the killing in any of those games, but I do remember how each and every one of them ended. Think back now, how did Modern Warfare 3 end? or Battlefield 3?

The way forward for single player FPS games is clear, they shouldn’t exist anymore. Once upon a time, being in the first person was a novelty. Due to memory constraints it also enabled early 3D games to avoid long draw distances or having to load large maps. But in a world of games like Deus Ex simple first person shooters are obsolete. Objectives can be more complex, worlds more compelling, AI more convincing. Can we please leave behind the twenty year old traditions of games like Doom and instead focus on telling a story in the best way possible?

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