My favorite development in First Person Shooters is the inclusion of story alongside exciting game play. As a child, I would ask my older brother what was going on in Doom. He conceded he didn’t really know, but he knew that it took place on Phobos, a moon of Mars. Beyond that, details were fuzzy: demons from hell broke loose and the player had to stop them– or something. It didn’t make the game play any less fun, but I’m not sure I would get the same degree of enjoyment out of the game now as I did then. However, there’s one game I might enjoy more now than when I first played it as a teen: Outlaws (LucasArts, 1997).
There are some games that just click with us in some way. I always found Outlaws to be an early example of what the video game can be: a storytelling medium in which we guide the main character. Outlaws had all of the fun, mayhem, strategy, and twitch play of a FPS, but it had a clear story with meaningful characters. I won’t argue it as the most incredible literary work in western civilization, but it was a tremendous leap forward from the usual lack of story in other games. Some games do better storytelling than others: I think Unreal could have done a much better job of fleshing out the ancient Nali civilization, and most of the current “realistic shooters” feel like a bad remake of the dying James Bond franchise—with Spec Ops: The Line as an exception, as it has the advantage of being based on the classic literary work Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.
I don’t think every good video game needs a story- Pong is forever the quintessential example. Also, good stories apparently don’t rest on tremendous artwork or game play (I have yet to play Thomas Was Alone, but I’ve heard good things). But sometimes good game play and good story telling can come together in one of those synergistic ways that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
My second favorite development in first person shooters is slow-motion, guided sniper bullets, because I hate it when bad guys hide behind things.
Payday: The Heist a first-person shooter that allows a player to conduct a variety of armed robberies, from ripping off drug lords to sneaking around for diamonds. The very first level is a bank robbery. The gameplay is fun and the idea works, but there is one aspect to the game that surprises me: you are penalized for shooting civilians, but encouraged to slaughter a variety of law enforcement officials. This surprises me because the moral distinction seems weak: you already play a bank robber. You are a bad guy. You kill dozens of hard-working police officers, security guards, S.W.A.T. members—all of whom have as much interest in being alive as the little old granny depositing her social security check on the day you burst into the bank and start spraying bullets. I’m not convinced the game is really sending a strong moral message by saying “Kill all the cops you want, but don’t shoot that man in jeans and a t-shirt!”
This raises 2 issues. First: this is an example of how video games have to construct a moral framework in which the player must operate. Many games have started to emphasize “moral choice” systems, but all of those systems have already decided which answer is “right” and which is “wrong.” Moral choice systems in video games face a serious hurdle in the limits of programming languages and AI. More on this in another post.
The second issue is touches on a debate I had while reading Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars for a class in college. Walzer held that there was a justification for soldiers-killing-soldiers that did not justify soldiers-killing-civilians: enemy soldiers have guns and pose a threat, whereas civilians do not (also, soldiers signed up for war and risking their lives, but not civilians). There are a number of criticisms of this argument (which I have dramatically simplified for the sake of brevity), but I seemed alone in my criticism that the reasons that make killing wrong apply whether the slain is a soldier or not. The same argument seems to run in Payday: The Heist. How can the game justify condoning the en masse slaughter of police but wag a finger at each individual civilian death? I continue to hold that the value of human life is not altered by position or uniform, and to commit murder is immoral regardless of the occupation or benign activities of the victim. If we want to include a moral message in a game, it ought to be stronger than “kill cops, not civilians.” Trying to hedge on the morality of murderous mayhem may be more dangerous than outright [imaginary] acceptance of evil; by trying to keep the killing “in bounds,” the developers concede that there is an area in which killing for profit and pleasure can be accepted.