Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Knight-Errand of the Modern FPS

Tuesday, June 2, 2009 8
Working on Darkest of Days I was slow to incorporate a common hallmark of modern shooters, the Objective text. An objective is completed, a new directive takes its place. Perhaps it was that my great intelligence is only rivaled by my laziness, or perhaps it was some internal sense of how player agency has been whittled away to near-nothing in our shooters.

How did we get to the point where the shooter experienced was meted out with bullet points on a to-do list, instead of just bullets?

Once I was a space marine, feeling each Giger-esque tech panel for secret stores; now I am a pizza boy with the Doom guy's armored pecs and inexplicably bare sixpack drawn on the front of my t-shirt, taking orders from NPCs.

Take a moment to compare: play Doom's E1M1 to E1M3 again and then any modern shooter of your choice.
Chances are the navigational complexities of the game are equal to or far less sophisticated than Doom, even 10 years or more removed from that seminal work.
So while the operational assumption has rarely changed--get to the exit, kill everything along the way--many elements are far simpler: health, weapon logistics, and direction of travel. Adult supervision.

For this marginal increase of variety and novelty with which the player is presented in the game, we pay the cost having some buzzing kindergarten teacher in the ear and the loss of even illusory volition.

In my experience as a designer in this mode, basically any time you want the player to shift modes, you send him a new objective and/or maybe get an NPC to bug him.
Then the same NPC might end up giving away the solution seconds later to the just introduced problem, because the modern player has been cowed into this passive state and can become enormously frustrated or confused the moment anything like unprompted choice or decision-making appears.
Player choice extinction.

[A small mercy with Darkest of Days is that early on we made the decision to completely forgo the radio earpiece convention. Handy as it is to cue and clue (or goad and cajole) the player, it is a lazy crutch. We may not have escaped the modern "go here, do this" ping pong player, but at least we didn't give the player a sassy or spunky NPC yammering away constantly to point out the obvious.]

Illustration derived from Ian Albert's excellent Doom Map visualizations.

Open up E1M1 again and consider it from modern vantage: first we'd have the obligatory intro cutscene, naturally, and assuming that we'd start the player in the same point, think of the additional time spent where the radio crackles and then your space marine's situation is explicated for a few minutes more.

Then we'd tutorialize the first few enemy encounters. A short, difficult-to-fail "cinematic" style chase sequence might follow. Exploding barrels explained at length to no one in particular. Then, like a newly released ex-con, the player is allowed a probationary period of fun.

The apparent tradeoff is a series of varied gameplay situations that, like carnival games, the player will be allowed to enjoy to distract from an apparently wearisome core gameplay.
Here's a vehicle sequence. Get ready for a quick time event. Surmount this obstacle (but not too creatively). Woah, get ready for a cutscene, because this animation was deemed far too expensive to produce for you to miss.
Protect this NPC with a mission failure condition if he dies, only to watch his death in a cutscene immediately after.

The heart of the problem to me are these two conflicting design impulses: providing a player a specific (often "cinematic") experience, versus cultivating player choice and expression. Obviously no one game is completely one way or another, there is a broad spectrum of possibility and room for all.
I am happy to play "cinematic" styled games, but not to the complete exclusion of games built for the player. All too frequently I seem to be experiencing the outlet of a stymied screenwriter, not a game designer.

Warren Spector, in his Master Class series at the University of Texas, characterized games at their best a co-authored experience between designer and player.
This is what games do, a shared medium where the experience can only come from the two working in concert.

Games need both the designer and the player; much as an author needs a reader's imagination to give his characters life, so too the designer needs a willing subject to make believe, to give the world a spark, for it is for the player the world was constructed. Games are about interactivity, but this core designer-player interplay is often overlooked.

This is not the oft-made call for all games to feature sandbox gameplay, which is not actually the natural endpoint of game design evolution. (Chess is not improved by being played on a 128x128 square board.)

Rather, it is a call for designers to stay faithful in their role of collaboration with the player to create an experience. Rigorous, regular playtesting helps keep designers honest, as does asking this simple question: "Is this for me, or for the player?"
Is the game a railroad through a laughable third rate imitation of a film script, or something that not only rewards but necessitates the player's involvement?

Cutscenes are not what's wrong with games, but they are symptomatic of what is. Skillfully employed they can enhance and punctuate the experience; but increasingly the "cinematic" mindset blinds developers to the poverty of the core gameplay.

Not only are we railroaded through "cinematic" linear experiences, but I feel as though we lose abilities and insights we once had. The ability to make fun for ourselves. Far Cry 2 has met severe criticism for "boring" stretches, when in fact the game is one of the strongest recent invitations for gamers to truly play the game as they want to. Creative expression still has a place in the modern shooter.
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