Genre Analysis #1: First-person shooter

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Introducing this editorial series

The problem that arises when critiquing an entertainment medium is its genre must be taken into consideration, which often is not the case. Do action movies need deep characters? Do horror films need a complex plot? Videogames while on a different spectrum of the entertainment medium should be looked at in the same way. Which genres value graphics more than others, and is that a large part of what fills out what we perceive the game to be? What about controls, presentation, sound, and game length?

In a series of articles I aim to identify what characteristics are most valuable to many genres of games, by giving a numerical value from 1-5 to what I believe is relevant when discussing a genre and its respective qualities, consider it a type of review process. But please bare in mind the score is purely subjective and completely my opinion.

My hope is that with this, I can expand on the common perceptions of genre norms and constraints, and hopefully give a more in-depth understanding to the review process of games.

Let’s start by looking at the First Person genre aka FPS. Ever since Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, first-person shooters have been heavyweights of the industry. They often resemble big-budget summer blockbuster movies considering they have a lot of style, fun and explosions, but not too much substance, story and developed characters.

A lot of the success for the FPS can be attributed to a staple in the genre’s feature, which is brandishing a fire arm and pulling the trigger. Shooting is one the earliest and most visceral gaming devices. When one looks at old-school titles like Space Invaders, Defender, and Asteroid, the primary mechanic was shooting stuff. We as humans enjoy shooting things, I think, mostly because we rarely get a chance to do so in real life.

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Graphics – 5 out of 5

Just like the summer blockbuster, looks mean a lot to the FPS. With a number of exotic locales, copious amounts of explosions and scores of ugly baddies, graphics tend to mean a lot to the genre. Look at a game like Gears of War (despite being a third-person shooter, the principles remain). Head shots feature bloody alien gib, character models have an exaggerated realism to them, and this is all against the backdrop of gritty broken-down buildings. The graphics made this game the awesome experience it was. That and the chainsaws.

The reason graphics are important in the FPS is because the developers must make up for other deficiencies – namely story and character development (which we’ll get to soon). Also, target audience must be taken in account. The stereotypical FPS player has the mind of a frat boy and wants their games to look bad-ass, actually the term graphic whore would be extremely relevant here. They aren’t marketed towards housewives or fringe gamers, these are for the “hardcore” crowd who wants to see their machine pushed to its graphical limits.

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Story – 2 out of 5

Story matters little to the FPS, in fact I’d argue many would still be successful if they eschewed including stories altogether. The story in the FPS is a means to move the character from battle to battle, not make any sweeping statements or observations on the human experience.

But as with anything that is somewhat superfluous, when it is there, it can take something from very good to great. Half Life is an example, as is Bioshock. Games like Gears of War and the Halo series are great, despite their narratives, in contrast Bioshock and Half Life are praised as all-time greats because of them.

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Sound/Music – 3 out of 5

One of the constants with shooters is that they involve guns. And guns make noise, loud noise. Having somewhat realistic sounds in an FPS only adds to the immersion and experience. While not having accurate sound effects won’t hurt a solid FPS, the good ones are memorable.

Music is similar. A dramatic score can heighten the already adrenaline-pumping experience to new levels. Take for example the orchestral Halo theme. When that kicked in during epic battles, it was impossible not to get a bit more amped up to get through the hordes of enemies on the attack.

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Length – 2 out of 5

The argument that games are too long/short will rage on for a long time. First-person shooters seem to have this area nailed down pretty well. They aren’t long, usually ranging from 8-15 hours, running just long enough to keep the game from getting stale. Think about it, how long can you go on blasting the same enemy types in a different background before getting bored? The genre seems have figured out that the sweet spot is in the 8-15 hours range.

But in most games there needs to be something that can keep you coming back for more. Or until the next version of the game is released. Most games have some form of replay value, and modern day shooters are not an exception. Developers can often get away with more brief campaign modes, knowing full-well that gamers will be happy with multiplayer components. Which brings me to…

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Multiplayer – 4 out of 5

In line with length, multiplayer is a near vital inclusion in this generations FPS. If the genre did not include multiplayer, what’s stopping the player from just renting it and beating it in a weekend? Current games like Halo 3, Team Fortress 2 and Call of Duty 4 have thrived off their superb multiplayer components. Multiplayer is how gamers justify dropping $60 on a ten-hour game.

Still, the FPS can make up for lack of multiplayer by filling in other gaps, such as story. A compelling story needs no multiplayer. Smart developers won’t waste time with an average multiplayer element when they know consumers would just as soon rather play Halo 3 of CoD 4 online anyway. They will instead beef up the story or include unique physics or other gameplay elements to make the title more appealing for purchase.

What does it all mean?

The FPS is here to stay and the sooner we can recognize its strengths and weaknesses, the sooner we can separate the chaff from the classics. In my opinion an FPS should be judged harshly on graphics and multiplayer, because without these it becomes difficult to justify spending the full $60 on a game in this genre. Although I think that some first person shooters at their core should also get some leeway with length, music, and story.

That doesn’t mean story should be discarded. It is perfectly acceptable to say “the story is forgettable, but that doesn’t matter” because, in truth, it really doesn’t. Most of us play a FPS to shoot stuff and be wowed by pretty graphics, not to be engrossed in a deep narrative. But we should scrutinize poor development if they don’t bring anything new or engaging to the table.

So the next time you read a review saying an FPS was “too short” or “the plot sucked,” just be leery, as it may not matter in the least, instead look to the principal areas of the game to determine if it deserves a place in your library, or a weekend warrior run.

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