Everyone knows that the First Person Shooter genre is big business in gaming. The endless onslaught of Call of Duty and Doom clones which plagued the 1990’s are testament to that. Nestled amongst this well known genre are some earnest attempts by developers to innovate by using the first person perspective to bring new narrative and emotional experiences to players. In this article I’m going to look at the most significant games that have used this viewpoint effectively. Starting with a trip to early computer history.
The 1970’s – Pioneers of First Person Viewpoints.
The earliest examples of gaming in the first perspective go back to the beginnings of computer game history itself. It wasn’t the talented geniuses at ID software who invented the genre. It was two developers in 1974 working on separate titles at the time. Steve Colley created Maze War, a simple black and green puzzle game where players would wander freely in a 3D maze. The aim was to find other players, represented by floating eyeballs and shoot them.
Maze War was developed for the Imlac PDS-1 computers installed at the NASA AMES Research Center. It may seem incredibly simple for today’s standards but everything Colley tried was a first. The in-game mapping system, the avatars and the perspective were all new. However they soon became something very familiar to later game developers.
Jim Bowery, the other pioneer of the genre, created Spasim, a space flight simulator designed for networked PLATO computers. The player was placed in the cockpit of a space shuttle with the environment rendered in 3D wireframe. Like Maze War it’s movements felt clunky, slow and turns were made at 90 degree angles. The hardware that both games were designed for only refreshed the screen once a second, a truly awful framerate. While neither of these games were released commercially, their ideas would live on in a tank simulation which hit the arcades years later – Battlezone.
Into the Arcades in the 1980’s.
As the video game industry began to boom, arcades became the next breeding ground for the First Person Experience. With hardware on the bleeding edge, they were the gamer’s primary destination. The technology used in Spasim was reborn in the ultimate tank simulator – Battlezone from Atari. With its stylish vector graphics, players really felt that they were the tank commander behind the treads of a deadly assault tank. The first person viewpoint was utilised effectively, enabling the player to rotate their field of vision and move in any direction. The landscape was featureless, but populated with geometric solids and enemy foes. Its simple goal of surviving and racking up a high score by shooting as many enemies as you can is still popular in the form of wave shooters.
The Home Computer Invasion.
Besides Battlezone, the majority of other 1980’s first person experiences weren’t that impressive. The home computer market was far from overtaking the glamour of the arcades. The hardware couldn’t compete with its arcade counterparts and developers were still fumbling around trying to best use this relatively unknown genre. There were a few successes with Taito’s conversions of their smash hit light gun game Operation Wolf but it wasn’t until MIDI Maze was released on the Atari ST in 1987 that playing in the first person viewpoint became exciting again.
As far as gameplay went, Midi Maze didn’t do anything different from it’s predecessors. However its networking capacity was fascinating. Using the MIDI in and out ports, which were typically delegated to sound recording and processing, the game could communicate with up to 16 players in the same maze and introduced the now obligatory deathmatch mechanic. It also pioneered the utilisation of player created maps. With just a simple text editor, you could create a fiendish maze to explore with your friends. This game gave developers a glimpse of how vital multiplayer would become in the world of the first person experience.
Is Imitation Flattery? The Rise of the First Person Shooter in the 90’s.
Let’s face it, you’re reading a look at some of the most influence first person titles ever made – you knew this game would feature. It’s the game that launched a thousand ill-conceived clones and it transformed the world as we knew it. ID Software was founded by John Carmack, John Romero, Tom Hall and Adrian Carmack. They had all been employees at Softdisk and it was John Carmack’s technical genius that had enabled the team to push PC hardware like never before. With the likes of Commander Keen, the team were quickly able to create smooth 2D side scrollers in the vein of Super Mario. Once John Carmack figured out the way to render 3D environments fast enough to be immersive, innovation took off.
John Carmack developed the technique of raycasting with a title called Catacomb 3D. This made the computer only draw what the player could see, rather than the whole world around them. This sped up the framerate and began ID Software’s dream of making the ultimate gaming experience. As a company they wanted players to truly feel involved in the environment around them and looked to a game from the past for inspiration. 1992 saw the release of Wolfenstein 3D, a sequel to the adventure game Castle Wolfenstein, a game that the ID Software team had remembered fondly. While the previous title placed players in a 2D elevated view, this new version put them right into the skull of Allied Spy, William ‘B.J’ Blazkowicz. John Romero and Tom Hall pushed the experience until it was fast and visceral, keeping the players on their toes.
The game was incredibly popular and sold 200,000 copies its first year. Publisher Apogee were overjoyed and commissioned sequels. Utilising the dynamic and accessible level editor the fan base released over 800 levels for the game. Then eighteen months later, Doom arrived.
The Game that Defined a Genre.
With the success of Wolfenstein 3D, ID Software wanted to create a bigger, more impressive title. They wanted to fully immerse the player in an experience which they could not pull themselves away from. The inspiration for the title came from one of the many corporate Dungeons & Dragons sessions. John Carmack revelled in the role of the Dungeon Master, carefully crafting stories to challenge his co-workers.
This particular scenario featured a world completely overwhelmed by demons and zombies. This, along with cinematic masterpieces such as the Evil Dead franchise and James Cameron’s action packed Aliens inspired the storyline and atmosphere which came to define this title as a classic. Carmack and the team worked long hours to refine existing 3D technology, eventually managing to map surface textures onto 3D objects.
There were other innovations: being able to have floors at varying altitudes and lighting objects which allowed for dynamic levels of illumination throughout the levels. The unique lighting ability helped craft the mood of each floor, creating new levels of dramatic tension.
Doom blew Wolfenstein completely out of the water. The 3D technology on display was cutting edge. It’s complex level design, clever lighting effects and haunting sound effects created a dark, forbidding game. Sometimes we as gamers concentrate more on the high levels of action in Doom and we miss the fact that as an experience, Doom places you right in the middle of a living, breathing, demon filled ecosystem. One of the most fascinating aspects of the games was that it’s creatures seemed to live in a simulated environment.
They interacted with each other as well as the player. Different groups of enemies fought while they were unaware of the players presence. They growled and attacked each other with vicious ferocity. Hearing these interactions immersed you even further into the experience, producing sincere emotions. Fear, excitement, exhilaration and sheer pleasure were many of the experiences commonly related by fans of this game.
Innovation and Nods to the Past
After the powerful impact of both Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, it wasn’t long before other companies decided to get in on the act. Raven Software’s Heretic modified the Doom engine allowing the player to look up and down as well as adding inventory management. This was one of the most enjoyable ‘Doom Clones’, immersing the player in a fantasy world, wielding swords and casting spells in a series of fairly complex levels. Users could backtrack and access side levels, providing a greater sense of exploration.
Apogee brought innovation in 1994 with Rise of the Triad. Players chose from five different characters with unique attributes. It was also a game which featured incredible level of violence. Enemies exploded into chunks of flesh and torrents of blood would also ensue. More importantly perhaps, this game sought to fully engage players in the environment by providing destructible objects and rudimentary physics.
The Macintosh platform featured two First Person games from legendary software company Bungie. Each of these titles implemented new innovations in technology. Pathways into Darkness, released in 1993, combined Wolfenstein-esque action and some intricate maze running, a fully realised inventory system and a text log of your actions. The company’s next game, Marathon, introduced the ability to wield dual weapons as well as ground breaking voice chat over local networks. This was a massive upgrade for multiplayer games and greatly aided in many a late night gaming session.
The Fear of Shodan.
In 1994, the First Person Experience genre made a massive leap forward with Looking Glass’s System Shock series. This title brought more RPG elements into the genre and unlike many of its predecessors, it was greatly concerned with narrative. Players were trapped on a derelict space station with a powerful, charismatic and malevolent artificial intelligence attempting to hamper their progress. It was a genuinely frightening experience. I found myself hunched over my keyboard with involuntary waves of chills caressing my spine as I encountered Shodan.
System Shock spawned an even more memorable sequel. The imaginatively titled System Shock 2 is justifiably known as one of the greatest PC games ever made. Its narrative was even more involving as the player began to piece together the story through audio logs. These gave glimpses of what happened on the doomed vessel the player was trying to save and hinted at the return of Shodan. The eery clips and encountering hideously changed humans truly immersed players in a frightening environment, reminding me of the excellent horror movie Event Horizon. With this title it was clear that the first person perspective could be utilised for more than just blasting enemies. It could be fundamental in crafting a unique and personal sense of narrative.
The Power of Polygons.
The Doom engine had one primary limitation – it used sprites for character and object art. 3D techniques were advancing and ID Software was again the developer to lead the way in innovation with Quake, the first truly 3D First Person Shooter. This, surprisingly began life as a Virtua Fighter inspired arcade game but eventually morphed into the genre the company was extremely comfortable with. A pure shooter based in a dark gothic world with an atmospheric soundtrack by Trent Reznor. The fully 3D environments gave players unprecedented movement options and allowed for elaborate architecture.
Epic responded to Quake with Unreal, powered by a new game engine that allowed for some features that were incredible for the time. Unreal brought beautifully, fully realised locations with stunning environmental effects. Unreal also provided a powerful editor which put real-time geometry placement and a comprehensive scripting engine in the hands of inventive modders. Over the next few years, the Unreal engine became the standard for many gaming titles far beyond the shooter genre.
Arguably, it was the First Person Shooter genre that brought competitive multiplayer to the gaming masses. From the beginning, the ability to shoot your friends in the face was a core feature of any respectable FPS. The consistently improving national Internet infrastructure made finding people to play with incredibly easy in the late 1990’s, especially if you were fortunate enough to go to a college with a superfast T1 line. Epic’s Unreal Tournament was one of the first purely multi-player focused FPS titles. The campaign mode was used to train players against bots, but the real game consisted of high-octane battles fought across LAN and online in fantastically designed arenas. The game was massively successful and encouraged other game studios to follow suit with similar ideas.
ID Software’s take on this theme was Quake III: Arena, released later in 1999 – the same year as Unreal Tournament. Removing tight corridors for open spaces specifically designed for multiplayer. It was a beautifully tuned game with mechanics specifically designed for skilful moves such as the ‘Rocket Jump’ and an emphasis on fast movement. One of its greatest charms was the variety of character models. These somehow felt more than just ‘skins’ and brought a sense of real personality to the game. Something which was slightly lacking with Unreal Tournament’s character design.
Telling a Story
Most First Person experiences were fairly light on narrative, especially those titles which focused on handing you a series of massive guns. Players mostly shot everything that moved and sometimes solved simple puzzles. Characterisation and plot were not huge selling points. The release of Half Life in 1998, forced the gaming industry to rethink that model. Valve’s breakthrough release saw Gordon Freeman working his way through the Black Mesa lab fending off an alien invasion. The story was rich and featured a depth, which, aside from System Shock, was unheard of in the genre. The world was seamless world, featuring no pre-rendered cutscenes, with the story told entirely through the game’s engine.
There were engaging moments with NPCs who at times assisted you as you tried to progress through the lab. Pleasantly spouting dialogue which helped you piece together the story behind the sudden appearance of the alien menace, they fought beside you or helped solve various puzzles.
It wasn’t until Bioshock that another game in the first person genre managed to pull off this form of immersive narrative. This critically acclaimed masterpiece transplanted players into a fascinating, carefully built world where they had to wrestle with moral and ethical quandaries. While blasting foes with various weapons and supernatural abilities of course.
The Rise of the Military Combat Simulator
One of the most popular First Person Experiences today is the fantasy to live out combat experiences in various military time periods and fields. 1998 saw the release of acclaimed author Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. This featured a fictional multi-national anti-terrorist squad in a realistic ‘one shot, one kill’ scenario. At times challenging and frustrating in equal measure, this was possibly the first squad based shooter which reminded players that one bullet can be lethal. As one mistake could cost you the game, it required the player to plan each assault carefully and paved the way for a staggering 10 sequels.
Counter Strike could be seen as the industries way of bringing a balance to the over-the-top gameplay mechanics of other online shooters such as Unreal Tournament. This was originally released in 1999 as a Half Life mod, but quickly evolved into a whole new franchise. The game saw teams taking the role of either terrorists or counter terrorist operatives fighting against each other in objective based missions. One of the most ground breaking elements of this title was the respawning principle. There was none. If you die in the game, you don’t return until the next round. This meant that every action mattered. The game became wildly competitive in tournaments dedicated to it across the globe.
This was a selection of some the important highlights of an ever-growing genre. It’s important to see First Person Experiences as being more than just shooters, but to recognise the potential in this unique view-point to attempt to bring the player directly in contact with the game world. It is my hope that within the realms of the rise of new technologies such as Virtual Reality that this genre fully realises that aim.