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The Protestant Reformation of the First-Person Shooter

Those shooters you like are coming back in style

Doom wasn’t the first first-person shooter. Depending on who you ask, that was either Maze War or Spasim. In fact, Doom wasn’t even the first FPS developed by id Software. The cutting-edge studio released Wolfenstein 3D one year prior. But it was Doom, of course, that really put the FPS on the map.

The game’s chainsaw-revving action whirred its way into the public consciousness like nothing had before. Doom defined the FPS in the Clinton years (as evidenced by the fact that “Doom clone” was a more popular term for games in the genre than “first-person shooter” until the late ‘90s). These games were defined by fast movement, frantic strafing, a rock-paper-scissors approach to weapon selection and combat arenas that were much more interested in facilitating breathless action than in attempting any semblance of verisimilitude. They weren’t concerned with story because, as Doom co-creator John Carmack famously put it, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” As a result, in Doom and its immediate sequel, Doom II: Hell on Earth, id’s stabs at storytelling was limited to brief text screens in between chapters. Other shooters of the era, like Heretic, Hexen, Duke Nukem 3D and id’s own Quake, similarly treated narrative as an afterthought.

But in 1998, Valve Software provided an alternative approach. Half-Life, the company’s debut sci-fi shooter, placed a heavy emphasis on storytelling and worldbuilding. From its introductory slow-burn tram ride into the Black Mesa Research Facility, it was clear that Valve was as interested in creating a sense of place and telling a story as it was in creating a playgroundf for shooting aliens. While there are few shooters that adopt every aspect of what made Half-Life special, it almost single-handedly deconstructed the “story in a porn movie” school of thought.

This month, shooter fans have received a new Doom and a new Half-Life, with each epitomizing what its respective series has long represented. For Doom Eternal, that means fast-paced, gory action. For Half-Life: Alyx, it means immersive, narrative-driven shooting and puzzle-solving. In anticipation of a potentially watershed month for these two design currents, I spoke to the developers of the shooters that, for the past few years, have been taking the genre back to its id-driven roots. 

Indie throwback shooters have borrowed the blocky aesthetic and frenetic blasting of 90s titles to create a Doom-y subgenre within a Half-Life dominated landscape. How did the folks behind Dusk, Wrath: Aeon of Ruin, Project Warlock, Paradox Vector, and Maximum Action feel about a new entry in the series that seems to have directly inspired their games? What about a new entry in the series their work seems to be a reaction against? And, how much did post-Half-Life shooters actually follow in Half-Life’s footsteps anyway?

Project Warlock
Project Warlock

What Doom Means

In spirit, the throwback shooter has a lot in common with — stay with me here — the Protestant Reformation. The AAA shooter has become absurdly decadent, expensive and narrow, these devs seem to say. Why not dump narrow corridors for open arenas? Ditch setpieces for combat chess? Wouldn’t it be better to go back to the basics? Besides, can you really ignore Doom anyway?

Doom is such a foundational game that I don’t think you could make a first-person shooter without being influenced by it,” says Michael Schmidt, the developer of Paradox Vector, a shooter with Doom-style shooting and an aesthetic influenced by titles like the Star Wars arcade game, Battlezone and Tailgunner.

“I think games like Doom do player freedom the best,” echoes George Mandell, developer of the Max Payne and John Woo-inspired, Maximum Action. “You feel like a badass because the game gives you a set of tools and lets you figure out how to combine them in the most powerful way. You discover the badass moments on your own without the game hand-holding you through them. Each new enemy forces you to find new ways to combine your tools.”

For David Szymanski, developer of Dusk (pictured in header image), Doom — despite its non-representational level design — offers a sense of presence that later shooters lost.

“One of the main things shooters lost by going more linear was a sense of spatial awareness and immersion. Like, Doom is not what you’d call a realistic game when it comes to its architecture. You can’t really imagine anyone actually living day to day life in any of those levels,” Szymanski notes. “But because you’re backtracking and looping and passing through areas from a variety of angles and stuff, you get a very good spatial understanding of them.”

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Maximum Action
Maximum Action

Half-Life’s Neglected Legacy

While developers like Mandell acknowledge the massive innovation that Half-Life brought to the FPS, they believe the game has led to a new kind of stultification in the genre.

“I think AAA shooters lose the sense of freedom by embracing the Half-Life model,” Mandell tells me. “While a well written story can be very immersive, an average story with restricting and linear gameplay creates a very dull experience. If more AAA shooters embraced the Doom model and focused on gameplay and player freedom first and story second, I think we would see a lot more unique games with high levels of replay ability. In my opinion, AAA shooters tend to feel like interactive movies rather than video games.”

The takeaway from Half-Life for many was that shooters needed to tell a story. But other crucial strands of Half-Life’s DNA — the physics, the sense of a physical, interactive world, the puzzles, the refusal to remove control from the player during story beats — are rarely borrowed by the current crop of AAA shooters.

“What I really loved about Half-Life was the physics-based environment interaction. I think that it is the most outstanding feature of the series,” said Jakub Cislo, developer on Project Warlock. “It was always fresh and interesting in every way.”

“I’m not sure it’s fair to say AAA ever embraced the Half-Life model,” Szymanski adds. “Because that implies that AAA took similar care into designing their worlds, their AI, their systems, their storytelling, etc. Half-Life is a lot more than just the introduction of lots of scripted events and relative linearity.  It also released in 1998, and… the move toward cinematic linearity was a fast, violent one that happened almost the instant that Call of Duty 4 released, and grabbed the industry by the neck for years to come. I’m not sure a game that was almost a decade old at that point can really be blamed for that.” 

Wrath: Aeon of Ruin
Wrath: Aeon of Ruin

Back to Basics

In 2017, game developer, critic, academic and contributing writer at The Atlantic, Ian Bogost, grabbed the attention of games critics for a few days with a piece titled, “Video Games Are Better Without Stories.” In it, he argued that games will never tell stories as good as the ones found in movies, TV shows and books, so why should they bother? It’s easy to want to reject the argument out of hand, but in the case of the FPS, it’s worth asking: is a narrative always important or often simply set dressing?

“The further the shooter campaign evolved into something much more linear and story-driven, the bigger the hunger became for something more simple and skill-driven,” Frederik Schreiber, producer of Wrath: Aeon of Ruin, notes. “I think this is the main reason why we’re seeing games like DOOM (2016) become successful. The story takes a backseat, and the pure fun and adrenaline-driven, skill-focused gameplay takes the stage. This is something old-school shooter fans were used to back in the early to mid-nineties, but also something which unfortunately became less and less popular in the late ‘00s, where cinematic, immersive and story-driven shooters took the front seat.”

The success of retro, Doom-inspired games — not to mention the release of Doom Eternal itself — seem to bear this out. Simultaneously, Half-Life: Alyx demonstrates there is still a strong appetite for immersive, story-driven first-person titles. As the AAA market becomes more and more precarious, perhaps we’ll see a bifurcation of the FPS as the linear, cinematic franchises fall apart — leaving in their wake the true descendants of DOOM on the one hand and Half-Life on the other.

About the Author

Andrew King

Andrew King is a writer and museum caretaker living in Illinois. His work has also been featured at GameSpot, IGN and Polygon.