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5 ways to revitalise the “Shooter”

The evolution of the video game industry has seen the breadth of variety expand greatly within each of its genres. The Roleplaying game, for instance, encapsulates games such as Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed and World of Warcraft and, even though they fall under the same umbrella, they are wholly distinct. The same is true for the puzzle genre. Portal 2 and Ilo Milo seem to be worlds apart (and very much are, Ilo Milo drove me crazy!), but they both take advantage of similar devices (i.e. they are games of puzzle solving). Most genres have this divergent property, where the core ideas remain the same and are intrinsic to the gameplay but the developers have somehow managed to take these simple properties and make a plethora of entirely different games- very fractal-esque! However, one genre that seems to be tending towards convergence is the shooter. By this I mean games in the shooter genre are becoming more and more alike. One example of this is the Call of Duty series and Battlefield. Of course, this is an unfair comparison considering they have similar themes, but lets compare Halo and Gears of War. There are immediate parallels and slightly more subtle parallels. The first thing that comes to mind is the stress on multiplayer. Granted, there are a lot of people, me included, who relish the thought of playing through the intense single player of these two games, and in fact of any game. But unlike Assassin’s Creed, Portal 2 and Red Dead Redemption (to name a few), Shooters are more often than not remembered for their multiplayer. I wouldn’t say that this in itself is the problem, Shooter’s simply lend themselves incredibly well to the multiplayer style, but I feel this is due to the way in which Shooter’s are designed, this isn’t simply the nature of the beast, and I think it is one of the major obstacles. On the contrary, most if not all games take inspiration from those that have come before and they are constantly building on their own ideas. Shooters essentially do the same, but they seem to take ideas that work well and firmly stick to them, which is slowing their overall advancement.

Below I will describe five ways that I feel will breath new life into the Shooter genre.

1. Care about your enemy

No, I’m not taking the “no violence in video games” stance here, I just want you to consider this for a moment. Think of the many times you are heading towards a particular objective. On how many occasions do you think “okay, I need to head down to there, fight my way through that group of enemies, reach that check point and hold back a couple of waves”? “Couple of waves” doesn’t quite take into account the effect you are fighting half an army. Too often we associate kills directly with points or “that’s one less grunt to worry about”. Soon enough, rather than reamining immersed within the story and feeling as though you are part of some epic battle where defeating an enemy is a huge triumph, the experience is reduced to a simple shooting gallery and defeating an enemy feels like little more than an obstacle. I think it is this attitude that forces many towards the multiplayer, where you are not prevailing against computer, but rather an actual person. But the environment still creates this separation between what you are doing within the context of the theme and the emotions forged within the player, a kill is still merely points.

The solution is a careful balancing act. Clearly, the developer doesn’t want to drag the player down in fleshing out every character, but they still need to associate some level of significance to each character. You can easily draw equivalants between opposition in one game to the next, i.e. killing a Grunt in Halo and a wretch in Gears. But this shouldn’t be the case, they are individual enemies with their own motives and roles, but when considering an enemy, we primarily look at their strength and this is how we define them. Really we should be drawn to the role and attitudes of a character before we consider how many bullets it takes to kill them. I feel this can be addressed in the single player by way of having far fewer enemies instead of the standard waves of enemies, so it is easier for a player to attach significance to the enemy. Games need large battle set pieces I understand, but this should be equally balanced with more intimate exploration of the enemies. I’m sure there can be other approaches but they really need to elevate their enemies beyond simple targets.

2. Make being killed matter

“You have been killed!” Every gamer everywhere has seen this message countless times, and it is a real nuisance. Really? Is it merely a nuisance? Your character has just been killed, Isn’t that kind of significant? Somehow, multiplayer modes have managed to make dying into an event that merely means you must wait for a moment before you can just get straight back into it. The same is in a way true for single player, you are overcome by a wave of enemies and succumb to their strength… then respawn and try again. I think if a shooter was to address the player’s death with more importance, the act of losing would have far more resonance with the player than simply being a “nuisance”. One game that has identified this in another genre is Minecraft, believe it or not. Upon meeting your demise against a creeper, the game not only sends you back to the world’s spawn point (which can be overwritten by sleeping in a bed, but even then, the place where you have been killed is usually nowhere near where you have set up your home) but it also takes away all of the items in your inventory. This adds another layer of tension to the game. You could run into a cave, with wooden swords blazing, but when you are down to your final heart of health, you are suddenly reminded of the diamonds you have spent so long trying to collect and it becomes a whole different ball game. Rather than “explore at all costs” you must now “survive at all costs”. Notch extended this idea by adding a hardcore mode. With this setting on, if you were to fall victim of a slightly higher jump than you were expecting, the game deletes your world. That’s everything! All those resources you had gathered, all those architectural masterpieces you had built, they are instantly deleted. This is quite a lot more dramatic than I’m suggesting, and in fact Notch joked about going further and removing your Minecraft account if you were to be killed, but it is work in the right directrtion.

Many multipler games have tried to remedy the issue of being killed feeling trivial by using game modes in which being killed prevents you from playing any further in that particular round. Perhaps they could make dying a lot less frequent, and when somebody is down, the objective switches to getting that particular player to safety, or maybe give one player in a team the role of choosing whether they should continue to their objective or concentrate on getting everyone out alive. This way, someone being killed is a more significant event and every player on that team is aware of it. Maybe in single player, they could somehow link occasions on which you die into the storyline itself. One solution is a branched storyline, but the iterations would be enormous. Or maybe each battle could have alternative outcomes, i.e. if you don’t succeed, you end up becoming trapped somewhere and you must escape, then continue the story as normal. Or alternatively, they could take Notch’s approach and have it so that your gamertag is deleted…

3. “Again but with more emotion…”

Too often in gameplay, the character you’re playing as is no more than something to hold the gun. We rarely intimately get to know this key character. In Gears of War, until the third game at least, Epic held Marcus Fenix’ (the series’ main protagonist) emotions at arm’s length. In Halo, you play as a voiceless and faceless Master Chief which does nothing to develop an empathy with him. Silence can say a lot about a character, and I’m not saying that characters have to speak, but if they are silent, the story should portray their values and personality some other way. In most cases, you are a soldier fighting an almighty war. Your actions will define the future of your race. You are your planets only hope, everything rests on your shoulders. With so much relying on you, with everything you’ve been through, surely you have some deep personality and inner conflict worth exploring? Unfortunately, this is usually ignored. I have to say, there are games that really do concentrate on their characters personalities. But in the heat of battle, your character becomes simply a vehicle. Which I guess is fine, you are playing a game after all, but a storyline that is intrinsically rooted in the gameplay and offers close inspection of the main characters is the mark of a great game. Games do well to develop other characters in the story, but they shouldn’t neglect the character you are playing.

4. Problem solving

By this I don’t mean attaching some portal mod to your gun and recovering companion cubes. A lot more games should put players in the situation where they really need to think, as a kind of reprieve from the usual style of gameplay. Maybe there should be occasions where you abandon your gun and take to working your way through a series of challenges. Although dropping your gun in a shooter is akin to picking up a gun in sonic, it doesn’t harm a game to explore different styles. Alternatively, a shooter could introduce more consequential gameplay. You are in a situation where you are at some kind of impasse, and rather than the game explicitly directing you to your next move, it is up to the player to figure out what to do next and how to get out of the situation. Such a mechanic can easily be dropped into the current formula and will interrupt the player’s autopilot, which is a state that can too easily be fallen into. A branching storyline may work well here, where you are given a choice and one way will get you to your objective successfully while the other causes you to end in failure, such choices in shooters are widely absent.

5. A memorable storyline

As someone who focuses heavily on a game’s single player, I really appreciate a good storyline, as I’m sure do most people. Halo has a great storyline, as does Gears and many other shooters. The problem is, they are rife with very forgettable moments. Every shooter has levels where they want you to go on some trivial mission where you must retrieve something or activate a beacon of some form. Clearly, not everything you do is going to have a decisive impact in your struggle for victory, but how often do you say “my favourite part was where you had to go to each of the outposts and download some information”? Although I don’t think this the main problem. The story can be much too predictable. Your objective is to detonate the light-mass bomb, so you work your way through the game and finally detonate the light-mass bomb. Shooters regularly become complacent on a certain style of storytelling. What blew you away in one game, will have little impact if repeated in the sequel. The story tellers need to constantly push the boundaries and do things that the player would never have expected, or else risk the story falling flat. Afterall, that is one of the reasons why we play new games, for a new experience. Sure, gamers regularly buy new games so they can get even more of the same, but this will only get a game so far.

As much as I have criticised the Shooter genre above, I very much enjoy playing its games. This isn’t exhaustive and they are merely areas to consider rather than demands of change and in many instances, thhe genre has the formula spot on. Those aforementioned such as Halo, Gears of War and Call of Duty have defined a generation of gaming and are each magnificent in their own right. But they need to make sure they constantly distinguish themselves from other games in the genre, and each of the previous games in the same franchise as gaming relentlessly progresses.

Anyway, if you have any comments please leave them in the comment section below.

Thanks for reading 🙂

DM

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One thought on “5 ways to revitalise the “Shooter”

  1. Very interesting and defiantly agree!

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