Monday, 1 October 2012

Mechanics and Narrative: FPS

Last time we looked at how narrative and mechanics are intertwined (or not) in horror games, and today we'll take a look at first-person shooters.

At first glance the mechanics of FPS games don't seem to be terribly linked to the narrative except for the fact that you shoot things, which means that the story tends to be about shooting things. That's pretty much a given - they are called first-person shooters, after all. It's kind of like saying that horror games are about scary things.

The interesting thing about FPS games is the camera angle. 

The FPS camera simulates your character's eyes. You see what the character sees, from their perspective, and control where they look. The strength of this camera angle is the sense of immersion it can provide - you're not following some guy around, you are that guy. So, generally speaking, the FPS mechanics that have the greatest impact on the narrative are the ones that affect your sense of immersion.

You'll notice that this is kind of conceptual and abstract. That's because the real defining trait of an FPS game is the camera angle, rather than any specific set of rules or systems. 

There are a couple of different approaches to increasing the player's immersion in an FPS game. Half-Life displays two classic examples. The first is the silent protagonist. Half-Life's Gordon Freeman doesn't speak throughout the entire game. Other characters do, but not your playable character. Silent protagonists show up across many genres, but Half-Life is almost certainly the iconic example. Additionally, Half-Life features zero cutscenes - you remain in control of Freeman at all times, and the only pauses or unplayable segments are when the game loads new levels.

The combined effect is to make you feel as though you are Gordon Freeman, living through a day at the Black Mesa Facility. In real life you never cut away and see yourself from behind, and so Half-Life forms a single, continuous experience from a constant perspective. And Gordon never talks because if he did, he would speak with a voice and words which are not your own. Half-Life wants to make you feel that you are Gordon Freeman, not a player controlling a puppet.

One thing Half-Life was missing was the ability to look down and see Gordon's legs. For many players, the first FPS that allowed them to see more of their character's body was Halo, and it was mind-blowing (there might've been an earlier one but I don't know or remember - regardless, Halo was big). It was a big deal. Until then, many players never realized how weird it actually is to look down and not see your body, simply because it was accepted as normal.

Another great way to make the player feel immersed is to build a game world that feels real and natural. This may seem obvious, but it's something that can easily be overlooked. A game can still be a blast to play if it doesn't seem alive, but it's definitely a huge benefit. Metro 2033 is one of the best games I've seen, FPS or otherwise, at making you feel like you're in a real place where real people live and real things happen. The populated areas are extremely dense, with tons of people packed in close together. You can hear a half-dozen conversations going on all at the same time. Kids are playing, off-duty soldiers play the guitar and sing together, people haggle in the marketplace and drink at the bar and beg for money. And even when you're alone in a desolate area, there's still a sense of the weight of history around you, especially in the haunted zones.

Of course, there are also ways to break a player's immersion. One aspect of an FPS game that can be difficult to handle is the pacing. In many FPS games the intention is to sweep the player up in events and keep up a relentless action-packed flow where one thing constantly leads into the next. The easiest way to do this is to make the game linear, so that there's only one way for the player to go at any given time, and they're constantly being pushed along to the next setpiece. But players don't want the game to feel linear - they don't want to realize that there's only one path - because that breaks the feeling of being a character and reminds you that you're playing a video game.

Games like Metro 2033 and Left 4 Dead are quite good at hiding their linearity by providing large areas with many nooks and crannies. Even when there's only one way to move on to the next area, there's room to poke around for hidden ammo and items. Both games are also good at giving you areas that look open - while there's a very specific and narrow path to follow, it feels like you're blazing a trail as you loop around the room, climbing over obstacles and shimmying across boards.

Often complaints of linearity are triggered by conspicuous obstacles that are just a little bit too high for you to jump over. It looks like you're in a big open area, but there's a rubble-lined path where the debris is unclimbable and too high to jump. This is something I noticed a bit in games like Legendary, The Conduit, and Duke Nukem Forever, though I'm not actually bothered by linearity as long as the pacing is still solid.

It's interesting to note, though, that critics will complain that Duke Nukem feels too linear, but still give solid scores to a rail shooter like Dead Space: Extraction. It's impossible to get any more linear than a rail shooter, since your path and speed are predetermined. It seems like the answer is that when the linearity is made obvious from the start, it's OK. But then you think that it's pretty much an accepted fact that FPS games are linear, and it gets confusing again.

I feel like I've discussed only a couple of things at great length, rather than a wider variety as in the horror article. So I'll open this up: can you think of any narrative/mechanic interaction in FPS games that I might have missed?

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