A Vague Treatise on FPS Points of Difference

This image of Rapture is not going to be sourced, for the protection of my mental health.

As I wandered the aisles of a game store yesterday, looking as always for rare or obscure games (to be played, of course, only when any relevance they once held has eroded into the mists of time), I was thinking, as you do, about the nature of the FPS and story driven gameplay. A lot of the games nowadays are FPS, and I was thinking that it must be hard to mess one up, at least on a very basic level: while level design, enemy design and AI, weapon balance are, of course, vital, we can accept that FPS are all basically the same – point and shoot games of varying elaborateness.

The thing is that all of those things that I listed above are what separates each FPS from the others: levels, enemies and weapons are all dependent on theme. If you don’t give an eff about the place that you’re running and gunning through, then why are you going to run and gun? Would Portal have become the hit it was, and apparently the only thing in the universe that channers don’t hate (excepting Ron Paul and green Guy Fawkes masks), were it not for GlaDOS? I posit that it would not. It’s a short game, with a story that is told in a relatively subtle way, with its very sterility a key to its seedy underbelly. Portal is not a great example because it has fundamentally different game play, because it’s more of a First Person Puzzler than it is a First Person Shooter.

The point I’m trying to make is that FPS can seem so much alike that you want a point of difference, be it an interesting gameplay mechanic (which, if you get on the wrong side of people, transforms from “innovation” to “gimmick”), or simply an interesting universe and story to back it up. Too often “grittiness” can be translated to mean “poor visibility and a colour pallet of brown and grey (even the blood is browny grey, how gritty is that!)”, but even if it’s wearing the FPS equivalent of a hessian sack it can still do it, not so much with style, but in a way that will make you say “okay, I shall take time out of my busy schedule to play you.” Even if my totally askew moral code says that reason is “you cost $5”, Condemned held my attention to the end, with its roughly interesting story and the constant fear of death that it instilled in me. I had to look up Ethan’s name to write this, true, but I had a vested interest in his investigation; I sat through voices whispering to me “you’re dead”; I very nearly had to stop playing the game late at night with my headphones on because that made it all the more proximate.

Further to that picture of Stone Cold Steve Austin in the previous write-up, I found the following concept art for Condemned.

How much does that look like something that you want to play? Even though the idea of digitally transmitted lab testing still strikes me as stupid, you still want to investigate that stuff. The game is actually pretty short, a fact that is in no way aided by the fact that in the first half everywhere looks the damn same, but when you get out of train stations to visit creepy department stores, creepy libraries, creepy high schools and – oh God – creepy basements, the game really shines. I don’t know how long it took, probably less than ten hours, but it was $5 well spent.

But here’s a legitimate question: are boss battles in FPS ever really worthwhile or credible? Condemned used its boss battle as an excuse to just totally admit that it had a basis in the supernatural (a fact that had been so well hidden in the game it was easy to forget Ethan’s constant hallucinations), and Portal reduced its puzzling to a simple rote exercise in repetition – albeit one that was narratively satisfactory.
The boss battles can bring a story to its head, but at what price? Bioshock‘s final confrontation with Spoilertron 1960 is pretty unsatisfactory both from a narrative and gameplay perspective, like taking a wrench to a snow globe in which all of the secrets of the universe are inscribed on a grain of rice (kind of like Objectivism, then. Hey-oh!) – but then, Bioshock reached its peak about 75% of the way through the game. That’s not to say that the last 25% was no good, and certainly, there’s still value in examining the rest of Rapture.

I really would be interested in finding out what a satisfactory boss experience is, because obviously you need something to cap off your game but if it doesn’t jive with the rest of the experience or will lead to anti-climax, then there’s a sour taste behind. What was the last level of Condemned? Danged if I know. If it seriously works to just have a cut scene between “evil boss” and “super protagonist”, maybe with an escape sequence carefully engineered thereafter, I’d like to know. Despite its total lack of gameplay, Rapture Central Control was a masterstroke in Bioshock, but it might not have worked anywhere else for reasons that would be magically spoilerrific, even though everyone knows the truth of the game by now.

For sure, this may seem like a half arsed feature article now, but I think I’ve raised some interesting points. These are mysteries that I will, possibly, endeavour to solve in the only way I know how: by playing more video games.

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