Minimalist Worldbuilding and the Old School FPS

I am planning on a lengthy double sized two-for-the-price-of-one book review post in the near future, but that will be awhile off as it requires finishing one book and reading another. Not to mention that I tend not to read books on similar topics back to back so there will likely be another read inserted between them to break it up. So, for now and barring an unexpected need to opine on something topical, have a short different entry to serve as a tide-over until that is ready.

Old School first person shooters (often now called Boomer Shooters despite the fact that they are mostly made by and for Gen Xers) are my second favorite type of game. Only turn based 4X strategy beats them. There was a time when they were my favorite (Phun Phact: I was once one of the top ranked Day of Defeat players). Once I went to college I entered a time when I thought I had out-grown the genre, but my continued playing of old games of this ilk meant that I really hadn’t so much as the newer releases weren’t appealing to me. I came to realize shooters themselves had gotten worse but my tastes had not changed. The rise of slow moving, limited weapon carrying, regenerating health and cover based shooters, where you spend all your time squatting and plinking away at distant targets down iron sights, had really fucked with the genre. Boring military-propaganda games and frat bro Haloesque tedium just did not replicate the fast, fun, and dynamic experience of the children of Doom. Until very recently, the Boomer Shooter was a dying genre. Thanks to the rise of small developers though and a retro trend unleashed by the 2016 new Doom, this period is over. But the Aughts and early 2010s were a dark age for the FPS (as well as most other cultural products). There are now many great modern ‘Boomer Shooters’, such as Amid Evil, Ion Fury, Dusk, and more. Games where constant movement with a giant arsenal of unique and powerful weapons is your only ticket to survival against hordes of monstrously designed enemies in bizarre and otherworldly settings.

The late 90s was a particular high point of these types of games. It was a time right after the mastery of the genre had been disseminated to more developers than just Id and 3D Realms, and right before the nightmare of the Tom Clancy’s Call of Medals games came to assimilate the genre as the domain for ‘Deadliest Warrior’ watching neckbeards. Within a less than two year span of time, Quake II, Unreal, and Half Life would all come out. One of the things all of these games had in common was a seamless and uninterrupted level progression-something almost totally new at that time. You moved forward constantly, only breaking immersion in the first person perspective for loading screens. It really made you feel like an explorer. Most importantly, rather than infodump and tell you a story, you played a story where you indirectly learned about the setting through inference. In Quake II you were separated from your squad on a hostile alien homeworld and had to sabotage as much of its industry as possible. In Half Life you were caught up in a failed experiment at a top secret lab and had to escape. And then there was Unreal, which showcased this mode of play better than any game before or since.

Unreal was the first all 3D game I thought looked really great. Unpopular-opinion-having-child-me was impressed by Quake being the first fully 3D shooter of course, and I loved (and still love) that game. But did Quake and its most immediate successors look better than, say, high detail 2.5D sprite games? Not really. Back then I insisted that Build Engine games like Duke 3D and Blood looked better than early fully 3D games. In the time of the fastest pace of innovation of game graphics in all of history (compare games from 1990 to those in 2000, then compare the same level of advance for literally any other decade to see my point) this really wasn’t a trendy take on my part, but it aged very well. These days more people see the artistry in games like Blood (my favorite shooter overall) than many other technically more advanced games of its era. But Unreal changed that.

Unreal knew what it was. Its game box eschewed the normal practices of designed decal and custom box art for just plastering its surface with real game screenshots. It had the best lighting and detail of any non-pre-rendered game up to that point. It was the first FPS I ever played with impressive outdoor environments. But, more importantly for the sake of this post, it did indirect storytelling the best. You get no briefing or introductory cinematic. You simply wake up in a crashed prison spaceship and have to make your way out into the alien planet. From there, the unique graphics and soundtrack do everything for you with no briefings or dialogue required. Despite this (and more effectively because of it) you soon learn that the planet’s native population has been conquered and enslaved by a star-faring alien race known as the Skaarj who force them to work in mines and treat them brutally. You learn that the natives are a medieval-tech people with a messianic religion that claims that a stranger from the stars with deliver them from bondage, though certain hints imply their present pacifistic cultural stance was not always the case. In what then becomes almost an unintentional commentary on third world exploitation, you eventually stumble upon yet another alien race which is hostile to the Skaarj but who also lands ships on the planet to exploit the natives. These guys, The Mercenaries, are my personal favorite as their use of many of the player’s weapons and equipment options play like actual multiplayer deathmatch but without the need to be yelled at by real life racist 12 year olds. This is punctuated by discoveries of other crashed human ships, implying this planet is a Bermuda Triangle of sorts for human vessels at least.

The game effectively engages in multi-leveled and detailed world building without spoken words. Something that continues as you seamlessly make your way uninterrupted through the planet.

Needless to say, while I enjoyed all three of the 97-98 era big FPS releases, this is my favorite of them. Its engine and soundtrack composer would go on to make my favorite immersive sim of all time, Deus Ex, in 2000. And while the Unreal engine would leave an enormous legacy in graphics (through its descendants to this day), I feel like it never gets the credit it deserves for being what shooters *should* have been when it came to world building and storytelling. As much as I like Half Life, the fact that the genre took its future cues from that game more than Unreal in terms of things like level design, tone, and whatnot was not good for the genre. Immersion became too tied in with scripting, and not enough with non-linear set-pieces that spoke for themselves. In this way Half Life is kind of the Nirvana (the band) of games. A great band on its own, but its overall influence on music was almost entirely in derivative clones that ruined the entire genre. Unreal was like Vast, made a splash once but got overlooked despite being a superior model to learn from in the future. In the constant infodumping and breaking up the flow of modern games, I think we can safely say Unreal was the better path offered. Sadly, it was the one that was more likely to be ignored.

I had it in my mind for about a month to write something like this. But I was forced into it today because earlier this week I started another re-play of Unreal. Then, just days ago, one of the rare gaming channels I follow released an updated review for the game too. The stars aligned a bit too much to put this off any longer so here we are. If you want a proper take on the game and how good it is, I recommend watching the review.

It is also not entirely random that this post came out not too long after a previous one mentioning Master of Orion. Its my hope in the not too distant future to do a full review of my favorite game of all time and how it relates to the regular themes of this blog. And no, I won’t tell you what game it is until the review is up.

2 thoughts on “Minimalist Worldbuilding and the Old School FPS

  1. Damn your writing so good you could just become a gamer reviewer ya know XD

    4X games are good if you have the patience.

    “I came to realize shooters themselves had gotten worse but my tastes had not changed. The rise of slow moving, limited weapon carrying, regenerating health and cover based shooters, where you spend all your time squatting and plinking away at distant targets down iron sights, had really fucked with the genre. Boring military-propaganda games and frat bro Haloesque tedium just did not replicate the fast, fun, and dynamic experience of the children of Doom.”
    Mood. Although some of those games maintain their appeal. I’d love if Battlefield made a comeback I miss destructable cover and huge ass warzone arenas.

    Like

    • Battlefield was the only series of those types of things that ever almost kind of worked for me. Almost. Really, I only consider No One Lives Forever 1 and 2 and Prey (2006 one not the new one) as the only salvageable aughts shooters to me anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

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