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The Cultural Myths about First Person Shooters

The teaser trailer of Duke Nukem Forever was released last month, and the anger that makes me rant a bit about First Person Shooters still lasts. I play FPSs on occassion, mostly because it's homework, though I enjoy them most in a LAN party against other people in the same room. But there are a few things about FPSs that really bug me, which have less to do with the genre itself and more with a series of myths revolving around FPSs being the quintessencial videogame genre.

I have to say in advance that I have problems playing first person games in general, which is a great disadvantage when I play really interesting games that happen to use a first-person point of view, such as the Thief series and Portal. I just have a problem with being a point of view and not knowing where my character's feet and hands are, which is a real handicap when you have to jump around on high places. FPSs are even worse, because your hands are usually stuck to a gun, and basically your representation on the screen is as expressive as a smoking weapon whose only meaningful interaction with the world is blowing things to smithereens (or punching, in case it is remotely possible to walk around without a gun). Also, whenever I play an FPS I have the nagging feeling that someone is going to come from the back and shoot me (which is what actually happens 90% of the time). On top of that, it's annoying that, even though the screen is filled with your character's point of view, you cannot actually see that much, because your field of vision is greatly reduced compared to the human field of vision.

I could talk about how the stories of FPSs suck too, and how they are my favourite example of how gameplay is completely divorced from the story of the game, but then there's Bioshock to shut me up.

However, this is not what keeps me off FPSs. (Please take the ensuing overstatements with a pinch of salt.) My issues with the genre start with the brainless kids that only play Halo 3, and think that because they play that single game a lot they are gamers and they know games, and think that Nintendo is "gay". It's a "guy" culture, where manliness is expressed by the size of the gun and the ugliness of the player character (which shouldn't really matter, because you don't get to see the ugly ape while you play anyways). It's the audience that the Duke Nukem teaser is addressing: guys who care about big muscles and only understand potty humour (and are also silly enough to feel hyped by a crappy teaser that does not show gameplay). This is the audience that is usually identified as the stereotypical gamer, not only in popular culture, but also by console makers, who released their next-gen consoles for this kind of audience. Microsoft and Sony got their deservedly slapped by Nintendo, who realized that there are many more people who play games, or want to play other kinds of games.

What angers me the most is that there's a perception in popular culture that FPSs are the quintessential videogame genre, and that changes in this genre affect the whole industry. Tom Carrol gives solid arguments to support that Halo 3 has changed game development by trying to accommodate both casual and hardcore players, by allowing level customization, and by bringing a satisfying closure to a game trilogy. His analysis is illuminating, but his discussion also seems to be based on the fact that FPSs are the be-all and end-all of games, where the changes that the Halo series has undergone are just reflecting pre-existing trends in game development, rather than being their source.

The narrative closure of Halo 3 does not mean that there will not be a fourth installment, because the business of games still considers FPSs the most profitable genre. FPSs are not only considered one of the four "large genres", but also the "most attractive genre" for game publishers. I guess they are thinking of publishers in the US and Europe, because the Japanese market does not care much for FPSs (for various reasos, including pervasive motion sickness or merely because you can't see your character) But FPSs do not constitute a majority genre in sales--Halo 3 may sell a lot, but shooters only amount to a 10,9% of PC games sold, and 10,6% of console games; the most popular genres being strategy in PC and "action" games (which I guess may range from GTA to Rayman) in console.

I'm not censuring a whole genre, I'm just ranting about the status of cultural perception of FPSs, and in the business mindset--if you want to make money, just churn out yet another FPS and forget about innovation of any kind. I'm not objecting the violence, though it's too often rather excessive--blowing up stuff in a fictional world, where no living being gets hurt, has a cathartic quality to it that few other things in life have. The genre has produced really good and interesting games, such as Bioshock and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and thanks to the existence of the Half-Life 2 engine Source, we have the most wonderful and perfect game that is Portal. I just wish there were more games like the three I just listed.

Rant over.

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