Despite my aversion to shooters—god, there's too many of them—Overstrike, with its playful, comical tone and its cartoon aesthetic caught my eye. The approach felt like something fresh. But we don't have Overstrike anymore, no, instead we have Fuse. Compare the two trailers for the games and you see see a world of a difference in approach. Where did all the color go? The humor? Why so ‘realistic'? It's almost like the skeptical authority figure in the first trailer got his way and replaced the team of scoundrels because they weren't right for the job. Now Fuse looks like Another Shooter. Hooray?
If you ask me, the problem for Insomniac might have been that Overstrike wasn't serious enough. Someone decided that something stylized and satirical might not perform as well as the Serious Shooter. Have you noticed just how damned serious so many shooting games are nowadays? There's a huge audience that craves games like that. The tone is thick and somber in most popular triple-A shooters, often visualized by the drab greys and browns. Terrorists, invaders, aliens and villains are to be taken seriously. Just like they are in real life.
Consider, for comparison's sake, recent tiles that didn't take themselves seriously at all—namely the Rise of the Triad reboot and Bulletstorm. There are no pretenses about what you're doing in either game. The first time I watched the new Rise of the Triad trailer and I heard the metal music, the coin collecting, and the absurdity of how bodyparts just flew, I was struck by how cavalier it all seemed, how confident the game felt in what it was.
Nothing more than just shooting some dudes, it didn't need to justify itself in what it has you do. Bulletstorm is much in the same vein. Actually, Bulletstorm asks you to revel in the ludicrous when it asks you to kill creatively with its skillshots and when it throws phrases like "sushi dick" and laser T-Rexes at you.
Both are also throwbacks to the classic FPS. I want you to take a look at this screenshot so you can see what I'm talking about.
So that's Hitler in a mecha suit right there, in what can be considered the roots of the FPS genre. Realism is nowhere to be found. What happened? As game academic Dylan Holmes notes, the Wolfenstein 3D era was characterized by its lack of seriousness. These games embraced "the gratuitous violence and endemic sociopathy that has always characterized the genre." Somewhere in the mid nineties, with the advent of the tactical, "realistic" shooter, this changed. Shooters became serious. We can thank Tom Clancy for that.
This isn't about a genre ‘losing its roots,' and a plea to change the current landscape of the genre. Both types of shooters have their place. Rather, I am concerned because the need to have serious shooters is so pervasive that perfectly good titles get "improved" by getting stripped of what makes them unique. You can have your Call of Duties, hey, I play those too. But why do other franchises need to suffer the same fate, why the strong push for homogeneity?
I'm also genuinely curious as to why we crave SERIOUS REALISTIC SHOOTER as much as we do. Ultimately, that's why game development companies are making games like these. We're buying them, and we're buying them in droves. Changing Overstrike to become more serious was a move done to secure more sales, in the same way a movie might alter itself before release based on public feedback on private screenings.
So I started asking some people in the industry if they thought modern shooters took themselves too seriously. The first person was Dave Oshry, who works in the marketing team for Rise of the Triad. He told me in an interview, "Absolutely. There's nothing wrong with that, but every now and again we need to be slapped upside the head with an Excalibat and have some mindless fun."
Another reason why shooters take themselves so seriously revolves around the idea that we have become a culture that glorifies authenticity and realism all around. This is why reality TV has also become popular, why we we're delighted when we hear "based on a true story" and why we're enraged when people who are catapulted into fame turn out to be lying about what they've gone through. We want our shooting to be vaguely contextualized in the "real," just like everything else.
The problem is that for all the attention to detail put into the guns, the locations, even the conflicts (in military shooters at least), what we play through is a far cry from what war actually is. As Robert Yang, game developer and academic, put it to me via email after I asked him if he thought that shooters took themselves too seriously,
"If you're actually serious about war, then military shooters get 99% of it wrong. The US fights wars with unmanned drones, viruses, trade embargoes, and giant bases they airlift to the middle of Afghanistan. More significantly, they argue war is something inherently winnable, to some degree, through personal agency. The video game depiction of war is so misleading that we have to consume it as fantasy."
[Update: Robert sent me a long, but on-point answer to my question, which couldn't be used in its entirety for the purposes of this article. He feels that I misrepresented him by omission, so he posted his full answer online - you can read that here.]
Here we come to another concern when it comes to serious shooters: embracing them makes it easier to straddle an ethical gray area when it comes to what is depicted on-screen and its connection to real life. Obviously games owe their existence to the military and its funding, and we could argue that the onslaught of media glorifying war works as propaganda that sells us the routinization and sterilization of war.
Maybe you were disgusted with the way EA partnered itself with weapons manufacturers to sell real-life weapons. But let's not act as if it was a blatantly blind move that came from nowhere. Frankly, when Medal of Honor allows you to roam in a purported hideout of Bin Laden, what EA tried isn't nonsensical. The partnership makes complete sense, however uncomfortable it might make us.
This was the industry we created, and game developers and publishers are responding to what we seem to be asking for. You want your serious realism? Have at it.
Of course it turned out that we don't quite want to shoot real guns just because we like to play with virtual ones. But one cant help but wonder what it is that we do want from these ‘serious' shooters, because it's not purely mechanical competence. The "fun" has to be wrapped around a particular aesthetic or tone. Why is that?
The reason I think we prefer ‘serious' shooters is because of how we want the public to perceive the medium. Maturity! Games are serious, okay? Maybe even art. Serious games get taken seriously, right? And we're getting older. The medium is growing, and with it, came the need to show both complexity and maturation. This is where the need for narrative stems from, we want games with nuance and games we can connect to. Earlier games eschewed this aspect, but newer games, regardless of how shoddily implemented, feel that they need to provide you a reason to play.
Games cannot stand on their own as easily anymore, despite being able to do it just fine before. Why can't a shooter just be a honest-to-goodness shooter without pretenses anymore? Why can't I just shoot a bunch of people/creatures in the face for a reason other than "this is fun to play"? Why don't we buy shooters that don't take themselves seriously nearly as much as those that do? It feels like insecurity to me, the endless drive to prove that we've grown up by wearing clothes that are too big for us.
A shooter that balances maturity, nuance and complexity probably won't be found in games like Rise of the Triad. Then again, have we found it in games like Call of Duty, or even the recent Spec Ops: The Line? That's the latest title critics have praised for its writing. Kris Ligman puts it best when she says that if Spec Ops
"Recapitulates the war gaming genre in a more critical light, it does so in the same ways that corporate marketing cynically adopts anti-corporate imagery. And for every The Line, there are a dozen Modern Warfares and Homefronts, all gleefully reproducing the tropes of warmongering military-funded Hollywood blockbusters. It's to these we give our accolades, not whatever is the equivalent of a Hurt Locker or an Apocalypse Now."
Brendon Chung, creator of the critical darling Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving, doesn't think it's a bad thing that shooters take themselves so seriously, he told me via email.
"It's perfectly fine and valid for a game to take itself seriously. I would expect a modern military shooter to take itself very seriously, and something like Chex Quest to take itself less seriously.
I'd love to see more shooters - not all shooters, just some - take a deep dive into seeing just how serious they can get. I'm probably in the minority, but I like it when games take a strong opinion and attempt to say something. If a chunk of the next generation's shooters revolve around hot-button topics, I'd happily support that."
I have no doubt that we can have our serious complex, well-written shooter like Chung wants, but all we have is the tone—not the nuance to vindicate it. What's the use of being so serious if that's the case?