Shooters, despite some evidence to the contrary, are actually rare.
Sure, a few titles dominate our collective mindshare, giving the impression of popularity. But shooter enthusiasts will tell you that the selection is desperately small, not because they're uncommon, but because what's out there is remarkably similar to one another.
If you've played a shooter in the past five years, you've doubtless dealt with something more akin to a shooting gallery. You run to cover, hide behind it until your health has regenerated, then pop out to shoot the guys that have emerged from behind their cover. Sometimes, you'll stand next to a door, waiting for someone to finish talking until it opens up and you move to the next arena.
A common complaint about shooters is that the genre is inherently repetitive, but that's not true. While many games share similarities, the genre itself has some awesome, barely-tapped potential. In fact, I think if we started looking to other sources, we might find a way to make better shooters.
And what better franchise to learn from than Alien?
Some of you may protest. "But Alien games are historically terrible! What makes you think the Alien series is a great source for games?"
(Aliens vs Predator 2 is the exception to the rule—a tremendous game from the developers of No One Lives Forever and FEAR.)
Okay, first, let's be clear: we're talking about the movies, not the games. Second, it's important to acknowledge that a great deal of sci-fi shooters have borrowed liberally from Aliens, but this is largely limited to aesthetics and dialog, not mechanics. Alien, as a film franchise, has some distinct elements that would make a great model for shooters.
The average shooter, even unique ones like Bulletstorm or Rage, says, "Hey, here's a humanoid figure. Click on it until it dies."
We understand our enemies, what they're capable of, and what their limitations are. Most modern shooters feature weapons that are interchangeable because all enemies are more or less the same. Just shoot it until it dies, regardless of what you've got equipped. In modern shooters, when we see a person that isn't talking to us, we can more or less assume that we're supposed to be shooting them. We have, in essence, one mode of behavior: see it, click on it, and delete it.
Consider the Alien, which has a physique similar to the nest it creates. What appears to be a coiling tail may actually simply be a power line. The inky-black carapace of the creature blends well in the dark ceilings and shadows; its ribs, biomechanical parts and, of course, the distinctive head fit in all too well with the environment, especially its nest.
When we see it, we immediately recognize what it is and how it acts. An egg is not a facehugger is not a drone is not a warrior is not a Queen. These enemies, with their distinct behaviors, require different kinds of weaponry. The eggs are best hit with flamethrowers while swarms of warriors don't take kindly to shotguns or pulse rifles.
It's a rare shooter that gets this right; Halo: Combat Evolved is one of those few. We know that the best way to kill an Elite is with a plasma weapon. Pistol headshots can take out a gaggle of grunts. Grenades are best for dealing with Jackals. Hunters have orange weak spots.
But there's more than that. In a traditional shooter, with human enemies, we know that all the enemies are going to stay on the ground. Easy enough. Aliens are different—they can be anywhere. One could be hiding on the opposite side of a ceiling support. Another could be in the grates under the floor. The Alien games that have been released all have their fair share of problems, but encouraging players to constantly scan the room, actively searching for enemies that can scuttle through vents and leap across walls and ceilings, is an area where they excel.
Aliens are smart, too. Instead of simply standing in the player's way, waiting to get shot, they dodge fire by leaping to walls, hiding in the shadows, and flanking—think about that initial reveal in Aliens, when the monsters uncoil from the wall and immediately dispatch half of the marines. Alien's drone hunted. Aliens' warriors cut the power and climbed through the walls, while the Queen hid in the wheel well of the shuttle. A few shooters, especially FEAR, do this well, through intelligent implementation of AI and level design, but the Alien makes full use of the geometry and lighting of a level in a way shooters mostly haven't matched yet. Most enemies are bipedal humanoids.
What can developers learn from the Alien? It engages players, encouraging them to proactively engage with the game space. Players have to monitor their surroundings, think through it, and pick the right weapon for the job. But that can become predictable. If you wander into each encounter doing the exact same thing, you're going to get bored fast. So how do the Alien films handle this?
Think about watching Alien for the first time. Did you have any idea what was going to happen?
Spoilers for the first two Alien movies follow.
The crew of the Nostromo find a crashed alien vessel. They find a fossilized pilot, which is never explained in the film. Kane ventures into the pod and finds a facehugger, which does the whole face-hugging thing until it falls off and dies. Who could have expected the events that followed? The chestburster, the Alien's rapid growth and kidnapping of the crew, Ash as a robot, the Alien making it on to the shuttle… Aliens went through pretty much the same cycle. We didn't originally know why the aliens were kidnapping people, the existence of the Queen was surprising, and who can forget "How could they cut the power, man? They're animals!"
The chestburster and its life cycle was so well-delivered, it stuck in our cultural consciousness.
If you want to engage people in a shooter, surprise them. When I see a Russian guy touting a machine gun and shouting 'granata,' I know more or less what's about to happen. Same with Arabic militants or South African mercenaries, or whatever other enemy I'm facing. That dramatic, pre-planned explosion? Called it as soon as I realized that sprinting had suddenly been disabled and the game made me lower my gun. The modern shooter rarely surprises, choosing instead to attempt to impress, but audiences have seen it all before. Audiences are more easily impressed by surprise than they are by big explosions and collapsing buildings.
Of course, games can have special moments without resorting to expensive, pre-planned sequences that never change. In her GDC microtalk, developer Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris calls these dynamic events "tiny moments of awe," an apt descriptor for moments so unique to us as players that we often find ourselves sharing them with others.
Consider the STALKER series. One day, as I was playing, radio chatter alerted me to a massive radiation storm—called a 'blowout'—on the way, one that would be fatal if I didn't find cover soon. I was carrying plenty of gear, which meant my stamina was draining faster than normal. Still, I would be able to find shelter—
And then I fell into a hole.
Well, okay, so a hole is shelter. Problem was, the hole was actually part of a cave, and the cave was filled with anomalies. Some were invisible gravitational wells, sort of like miniature black holes, and others were like balls of lightning that would electrocute me. So I navigated, through the darkness, doing my best to avoid anomalies, invisible and visible alike… when I heard a roar. As it turned out, some of the local fauna (read: monsters) had decided to hide from the storm as well. Suffice it to say, what followed was an awful lot of me screaming as I ran to the cave entrance, firing my shotgun into the darkness, bleeding health fast, and barely surviving.
It was, to say the least, a surprising situation. That does something to the experience. When the world's AI does something truly dynamic, something that can be as much of a surprise to the developers as the players, it's straight-up magical. It's something that games like STALKER, Skyrim, Dishonored, Halo, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution all thrive on: stories that emerge from the game's systems.
What are the moments we remember from the Alien movies? Think of Dallas in the air vents, or Ripley and Newt being locked in a room with two facehuggers without a weapon. If the marines simply landed at Hadley's Hope, killed the aliens, and left, facing no resistance, would we have had any fun?
Imagine watching Aliens where Ripley spends the entire movie in a mech suit, punching aliens in the face. Would that be particularly fun? Probably not—the reason we love "Get away from her, you bitch!" isn't because Ripley is in a mech suit, it's because Ripley went from being chased by the Queen to being in a mech suit. The emotional high of the moment only works because, prior to that, Ripley was chased by and barely escaped from the Queen inside an exploding factory. Without vulnerability, there's no reason to feel thrilled and relieved.
The average modern shooter seems like the kind of game designed by a person who doesn't like shooters. They seem to have two basic tenets of design: "shooters are about pointing and clicking at things until they die" and "shooters are power fantasies." The result is a style of game in which players point at an enemy, click on it once or twice, then move on. It's as if someone highlighted their favorite moments in shooters—all of their victories—and said "let's make a game based entirely on this."
The best moments in shooters, I've found, come from vulnerability. I'm talking about the moments when I've got three or four rounds of ammunition left, my gun's jamming between shots, and I honestly don't know if I can subdue the enemy around the corner. In Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, one level gives the players a gun, then says "don't use it, because doing so will probably kill you." Having a weapon becomes a liability rather than a source of empowerment.
It's all about the pacing: if we spend most of our time feeling vulnerable, then the moments that make us feel invulnerable actually matter. We live for those moments—they draw us in.
A Perfect Shooter
Good shooters are massively diverse.
Halo's slow movement speed and distinct weapon sandbox is different from the one-shot, one-kill lethality of Rainbow Six, which is totally different from Bulletstorm, a game that emphasizes amount of kills as a designator of skill instead of the player's rate of survival. A game like FEAR encourages its players to slow down the game-world at the press of a button, where Serious Sam cranks up the speed. System Shock 2's horror-driven survival experiment is a far cry from the empowerment found in a game like… well, Far Cry 3.
Though they're all very different games, they're still engaging.
A perfect shooter could come in any subgenre, from tactical to arcade. It's possible that multiple perfect shooters could be made in each genre, in fact, but regardless of form, they'll all have some degree of similarity.
First, and foremost, the player character is going to spend a great deal of time alone, just them versus the world. As much fun as having a bunch of marines shouting "Oscar Mike" might be, the ideal shooter's going to use loneliness to make players feel vulnerable. The enemies in the game will be distinctive and smart—instead of resorting to simple, human tactics, they'll continually surprise both players and developers. The players will have guns—good guns—for satisfying kills, but their ammo counts will be limited. The enemies they face will be many in number. A few will be physically imposing, to the point of being a great deal larger than the player.
When a player enters a fight, they'll begin by asking how they're going to exit it. The gameplay will be built on a question rather than a habit. Simply running in and shooting won't always be the appropriate response. "How will I do this?" should be the phrase foremost in the player's mind.
The perfect shooter, at its core, is a game about thinking. What we've been conditioned to—namely, a reactionary game where players select and delete entities that enter their frame of vision—is not what a shooter is, it's a type of shooter people have made. The perfect shooter is smart and demanding, something that encourages its players to think through the spaces they're in, with the weapons and enemies that help them make use of that space.
Shooters are awesome. They stretch our brains, presenting us with dynamic situations to think our way through. They can surprise and invigorate us, creating a platform for stories to emerge organically, rather than predictably. They don't get the love they deserve and, maybe, if they looked to models like the Alien series, a great deal more people could see their potential.
GB Burford's childhood discovery that he could modify Microsoft Flight Simulator to allow behaviors the programmers hadn't intended spawned a life-long fascination with video games and their development. Now, he writes about video games and collaborates on small indie projects when he can. His Twitter handle is @ForgetAmnesia.