Monday, April 7, 2014

Deconstructing the FPS AKA Boring Horizontal Whack a Mole

It is my contention that fps games are, at their core, both boring and mind numbingly simplistic. While there are a variety of skills at play during, for example, an online game of Call of Duty (was I going to use any other game/series for my example?) the one that comprises more than 50% of the player's actions is the act of aiming. Trying to line up either your reticule or your iron sights with the current (or future, in the case of those longer distance shots that require you to lead the target) location of your intended target is, as anyone who has experience with the genre will tell you, a large portion of the player's actions during any given game. Would it be unreasonable for me to state that this large portion is somewhere over 50% of the players actions during gameplay?

No, I say? Okay then, I answered my own question and I have to say I agree with myself (aren't one way conversations great for being right?). It's not an exaggeration to say that more than half of the actions you take while playing your typical online fps consist of aiming your weapon at various targets. Well, what does aiming at a target entail and why am I harping on this? Let's deconstruct: If you strip away the visual and auditory feedback mechanisms in place what do you get at its core? Fundamentally, you have periods of navigating through an enclosed environment punctuated with bursts of moving a cursor around the screen and trying to time the pull of a trigger with the placement of the cursor over the avatar of the intended target.

Now, I can hear one stream of complaint arising at this point, and that would of course be the argument that any genre can be deconstructed in this way and in doing so, they would all be made to seem overly simplistic. On the face of it this may seem true but I think that, with few exceptions, none boil down to such simplicity as do fps games. Take for example my favourite genre, the hack n slash (or third person action game as some of you may think of them; whatever term you prefer, just think of a game like Ninja Gaiden or Bayonetta and we're on the same page). Strip away all of the bells and whistles and when you deconstruct it in this way the actions taken by the player boil down to periods of navigating through an enclosed environment punctuated with bursts of varying button presses to form melee combos which are utilized in the pursuit of taking out the enemy. It's very similar to the fps genre in that you're navigating around the environment with the goal of locating, and then eliminating, the enemy; the only difference of course being that once the engagement starts, the options available to you are much more varied with the hack n slash games.

You have a variety of different options available to you with a melee based combat system but no matter what shooter you happen to be playing, the modus operandi is always the same: slide the cursor over the enemy and at the moment the two meet, pull the trigger. It's the same every time. I understand that if you take that formula and build up around it a teenage boy's wet dream (big, loud guns, blood and explosions galore) you ratchet up the excitement and obfuscate the core of the experience, although in all fairness, this obfuscation and ratcheting up of excitement also occurs with the other genres (including my previous hack n slash example). The only difference is that, at least in my view, the core experience of the hack n slash is more varied, and therefore more engaging, than that of the first person shooter.

Another counter argument I expect to arise is the fact that in the process of my deconstruction, I ignore other dimensions to the gameplay including both functional and strategic elements. This is absolutely true, but I do the same for the hack n slash example as well. The whole point of this is determining what the majority of a player's time is spent doing, not compiling a list of every nuance. And when you strip the games down to core elements in this way it is my contention that the fps genre is terribly simplistic, not at all engaging and just plain boring. It might even be the least engaging and the most boring of all of the genres, with perhaps the exception of the racing/driving simulator. Ugh. Racing sims. Just ugh.

This all being said, I have actually been a fan of fps games at various times in my life, and I have a somewhat extensive history of experience with them. I went through a few phases of fps addiction (I use the term colloquially here, not literally) over the years, including a lengthy Rainbow Six phase (R6 1 on PC, then R6 3 and R6 Black Arrow on Xbox) and of course the ubiquitous Halo phase. I am not hating on them from a position of the biased and/or disinterested observer, nor am I coming at this from an elitist standpoint. The genre isn't 'beneath me' and I do not consider myself a more discerning gamer for having had, and then subsequently lost, an appreciation for the genre. I just played a bunch of fps games for a bunch of hours and then hit a wall and couldn't even look at one. This has happened more than once, and I am not even saying that I will never play them again. In fact, I have a bit of interest in the game Titanfall as I think they did a few interesting things with that game and it might be novel enough to rekindle some of my lost interest, at least for a time.

I just can't help the fact that the core mechanics of the genre really lost their lustre for me and I just no longer find them at all engaging or appealing. I've tried a few times in recent months even, and I just can't do it. I will start playing and within minutes I have to stop because I just find the whole thing utterly banal. It almost feels like horizontal, long distance whack-a-mole to me.

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