What do Condemned, Bioshock, The Chronicles of Riddick and Metroid Prime have in common? They’re all first person shooters- that aren’t. Yes they all play out from a first person perspective and yes they all involve shooting, but gunplay is not the primary focus of any of these titles. The Chronicles of Riddick for example, has more in common with Splinter Cell than Halo, despite the science fiction setting. Since the release of Doom, the first person shooter has been a pillar of the games industry. This generation in particular has seen it become one of the best selling genres with many of the biggest franchises, including Halo, Call of Duty and Battlefield, consistently topping best seller lists on both sides of the Atlantic. This popularity however, has come at a cost. In an attempt to appeal to a broader audience, games that in reality bare only a passing resemblance to the traditional FPS are branded and marketed in such a way so as to play up their similarities. Some games do escape such gross generalisations. Both Bioshock and Metroid Prime were both able to sell themselves on the strength of their environments and atmospheric design. However these are the exceptions to the rule.
Part of the problem extends from the times the terms were coined in. The last fifteen years have seen games become increasingly complex, both in terms of technology and design. Early games in the genre focused solely on shooting enemies from a first person perspective with the odd keycard to find to break up the pacing. However, it wasn’t long before developers were finding new ways to exploit this perspective. The lead character could a be an empty vessel, a cipher for the player to inhabit in the game world and in just a few short years, games like the original Half Life were starting to push the possibilities of such a unique viewpoint, using it to draw in players as characters engage them directly. These games became the prism that caused the genre to split and diversify to the point that even ten years ago, we saw releases such Deus Ex, which were almost impossible to pigeon hole into any one genre. Since then, there has been a conscious effort among many developers to create games that can stand toe to toe with films and literature with regard to narrative and character design. This certainly doesn’t mean that any first person shooter that has strong art design or engaging characters strays outside the definition of the genre. Recent iterations of the Call of Duty franchise have included several scenes that challenge more than precision with an assault rifle. However it is still very much a first person shooter, a direct evolution in a line that can trace its ancestry back to Doom and Wolfenstein as every interaction with the world around you is done through the medium of bullets, with the occasional grenade.
So if the genre label of the first person shooter is no longer sufficient to cover the array of games that fall under its umbrella, how should the genre be approached? One solution would be to create specific subsets within the genre, define each game as a member of a species. The problem is then becomes drawing a line between accuracy and pedantism. Is Modern Warfare a first person shooter? Or is it a military action game played out from a first person perspective with RPG elements within the multiplayer? Does Halo become a first person science fiction action game with third person vehicular elements? This type of subsetting is far too unwieldy and would ultimately over complicate the situation. Another option would be to follow in the direction of cinema and books, defining the genre through the theme in the narrative and setting. Condemned becomes a horror, Call of Duty an action adventure and so on. However, while genre labels may be appropriate for passive entertainment, the manner of interaction, the game mechanics cannot be ignored. Both Metroid and Halo belong to science fiction, yet the offer very different experiences within this setting due to the manner in which the player interacts with the world.
So what is to come of the indomitable first person shooter? As the industry expands and as developers find new ways to exploit the first person perspective, how will we continue to classify and categorise their results? A medium is evaluated by how it expresses itself, how it connects with the audience. This true in all cases and can be judged through in the plot, art direction, the quality of its characters and yes, the manner in which the audience interacts with it, be it through reading, watching or with a controller. It is not necessary to quantify completely every variable and deviation from a genre label, indeed strict adherence to a template can only stifle creative expression and stagnate the industry. At the same time, these descriptors are necessary for comparison and discussion, and a good indicator of how games are developing as time moves forward. While the claim that current genre labels are becoming defunct across the board can indeed stand, it is within the first person genre that the greatest diversity in experiences is being corralled into the narrowest of definitions. The language of videogames must keep pace with the development and growth of the medium and if that means rethinking how we categorise our games, well then so be it.
This post originally appeared here