"It's abundantly clear that we're living in the age of the shooter. The category dominates sales charts...gripping audiences with its versatility. The stories we remember most end up being told down the barrel of a gun." --GameTrailers
For over a decade - beginning in 1949 and ending in the mid-1960s - Westerns ruled the small screen. In 1959, 26 Westerns aired each week during prime-time. In March of that year, eight of the top ten shows were Westerns.
The same period was also the golden age of Hollywood Westerns (The Searchers, Shane, High Noon, Rio Bravo) with many of America’s greatest filmmakers producing their best work in the genre: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, William Wyler, among others.
But it didn’t last. History rarely offers a precise road map, but it can sometimes point us in a useful direction. The decline of the Western - the causes of its near-demise, and its reemergence in other guises - are worth noting because I believe shooter games are on a similar trajectory. It will be 1959 at E3 next week, and we will find ourselves awash in barely distinguishable shooters. But it won’t last. It can’t last, and that’s a good and necessary thing.
Westerns began to disappear in the late 1960s for reasons relevant to modern game developers: 1) Genre fatigue and homologous products; 2) High cost of production; 3) Public outcry over violence; 4) Narrow target audience.
Each of these factors apply to contemporary shooter games, but the most threatening is the mind-numbing sameness of these games. We’ve reached a saturation point where the dismissive cliché has become a valid claim: they all look the same. When a genre sustains itself by promoting minor tweaks as revolutionary features - and its hardcore fans claim ownership that typically resists change - death looms.
It’s worth noting, however, that death doesn’t necessarily mean disappearance. Gunsmoke, TV’s longest-running prime-time drama, died somewhere around 1965...and ran for another decade. It’s also worth noting that CBS received many letters from fans who opposed the series’ transition to color in 1966, claiming it would ruin the show’s rustic nature. Fanboys defending the realm are nothing new.
"We ask ourselves: if there wasn’t anyone to shoot in the game, could it still be fun?" --Jason Vandenberghe, Narrative Director, Far Cry 3
Want more evidence shooter games are mired in similitude? Here are publisher-penned descriptions of key features contained in their games, all released or forthcoming this year. See if you can identify the games. (Names and titles are xx’d out)
- “QUAD-WIELDING CHAOS - Slash, grab, and throw objects and enemies...while simultaneously firing two weapons, adding a new dimension to the FPS category.”
- “From automatics to handguns to rifles and explosives, XX wields (and dual-wields) a wide range of high-powered weaponry in both single player and multiplayer. XX provides devastating firepower for any and all situations that call for decisive and punishing action.”
- “Alternate Aiming Perspectives — Players can choose the shooting style that suits them with the ability to alternate between first and third person views to best pinpoint enemies"
- “Pervasive Environmental Destruction - XX has been specifically designed to allow for maximum destructibility using the “Havok Destruction” module. Blast through the environments, target your enemies’ cover blasting it to bits or even knock down overhead objects to crush the enemy below."
- "Blast your way in and utilize your military grade DART6 chip to breach enemies and the environment as you battle for market dominance and your life. Some takeovers are more hostile than others.”
- "50 WEAPONS, ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES - Get unlimited access to the most advanced arsenal in the world, with over 50 weapons including highly customizable assault rifles, pistols, shotguns and submachine guns. Choose from a wide variety of grenades to suit your mission objectives and context."
"When I remember Half-Life 2 I don't remember just shooting things, I remember moments, like the escape from the boat, or crossing the bridge, or investigating the farm or invading the prison." --4A Games’ Huw Beynon on the forthcoming Metro 2033: Last Light.1
So what happens when 1959 ends? Again, history could prove prophetic. The second wave of Western filmmakers (Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood) turned our deep familiarity with the genre in on itself, addressing existential questions and examining the nature of violence. These films were radical departures from the Hollywood formula, not because they rejected the familiar settings or the guns or the hero/villain dichotomy, but because they made these the very subjects of their scrutiny.
This is precisely where Rockstar has tried, but mostly failed, to go with its recent genre-inspired games. Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire contain the stylistic trappings of their filmic influences, but little of the complexity. To be fair, the interactive dimension goes a long way toward bridging this gap, and RDR, especially, makes inhabiting John Marston feel more personal than any film could hope to do.
But it’s Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 that most painfully illustrates the shooter ball and chain. I’ve played many games I wish had skippable cutscenes. Max Payne 3 is the first to make me long for skippable action. Buried under hours of conventional designer-charted gunfights is a story with genuine noir sensibility, not merely cosmetic style. Rockstar jettisoned the campy (and easier to manage) noir-esque style of the previous Max Payne games in favor of something far more Robert Mitchum. Max takes weary self-loathing to new depths.
Consequently, it’s heartbreaking to see a character as potentially compelling as Max dropped off at a “shithole” hotel in the 3rd Act and instructed to “clear the place out” as if it was essential to the narrative. It isn’t, and I know it, Rockstar knows it...we all know it. The Imperial Palace Hotel is just another gunplay funhouse with waves of baddies for me to defeat. What a shame and what a waste.
Max Payne 3 is a game devastatingly at war with itself. All its smart, gutsy, genre-savvy ideas are wiped out in a bulletstorm of shooter game orthodoxy.
It’s High Noon for shooters, or as a certain Minnesota cowboy would say, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”
Games described above: 1. The Darkness 2, 2. Max Payne 3, 3. Resident Evil Revelations, 4. Inversion, 5. Syndicate, 6. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier