No one can deny that first person shooters (FPS for short) have evolved greatly from their ancestors like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. Of course graphics get better from year to year and the gameplay changes depending on the focus of the title (e.g. Hero-against-everyone-else or a tactical team shooter). But for a long time, the story told, and especially how it is told, was stagnant.
At the start, Doom had only a few screens of text mentioning why you were thrown onto a demon-infested Mars. Then came prerendered cutscenes and around the same time, ingame cutscenes that the 3D engine rendered. But if you wanted to tell a story good, back then you had to use cutscenes because the graphics engine couldn’t handle things like lip-syncing, detailed models and animations.
Half-Life was the first game to use ingame cutscenes, and to not change the viewpoint in them. Before that in most cutscenes you would see your own character through a camera, like on film. But Half-Life changed the way a story in an FPS was told. I think there was not a single moment in the game where you would see your character through others eyes. That was really an experience, to see the whole story through the protagonists eyes, without a cut.
Flash forwards a few years and the change of a century. First Person cutscenes are pretty much given now in shooters to let you identify more with your character. For me, there were 2 games in the last year that really stood out with their story telling: BioShock and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Warning: huge spoilers for BioShock and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare up ahead!
If you haven’t played one or both of these, and plan to do so… then read on if you like but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
While both of them are excellent games on their own, BioShock had a more fascinating story and Call of Duty was more of your regular War-Against-Terror story, there were two points in those games that made me, even as an old school gamer, take a breath and ponder what just happened:
In BioShock it was the scene where Ryan makes you kill him by using the phrase “Would you kindly?”. It’s not that I havent killed countless thugs and bosses in first person, but the intensity of the scene - first you cannot do anything about it because you are brainwashed to respond to that particular phrase. And second it is a really gruesome death being strangled. After that scene I was vexed.
The scene in Call of Duty, while on a grander scale, felt even more personal to me: After heroically rescuing a female pilot from a downed Apache, you fly out with her and your crew, the city behind you. Then the unspeakable happens - a big missile explodes in the middle of the city, and the mushroom cloud it leaves makes it clear that it was a nuclear head. Your helicopter goes down and the screen goes black.
While the nuclear explosion surely was shocking, so far it didn’t me bother too much. The debriefing of the mission showed a board with dead and missing Marines, and listed your name on it. It wasn’t so much irritating that your character died because so far in the story you played 3 characters so you still had the others.
But when I started the next mission I was vexed again, and at the end of it, disgusted: The screen fades in from black, and you find yourself in the downed helicopter. Corpses around you. You cannot walk you can only crawl or kneel. You get out of the helicopter and look at your devastated surroundings, everything is reddish still, and on the horizon you can still se the big mushroom cloud. And then finally, after a few minutes in the debris, you fall to the ground, everything goes white, and you die.
That realy took me by surprise. A whole level just so you can experience your own last few minutes. As far as I know that is a game-first and has not been done before. And while it is shocking, disgusting and irritating, it is non the less - superb storytelling. After that scene I played through the rest of the game in one fell swoop because I was so pissed at the Terrorist who planted that bomb and I just wanted to get rid of him.
And that’s what good stories do: They move you.
I hope we will see much more bravely and oddly told stories in the future. Because a really good gameplay also deserves a really good story.