Back in the day I played a little Doom here and there, but my first real experience with first person shooters came in the form of Goldeneye 64. I remember running around the Temple level with my trusty KF7 Soviet and being blown away at this new type of video game experience; one far more real and intense than the Marios and SimCitys of my past. So while engaged in some serious fighting last night in Battlefield 3, I wondered what that 7th grade self of mine would think if he was to play some of today’s FPSs. What would he notice as the big differences? Graphics are an obvious improvement, but there are some other changes that have occurred in the genre as a whole that I think would stand out to that kid from that era they call the 90s.
Split-screen multiplayer is dead
I used to be pretty damn good at Goldeneye, and Jimmy Paperboy and I constantly vied for the title of best Goldeneye/Perfect Dark player around. One of the biggest assets in my arsenal wasn’t a weapon, but my ability to watch other player’s screens and anticipate their movements. Sure, everyone did it to varying extents, but I worked hard to make it an art form. But like a kid going from T-ball to kid pitch, with the advent of online FPS, I was intimidated and lost. Without the ability to see where other people were and what weapons they had, I could no longer plan accordingly and play against other people’s weaknesses. Screen watching was so huge to me back then that it seemed an integral part of the shooter experience. I hopelessly clung to it as technology deemed it no longer relevant, and found myself using outdated techniques in this new era. Where I once found comfort in being one of best, I was now in a world where I constantly died and lost. Today some games may still offer some semblance of split-screen multiplayer, but anyone finding themselves playing a one-on-one match in Call of Duty either still uses AOL dial-up or may be a closeted Amish. 7th grade me would be shocked to see the local competition dead, succumbing to a far larger online world where you’re match sizes are no longer restrained by how many friends you can get to spend then night.
Grenades are no longer stand-alone weapons
This one is simple. A lot of games way back when had weapons slots, and a weapon would have to occupy one of those slots. So to throw a grenade, you would have to equip it as your main weapon, throw it, and then switch back to whatever gun you were using. Basically, if you were to use grenades, then that would be the weapon you were using. In other words, they hadn’t yet become the secondary thing that they are today.
In almost all games these days, there is an entirely separate button for grenades, and you toss them while your main weapon remains whatever gun you are using. But 7th grade me would have to choose whether to use grenades, or mines, or guns. It was an either-or option, not an addition to whatever your main weapon is, like it is today. This came with the advent of loadouts, which leads us to:
Weapon spawning is dead
Maybe a few games still use weapon spawning today, maybe either out of nostalgia or to recreate a retro feel. But back in the day, it was common practice for a level to have designated areas where better weapons would spawn. You started with something terrible, and had to make a mad dash to the spot where you could upgrade. This led to widespread camping, to protect the best weapon on the map from those with lesser guns. 7th grade me would be shocked to see that today we choose our weapons before the game starts, and typically hang on to those weapons until we die. Weapons now are no longer simply a consideration of which one is better than the others, but instead which one is better for specific scenarios or play styles. To revisit Goldeneye for this example, the RCP90 was typically the best gun in the map, and it was an achievement to obtain it. Now days you can start out with that type of gun from the get go, and have to balance its weaknesses with its strengths against other considerations like the map and how you plan on playing. Loadouts changed FPS gaming in a subtle yet substantial way.
The maps have changed
Well no shit the maps have changed you say to yourself. But what I’m talking about is something more fundamental. The maps in old FPS games were almost always indoors, in big rooms designed for optimal multiplayer goodness. Sometimes they were based in reality, a big industrial facility or an office or something. Sometimes they were just big complicated rooms, not really anything you would see in real life, just a room designed for people to run around and shoot at each other in. But today we see a paradigm shift towards the outdoors. Sure, maps today still contain indoor areas and buildings. But the difference here is that we’ve shifted from levels to maps. A level evokes a sense that the area was designed in a bubble, cordoned off from anything outside of it. A map, on the other hand, is a spot in the real world. The maps today are real areas, or at least made to look like one, where you can traverse the outside of the buildings as well as inside of them. Sure, some FPS games of old made use of this. Think back to the sniper level on Conker’s Bad Fur Day. But see, that was revolutionary. Ditches, trenches, bridges, hills and bunkers added to the variety and complexity of that map. But levels like Stacks or Complex in Goldeneye, or the G5 Building in Perfect Dark, though some of my all time favorite levels ever, were still ultimately made for multiplayer. What I mean is, it seems like the people who built those buildings built them specifically for people to later have shootouts in. Today we see levels that look as though they were designed for other purposes, like what buildings in real life would be designed for, and you just happen to end up having shootouts there. This adds to the level of realism that graphics alone can’t account for, and my old self would be pumped to be having a shootout in a map like the actual city of Paris, and not just another maze level with rooms and bridges that don’t have any outside significance. But this shift to realism is probably influenced by outside factors that have actually taken place over the past decade or so.
The wars influence our shooters
The 90’s were a pretty peaceful time overall, especially compared to the 2000’s (still awkward to say) as far as America is concerned. See, 7th grade me lived in a time where we weren’t involved in any wars, and so shooters were basically developed either to be historical, based on movies, or to tell stories of their own. But after our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, our daily lives were inundated by the wars. This inevitably influenced our national consciousnesses and had an impact on our shooter games. Genres that had typically focused on World War 2 soon found themselves making more modern shooters, setting us in the Middle East with modern and DARPA weapons instead of historical or fictional weapons. In an attempt to make the games somewhat fictional, they almost always involve Russians, which could be due to any number of reasons, most likely because a purely accurate and nonfictional depiction might be offensive and because developers want to make their own story, to make their game “theirs” instead of a documentary. Regardless, with many developers now consulting with returning veterans to make these games, the feel has becomes far more hardened, gritty, and realistic. What was once a fun, action packed genre has now evolved into an intense, violent and chaotic genre that focuses on realism and immersion more than anything else. My time traveling self would find this new shift fascinating , as the changes in our world have had a direct impact on the games we play.
In the end, there are tons of changes that the FPS genre has undergone over the years. Some is based on technological advances that would have inevitably arisen, some is based upon more popular innovative ideas that other franchises have latched on to, and some is influence by the changing world around us. I would love to play some Battlefield with my middle school self, if only to see the full extent of his amazement at what has come about. I’m sure there would be some crazy things he would notice. I remember playing Goldeneye for the first time, and being amazed at the technological advancement in the game at the time. Now it is aged and old, and whats new seems the norm. But with the fast paced advancement of gaming technology, I can’t wait to see what 36 year old me is playing in 10 years. I’m sure it will make Battlefield 3 look outdated and cartoonish.