Pfft. Shooters are so lame. They’re all the same thing anymore. They’re all just the same game following the same gruff testosterone-poisoned manfridge from chest-high wall to chest-high wall committing a genocide against Hitler or Hitler-eque aliens. They aren’t nearly as original as your average RPG or point-and-click adventure game or platformer or action game or dance simulator.
Since Halo, the shooter is probably the most popular game genre. It’s also one of the last genres to be mostly distinct in the vague, meaningless boundaries that uphold video game genres anymore. There are lots of shooters, there are lots of people that play shooters. But it isn’t popularity that makes shooters so great for games, it’s the potential diversity unatched anywhere else.
I want to identify a pattern here. The last five shooters I’ve played have been Binary Domain, Spec-Ops: The Line, Mass Effect 3 multiplayer, Portal, and Resident Evil 5. I know this is anecdotal, but bear with me. Respectively those games are: a stylized retelling of Blade Runner mixed with a equal parts Cowboy Bebop and me as an eleven-year-old at recess after an especially sugary lunch; a grim character study on war, violence, trauma and the illusion of heroism; a cooperative tour through the most important science fantasy story since Star Trek: TNG; a darkly hilarious trip through mind-bending puzzles with a critique of the worship of science; and a kinda racist power fantasy starring a manfridge with a fuzzy volleyball for a head (okay, I barely started RE5 and I don’t have much to go on with that one).
The variety is pretty impressive for a genre that regularly gets branded as stagnant. It’s hard to understand why audiences so regularly criticize shooters for failing to innovate. I sympathize that there are too many white, heternormative protagonists and that’s a glaring problem that needs to be addressed. But that problem isn’t nearly as difficult as is often made out to be (Gordon Freeman is, and always has been, a trans-man. I’ll be expecting my cheque in the mail, Valve). Also, the way that the genre defines the Other and so flippantly justifies violence is another serious issue. Still, shooters can–and have–gone in a number of interesting directions. In terms of the aesthetics and settings, shooters are responsible for a plethora of innovations in the last decade, genre blending not being the least of them. The only set rule about the genre has been following someone (again, too often, a man) from just behind their right shoulder or behind their eyeballs.
Shooters have had wildly different tones, they’ve told amazing stories and introduced fascinating characters, breathtaking atmospheres, cerebral worlds, airtight mechanics and so many other things games should be proud of. They’ve been woefully flawed, and there has been more than a little copy-pasting, but compare this with the RPG. RPGs are continually reduced to a grind through a Tolkienesque landscape. The few JRPGs that are published anymore are still using the now worn out template of Final Fantasy‘s golden age. Platformers are tired retro-love affairs that bury its gems in the well-trodden safe path.
I won’t say that shooters are guiltless of repetition, but as the type of game that is now the face of video games, it’s not doing all that bad a job. It’s easy to forget after 9 Call of Duty titles that before Modern Warfare, there really wasn’t anything like it. And even though I’m being pretty vague and selective in my definition of “shooter,” I don’t think I’m being any more vague than most people when they try (futilely) to discuss genre in games. Criticism of shooters can be harsh–often deservedly–because it is the first type of game to pop into someone’s head when the subject of video games is broadly mentioned (especially for non-gamers). But they’ve carried games to a number of interesting places as well.
Shooters are leading the charge in what games can do. The best modern example of a well-written female character? Alyx Vance. The first(?) all-female cast in a game? Portal. The space opera of our time is Mass Effect. Bioshock challenged the way we think about how players interact with games and Spec-Ops: the Line made us recoil in horror at ourselves. Binary Domain is a goofy romp, Gears of War is a melodramatic soldier-worship, Left 4 Dead is an evaluation of how good your friends are. There are plenty of directions that games could take, to say nothing of the directions they need to take, but if they’re going to get there, it seems to me like the shooter is the way to get there.
Further reading: Brindle, John. “First Person Problems (or, the alternate history of modern genres).” the Brindle Brothers. Nov 26 2011.
“Encounter design in shooters 101.” Critical Missive. Aug 7 2011.
Abbot, Michael. “High Noon for Shooters.” Brainy Gamer. June 2 2012.